At Lisa Strohman’s house, they have Text-free Tuesdays, and on the weekends, her kids can play one video game in the morning and only a second one in the afternoon after they’ve spent some time outside. That’s because, as founder and director of the Technology Wellness Center, Strohman has seen what technology is doing to people’s brains.
“Our brain matter is atrophying,” says Strohman, a licensed clinical psychologist. “We need to have some balance.”
At the Technology Wellness Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, Strohman sees teens who are anxious, depressed and suicidal and parents who don’t know how to deal with it. She sees college students who were kicked out or lost scholarships because instead of going to class, they binge-watched Netflix. She sees adults who are losing their marriages.
“There is this massive disconnect that’s occurring, and we still don't talk about it,” she says.
But Strohman is starting the conversation. Strohman sat down with Renew to talk about the signs you or someone you love is addicted to technology and how can parents intervene when their child is experiencing technology addiction.
Renew: Who are you, and what do you do?
Lisa Strohman: I'm a psychologist and an attorney. but I stopped practicing law and have been practicing psychology for 15 years. When I was in undergrad, I had professors who really mentored me. They encouraged me to do policy stuff. I was a legislative intern for Congress and was also selected as an honors intern with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and invited to become a visiting scholar with the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime division. After 9/11, the FBI unit I worked with became a terrorism task force. I had just completed a joint, integrated program in law and psychology, and I had a family tragedy. With all of that happening at once, I realized I really wanted to do something that mattered. Money didn’t make me feel inspired. That’s when I went full time to psychology. As a licensed clinical psychologist, I work with individual, family and adolescent clients struggling with issues, including depression, anxiety and addiction.
Renew: What is your relationship to addiction and recovery?
LS: Both of my parents are alcoholics. My mom overdosed on pain medications about five years ago. She was only 64. My dad was diagnosed with diabetes and totally quit drinking. But I grew up with substance abuse around me. My brother was an addict. He was paralyzed in 2006 and passed away this past December after years of chronic addictions. It’s been hard. I’ve never done a drug. I’ve been to Al-Anon. I took my brother to Alcoholics Anonymous. I have a lot of addiction in my family.
Renew: What inspired you to launch the Technology Wellness Center?
LS: I was reading all of this information on how technology was impacting kids. In my practice, I was noticing a significant change in teenagers and in how they presented. They were actively present but emotionally absent. I started finding out that the more technology we’re putting into kids’ lives, the more damage we’re causing. When I opened it in 2013, I was ahead of the game. For instance, the American Medical Association has said sexting is the norm. Well, the reason why is they trend to what’s happening. For me, that’s acceptance. You have kids who are sexting and creating legal liabilities. I look at it from someone who understands addiction and the legal ramifications. It’s not OK. I don’t agree that putting a label on something is going to make the problem go away. It’s not a solution.
Renew: What are some of the misconceptions when it comes to technology addiction and overuse?
LS: When I look at something like technology addiction, it’s closely related to food addiction. It’s not gambling. You don’t have to gamble to live. But you need food to live. You need technology to live. I value technology, but I understand that we have to appreciate its power and what it’s doing to our brains and our bodies. One big misconception is that you can put someone through treatment and then launch them back into the world and expect them to manage it without ongoing continuous care and without getting to the why. When someone comes to me and says, “I’m drinking a fifth of vodka a day,” I’m less concerned with the fifth of vodka as with why it began. Why do you need to drink every day? It’s the same with technology.
Renew: What are the signs you or someone you love is addicted to technology?
LS: Look at whether they’re able to disconnect. If you’re in a relationship with somebody and you can’t have a conversation without them pulling the phone out, it’s like a third member there. That’s what I see a lot. When I’m assessing someone, I look at behavior, emotion, interpersonal and physical. Usually, it’s the interpersonal. That’s the part that’s been forsaken in relationships and in life.
The psychological effects are most apparent. If you want to look for signs, look for those that are mood related. You’ll see a kid who is anxious or depressed. They’re not able to handle the depth of what they’re being confronted with.
Renew: How can parents intervene when their child is experiencing technology addiction?
LS: When we use technology, we go into this altered realm. When you’re asking somebody to disengage and that altered realm is their source of affirmation, you’re asking them to step away from everything that feels important. So you have to do it cautiously and carefully. You have to give them something on the other end that they want to go toward. But most parents are angry. It’s like a hostile takeover. It's pushing them further away. Someone is going to come toward you if you’re warm. They’re going to pull away if your hostile and angry.
Renew: How do you treat technology addiction?
LS: Set clear guidelines and expectations. Give them examples. The biggest problem I see is that parents don’t follow their own example. Also, have purposeful daily contact. People need 11 intimate touches a day. We’re not getting anywhere near that. Have five to 10 minutes of talking time when cellphones aren’t out. That can really make a difference.
Renew: What’s next for you?
LS: I’m working on a book called Technology Is the New Gateway Drug. It is going to go in-depth into the portals technology takes us into: gaming, pornography, eating disorders, gambling.
I’m also starting a Digital Citizen Academy. It’s an online prevention and diversion program for schools. It’s going to be digital citizen training: what you should and shouldn’t you do on your phone, your digital reputation, bullying, cheating, sexting and sextortion, what the laws are. The module is about prevention.