Understanding and Overcoming Screen Addiction as a Young Adult

Est. reading time: 8 mins
Posted Under: Treatment Insights

Clinically Reviewed by: Amanda Fialk, PhD, LCSW, LICSW

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Today, screens are a ubiquitous part of daily life. Our devices help us connect with loved ones, express ourselves, hold jobs, and find love. But in recent years the amount of time we spend engaging with our phones, tablets, and computers has become a primary concern for many teens and young adults. A survey by Pew Research found 54% of teens feel they’re spending too much time on their phones. Dozens of U.S. States have sued Meta’s Instagram for fueling the teen mental health crisis, after finding links between time spent on Instagram and depression. And a group of NYC high schoolers have set out to lead a “smartphone liberation movement,” opting for flip phones over iPhones. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with screen time and mental health, and are wondering how much screen time is too much, we spoke to The Dorm Senior Therapist Jackie Lord, LMSW about understanding and overcoming screen addiction as a young adult.

“The first thing we look at,” says Jackie, “is how long your concern with your screen time has been going on. We also examine how it may be negatively impacting your life. Do you have extracurriculars that are offline? Do you have a job? Are you investing in your relationships?”

In the following post, we dive deeper into how therapists at The Dorm measure the presence and severity of screen addiction in young adults, what may be involved in treatment, and how youth can emerge from maladaptive behavioral patterns to find greater fulfillment in their activities and relationships.

Key Article Takeaways: 

Therapists categorize screen addiction as a behavioral addiction that negatively impacts a client’s quality of life and interfers with their relationships or activities of daily living (ADLs).

To move beyond screen addiction, clients must understand the benefits of engaging in activities and relationships offline.

Effective therapies for behavioral addictions include Motivational Interviewing, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), Mindfulness practices, Group Therapy, and Family Therapy.

Primer: What is screen addiction?

While Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) is included in the DSM-5, there are currently no specific diagnostic criteria for screen or tech addiction. Mental health professionals categorize screen addiction as one of the behavioral addictions, along with work, gambling, exercise, food, internet, pornography, sex, shopping, and other impulsive behaviors that negatively impact a young adult’s feeling of life satisfaction and goal setting.

There isn’t yet a set amount of hours per day that defines screen addiction, but studies have shown excessive screen time, particularly from gaming, can create a constant state of hyperarousal, leading to difficulties paying attention, controlling emotions, controlling impulses, tolerating disappointment, and following directions. 

Too much screen time has also been linked to poor sleep, loss of social skills, loss of self-regulation, obesity, behavioral issues, anxiety, depression, and difficulties with school or work. Some countries, including China, have even taken preliminary measures to try to prevent excessive screen use in children and teens.

Screen Addiction and Activities of Daily Life

Therapists have identified several steps young adults can take to understand if their screen time has become problematic, whether that comes to spending too much time on social media or gaming. 

“To start, we look at how long your excessive screen usage has been going on and how much it is impacting your daily life,” says Jackie. This includes being able to complete everyday tasks such as bathing, eating, exercising, and sleeping well. It can also include your satisfaction with your life and hope for the future. “Do you feel like you’re coasting in life? What gives you joy? Do you participate in extracurricular activities? Do you have a job? Are you investing in their relationships?” 

By working through these questions from a place of non-judgement, clients can start to reflect on life goals and expectations that they may be missing out on while they’re engaged on their devices, especially in passive or escapist activities. 

In short –  “You have to understand the benefits of putting your phone down to make strides in creating a better balance,” says Jackie.

Screen Addiction and Relationships

Another way to consider if screen time is negatively impacting your life is if you’re finding you have little interest or time for face-to-face relationships with family or friends. 

“If you’re spending too much time on your phone, you’re likely isolating and avoiding deep connections with others,” says Jackie. “And if you’re not making connections, this could indicate some related underlying trauma, social anxiety, or depression.”

Jackie explains that screen addiction is often masking an underlying mental health concern that needs to be addressed in a professional setting, often over the course of several sessions to begin to understand the best course of treatment.

What does screen addiction treatment look like for young adults?

Like other behavioral addictions, therapists use several evidence-based modalities in a variety of therapeutic settings to treat screen addiction. At The Dorm we work with young adults in an intensive outpatient (IOP) setting and recommend a holistic and wrap-around approach to care. This may include individual therapy, clinical coaching, group therapy, health & wellness practices, psychiatry & neurological testing, family therapy, academic support, and community integration to set each client up for success and reach their goals. 

Below, Jackie dives deeper into what therapy looks like for a young adult struggling with excessive screen time. 

Targeted Therapies for Screen Addiction

One-on-one therapy for screen addiction involves a close collaboration between a client and licensed therapist using various modalities and interventions targeted at compulsive or addictive behaviors, including:

  • Motivational Interviewing (MI): a collaborative, conversational interview style that is effective at building therapeutic rapport and helps clients find their own personal and intrinsic motivations for lasting, therapeutic change.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): one of the most widely-researched psychotherapy modalities effective at treating mental health conditions such as anxiety and depressive disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, substance use disorders and eating disorders. (Jackie explains that with CBT, clients “develop healthy coping strategies and habits, identify triggers related to screen use, and discover new ways to spend their time.”) 
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): an evidence-based psychotherapy that focuses on teaching clients to learn and use skills that help them regulate their emotions, interact interpersonally, and effectively cope with crises.
  • Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT): a therapy that helps individuals learn how to examine and challenge their unhelpful thinking which may be leading self-defeating/self-sabotaging behaviors.
  • Mindfulness practices: therapies like meditation, yoga, and grounding exercises that help clients manage negative emotions and enhance focus and concentration.

Clinical Coaching for Screen Addiction in Young Adults

With clinical coaching, a licensed therapist can help clients become aware of their habits and set concrete behavioral goals in sessions and beyond the therapist’s office. For instance, a coach can help track a client’s daily screen usage and use this data to set individualized weekly goals to cut back on screen time. 

As a licensed therapist and clinical coach, Jackie also likes to help clients with screen addiction make a list of activities they want to do offline. During coaching sessions, she works with clients to encourage them to try new items on their list and help them handle impulses that might be coming up.

“To start to see what you’re capable of outside of your technology, you have to do little experiments and prove to yourself that you can enjoy other things,” she says. 

Example List of Offline Activities

  • Take a walk in Central Park and bring a picnic lunch.
  • Do a mindfulness exercise.
  • Clean out your closet and donate items you no longer wear or use.
  • Flip through a cookbook and bake a new recipe.
  • Take photos with an analog camera with real film.

Recommended Reading

Clinical coaching often also involves weekly homework and work outside of the session. Jackie recommends the following resources for clients with screen addiction: 

Group Therapy for Screen Addiction in Young Adults

“When we opened The Dorm in 2009, we didn’t have groups or resources to support young people with the online world. Now, out of necessity, we have dedicated groups for screen addiction that exist purely to help our clients navigate their relationship with it.”

Chief Clinical Officer Amanda Fialk, PhD, LCSW, LICSW

Group therapy is a vital part of treating behavioral addictions because it helps young adults feel less alone and gives them the framework to reflect on their own behaviors while they offer and receive feedback from their peers. 

There are several targeted groups that therapists at The Dorm recommend for clients experiencing screen addiction, including: 

  • Anger Management: introduces seven key cognitive/behavioral skills to manage anger and encourages clients to practice skills they learn during the group and between sessions.
  • Urge Surfing: teaches skills that help clients manage various addictive behaviors, including but not limited to self-harm behaviors, eating, sex & love, gambling, lying, shopping, porn, gaming & internet addiction. Clients utilize diary cards, behavior chain analysis, behavioral skills, and processing to work through their behavioral addictions.
  • Seeking Safety: helps clients process anxiety and trauma utilizing the evidence-based Seeking Safety curriculum. 
  • Advanced Process Groups: for clients who have taken preliminary steps towards processing stress, anxiety, or trauma, advanced processing groups help engage with peers to dig a bit deeper into their therapeutic process using the Stages of Change (Transtheoretical) Model. 
  • Family Systems and Relationships: This group offers psychoeducation on family dynamics and how they may be impacting their behaviors. Clients have the opportunity to ask for support, validation, or skills depending on the topic. 

To illustrate how one of these groups supports clients with screen addiction, Jackie explains how during Anger Management, clients learn how they may be retreating into their screens as a way to withdraw from associated trauma

“When you’ve experienced trauma, you can sometimes develop exploding episodes that are associated with your trauma. Just as often, though, you can be muting something out and suppressing any negative emotions with the distractions on your screen,” she says. 

Discovering behavioral patterns like these with the support and understanding of a group of peers is a huge step in moving towards change during treatment. 

Family Therapy for Screen Addiction in Young Adults

For young adults, family involvement in treatment is shown to lead to better outcomes. At The Dorm, every client works with an individual parent coach to help them learn how to best support their child. While working with parents of young adults with screen addiction, Jackie recommends starting with boundaries. 

“Tell them directly that you can’t watch them go down this path…. and get them a flip phone,” she recommends. “By not setting a boundary, you’re showing that it’s not as big of a problem as it is,” Jackie says. “Setting that boundary is a form of love and care.” 

Family therapy can also help the family unit unearth certain group dynamics and family roles that are causing a young adult to withdraw into their technology use, instead of engaging within the family unit.

The Community Treatment Model for Screen Addiction in Young Adults

As an individual increases their use of technology, they tend to spend less time in their relationships. Their social cues, interactions, and structures may start to break down, explains Jackie. 

For long-term stability, The Dorm encourages our clients to not rely on a single tool or device for self-expression and social connection. Without real-world touchpoints, like social interactions, physical arts, or even using an analog camera, the digital world may become the primary space of self-expression for young adults, which can lead to interpersonal issues in real life.

With that thought in mind, our treatment model is designed to help our clients create a community that allows them to acquire and practice social skills in a real-world setting — the same skills that they lost due to their screen addiction. Fortunately, a strong community and real-life social experiences serve as a formidable antidote to the digital world.

Productive Screen Time: Finding the Right Balance

At The Dorm we know that as part of a fulfilling life that’s filled with joy as well as the normal fluctuations of human emotion, “we need phones and computers in this day and age,” says Jackie. Similar to a food or exercise addiction, screen addiction is all about nurturing a balance that allows you to live life on your own terms. 

Screens aren’t all bad, and it’s important to keep this balance in mind. “There is a strong community element that can be found online,” says Jackie. “For example, teens and young adults struggling to come out often find an online support network through LGBTQ groups and affirming Dischord channels.” 

In conclusion, it’s important to seek treatment for screen addiction if it’s impacting your quality of life or the quality of your relationships and you’re ready to find more lasting fulfillment. It may be masking some underlying mental health challenges, and finding a supportive care team is a wonderful first step toward finding the right balance that works for you. 

Seeking help and support? Contact our team to speak with a specialist.

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