Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder Vulnerable to Technology Addiction
Many teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder see technology as a way to distract themselves from negative emotions and to improve relationships with others. While screen time offers time away from dealing with real-world stress, it often does not resolve underlying issues related to low self-esteem. As they look to technology to meet their needs, they may become less confident in their ability to engage with others offline and cling to technology as a coping mechanism. For a variety of reasons, teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder are more vulnerable to the effects of technology addiction, including social isolation, academic struggles, and difficulty coping with emotions.
The guide is meant to be comprehensive, but as such, not every section will be applicable to everyone. Instead, we invite you to click on the links in the table of contents to jump to the sections that most interest you.
Signs of Technology Addiction in Teens
It’s important to note that not all smartphone or internet usage constitutes a technology addiction. Especially as teen’s social lives begin to revolve around and play out through social media, it can be hard to tell what is appropriate and what is unhealthy. However, when a phone or a computer become round-the-clock presences in your teen’s life, it may be a sign that your teen has a technology addiction.
According to the World Health Organization, signs of Technology Addiction include:
- Impaired control over technology use (frequency, intensity, duration)
- Increased priority given to technology over other interests
- Continuation or escalation of technology use despite negative consequences
- Increased interpersonal conflict or social withdrawal
- Distress when access to technology is limited
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Why Are Teens on the Autism Spectrum More at Risk of Technology Addiction?
Teens on the autism spectrum are more vulnerable to the effects of screen time and technology addiction due to sensory sensitivity and trouble with offline social skills. Technology is considered a stimulant that can contribute to overarousal in teens on the spectrum, making it more difficult for them to self-regulate and set boundaries around technology use. Screen time can affect information processing, sensory and motor integration, stress hormones, and brain development, particularly in decision-making areas of the brain.
Teens on the spectrum are often highly attracted to screen technology based on the instant gratification and escape from the real world that it provides, which makes them more at risk of displaying symptoms of technology addiction with smaller amounts of exposure. One reason that they may be more likely to become addicted to technology is the confidence that they may gain from online social interactions after experiencing social rejection and bullying. Online communication is less socially demanding, as it allows for anonymity and time in between responses and doesn’t involve interpreting nonverbal cues. However, this can lead to more time isolating from friends and family by scrolling online for a sense of belonging.
Based on their rigid thinking and desire for routines, teens on the spectrum are more likely to become highly fixated on the special interests. While technology is considered a more socially acceptable special interest, this can make it difficult for them to understand when their dependence on technology is no longer adaptive and is interfering with their day-to-day interactions.
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How Does Seven Stars RTC Help Teens with Technology Addiction?
Rather than just taking away technology access, residential treatment centers, like Seven Stars, help teens find new activities and coping strategies to replace unhealthy technology habits.
Seven Stars takes an experiential approach to helping teens develop positive social skills and self-regulation techniques through outdoor recreation programming. During recreation activities, teens expect to be distanced from technology, which helps these lessons feel natural. While they may be familiar with playing sports via video games or using chat features to socialize with others, they may struggle with confidence in engaging in these activities offline. During these off campus activities, we see tremendous growth in social skills, as well as a student’s ability to try new things and get outside their comfort zone. This helps teens build evidence that they can be successful in these interactions without technology.
We believe that technology can be a powerful learning tool for teens on the autism spectrum–both for educational purposes and for social interactions. Learning ways to self-monitor screen time, to navigate digital privacy, and to recognize the ways in which they can become overly dependent on devices can help make technology use more successful when they transition home.
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