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To 'digital detox' or not to digital detox

By Jeff van Reenen (MSc MFDAP), Addiction Treatment Programme Manager, Priory Hospital Chelmsford.

Nothing can be as controversial or cause more concern than issues that arise around mobile phone or computer use for the patient who is in treatment for addictive behavioural problems. At Priory Hospital Chelmsford, our Addiction Treatment Programme patients must submit their phones for safekeeping until after week one and phone accessibility is then only permitted after therapy hours thereafter. No laptops, iPads, PCs or computer games are allowed at any stage during primary treatment.

Why a 'digital detox'?

Why, you may ask, the need for such rules which may seem harsh and out-of-touch at first glance? In our modern digital age this may seem unnecessary, especially when communication and keeping in touch with loved ones and family may seem critical for general wellbeing. Research also shows that the internet and social media networks are used for purposes of connectivity, belonging and to ease the feelings of loneliness and boredom. So it would then seem at odds to take this away from a patient in early recovery as research has also shown that "the internet is an efficient way of coping with isolation, loneliness and interpersonal relationships."

However, a separate major research paper found that when Facebook was used as a control for loneliness, there were declines in subjective wellbeing, highlighting that social media can have a negative impact. According to these authors, the individual needs to develop a sense of self-acceptance, integrate a positive adult identity and develop intimate relationships in order to achieve a true sense of wellbeing. This cannot be done through a computer, internet or mobile phone connection alone.

Is this 'digital detox' then really necessary and beneficial for patients who are in recovery with mental health conditions? Certainly it's important to define why a digital detox may or may not have merit but one should start off by defining the context in which the patient and therapist enter this agreement. There may be a necessity to simply have a break from the everyday stress, clutter and anxiety as well as pressure that could arise from constant and continued use of digital and internet devices. It would seem to make sense to just have a break wherein you give yourself time to readjust and connect with yourself, not being distracted by the world around you.

In our case at Priory Hospital Chelmsford, when it comes to the treatment of addictive dysfunctional behaviour through our 28-day inpatient programme, a digital detox becomes critical for a number of reasons. A research paper that this author wrote on how social networking sites impact on recovery and subjective wellbeing for gay drug addicts in early recovery found that:

  1. Social networks like Facebook can become compulsive just like the patient may have consumed drugs before coming into recovery and this would lead to increased feelings of loneliness and risky behaviour.
  2. Acceptance and validation is sought through social networks as a means to 'fix' and feel better.
  3. Whilst social networking sites may promote subjective short-term wellbeing through social connectedness, they are detrimental in that they do not promote development of authentic relationships which provide intimacy and meaning and ultimately subjective long-term wellbeing.

Further reasons for a 'digital detox'

Apart from the aforementioned, there is another very obvious reason of supporting the patient. Many addicts may still be dealing with the chaos, trauma and often frightening aftermath of broken promises and damaged relationships. This may be overwhelming and damaging if they are exposed to such things in the first phase of recovery. Once they are feeling more well then these problems and situations can be tackled in the latter stages of primary treatment if need be. Another reason is the opportunity for the patient to be able to be more focused on themselves and their needs rather than being distracted or fixating on something outside of themselves like a phone or the internet.

This fits into our treatment philosophy here at Priory Hospital Chelmsford where patients on our Addiction Treatment Programme are strongly encouraged to spend time with each other between and after scheduled activities; these social interactions between peers are an important part of the addiction treatment process. The group is the primary medium of treatment. A safe, supportive, non-judgemental atmosphere of unconditional acceptance encourages self-disclosure, promotes self-esteem and facilitates changes in attitude and behaviour. The group setting provides a context for interpersonal learning and nurtures connectedness with others, directly opposing the social and emotional isolation commonly associated with addictive behaviours. Our therapeutic process promotes and encourages the development of intimate and authentic relationships necessary for wellbeing and thus recovery, and which may be lacking according to various research in the digital and mobile phone domains.

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For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding addiction treatment and rehabilitation, please call 0330 056 6023 or click here to book a FREE ADDICTION ASSESSMENT. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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