It’s no secret that access to 24/7 digital technology can facilitate addiction. The Internet and related technologies have greatly increased the average person’s ability to affordably and anonymously access an almost endless array of addictive substances (illicit drugs, prescription medications, and the like) and activities (spending, gambling, video gaming, pornography, non-intimate sexual encounters, and the like). The simple truth is that if you know where to look, you can find anything you want online. As a result, over the last two decades, as digital technology has proliferated, the number of people walking into therapists’ offices with addiction-related issues (especially behavioral addictions) has steadily and significantly increased.
A decade or so ago, it was reasonable to suggest to these clients that they either stay away from computers altogether or use them only in very limited circumstances. But that was then and this is now. Today digital technology is an increasingly essential part of healthy human interaction and connection, and the vast majority of recovering addicts can’t just abstain or even vastly limit their use of it. These days we all need digital technology to communicate with loved ones, to buy concert tickets, to plan and book vacations, to shop for the best deal on a new car, to find a new meatloaf recipe, to catch up with breaking news, and even to watch that episode of Storage Wars we missed last night. So suggesting that a client eliminate or severely limit use of computers, pads, smartphones, and other digital communications devices is no longer practical.
The good news is that modern tech-life is not hopeless for recovering addicts (and/or anyone else who wants to avoid certain kinds of content and interactions). In fact, there are numerous affordable and easily installed filtering and accountability software programs (also known as “parental control” software programs) that can help people avoid potentially problematic digital venues and activities. That said, even the best of these products is not infallible. A persistent and/or tech-savvy addict can eventually find ways to circumvent pretty much any restrictive software. And if an addict is really stumped by the software, he or she can simply go out and purchase a new digital device, using it in secret. As such, filtering and accountability software products should not be viewed as enforcers of recovery; instead, they should be viewed as a tool of recovery than can help addicts to maintain sobriety by reducing impulsive online behavior (through the filtering and blocking features), and to rebuild trust with loved ones (through the accountability and reporting features).
Desired Features of Protective Software
When you, as a therapist, recommend the use of filtering and accountability software to a recovering addict, make sure you/they look for the following features.
- Customizable Filtering and Blocking. Nearly all parental control software products have preset filtering levels – ranging from levels appropriate for young children to levels appropriate for adults who wish to stay away from certain sites. The better ones offer customizable filtering, with blacklisting of specific sites that would otherwise be allowed and whitelisting of specific sites that would otherwise be blocked.
- Secondary Filtering and Blocking Features. In addition to website filtering and blocking, most products offer several secondary features, including:
- Online search filtering and blocking
- App blocking
- Social media blocking
- Instant message/chat blocking
- File transfer blocking (preventing the sending and/or receiving of pictures, videos, and the like)
- Video game filtering
- Profanity blocking
Obviously, some of these features are more important to recovering addicts than others. Softwares that include all of these are best, though, as even things like video games can be triggering to addicts.
- Recording and Reporting (Accountability) Features. Ideally, protective softwares monitor the recovering addict’s online activity and provide the addict’s accountability partner (usually a 12-step sponsor or therapist) with reports on usage, along with real-time alerts if the addict uses (or even attempts to use) his or her digital device in a prohibited way. Available recording and reporting features may include:
- Websites visited
- Online searches
- Social networking
- Usernames and passwords
- Screenshot playback
Ideally, reporting is available to accountability partners remotely (accessible via their own computer or smartphone) at regular intervals, on-demand, and via real-time alerts.
- Ease of Use. Filtering and accountability software should be easy to install and to customize. Ideally, users should be able to globally configure the software, establishing settings on all of the addict’s digital devices simultaneously instead of dealing with each machine individually. The best softwares offer free tech support via email, phone, and even live chat.
- Compatibility. Not all softwares work on every digital device. In fact, many are quite limited (and therefore not recommended for addicts, who usually have a wide array of devices). It is important to make sure a product works on all of the addict’s devices. It is also important to see how many devices the license covers. Ideally, all of the addict’s digital equipment will be covered with only one license.
Each spring I conduct a comprehensive review of filtering and accountability softwares, publishing my report on the Sexual Recovery Institute website. (The report is geared toward recovering sex addicts, but the information is equally useful for other recovering addicts.) As of now, the best filtering and accountability softwares for recovering addicts are:
- Net Nanny, $39.99, available on Windows, MacOS, Android, and iOS devices: The filtering and blocking features offered by Net Nanny are versatile and effective, as are the recording and reporting features. There is no screenshot playback, but everything else a recovering addict might want is included. Additionally, Net Nanny is relatively easy to install and configure, and usable on almost any device. Plus, the price is excellent.
- Norton Family Premiere, $49.99, available on Windows, MacOS, Android, and iOS: Norton Family Premiere offers above average filtering and blocking, coupled with above average recording and reporting. Yes, Net Nanny is still the gold standard, but Norton is catching up (as is WebWatcher, discussed below). Ease of installation and configuration is good, and, like Net Nanny, Norton Family Premiere is usable on virtually any device. It’s also reasonably priced.
- WebWatcher, $99.95, available on Windows, MacOS, and Android (but not iOS devices): WebWatcher’s filtering and blocking features are versatile and effective, as are the recording and reporting features. There is no profanity masking, which could be a serious shortcoming for some recovering addicts, but everything else a recovering addict might want is included. Installation and configuration are straightforward. The main issues with WebWatcher are that it’s not available for iPhone or other iOS devices, and it’s twice the price of Net Nanny and Norton Family Premiere.
In addition to filtering and accountability software products, there are a number of recovery related apps that can be downloaded onto smartphones. A few of my favorites are iPromises, 24 Hours a Day, One Day at a Time, Joe & Charley, and AA Big Book & More. Most recovery related apps are free.