Parents face challenges getting teens unhooked from technology

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How much of our world do we miss because our focus is set on a screen? Faster, smaller and cheaper technology keeps us connected. There are no office hours for texting, Twitter, Instagram. Vibration and chime alerts interrupt our work, our study and our sleep with information. Some of that communication is vital, most is not. But still we seek the screen and may not realize how hooked we are, until we "go dark."

More than 71 million people viewed a viral video on YouTube, which portrays a violent reaction to turning off technology. The images purportedly show a young man recording his brother after he lost technology. The boy throws himself on the bed, screams in frustration and is flailing his arms. It's hard to watch. Whether real or staged, the behavior is familiar Melissa McCaffrey of Knightstown.

"He could flip a switch like that," said McCaffrey of her son, Justin Whiteside.

He estimates he spends about ten hours a day on the computer. There was a time when hours would pass playing World of Warcraft.

"Every guild I run with, they are always trying to recruit me because I usually beat their healer," said Whiteside proudly, referring to the game.

It was so intensely rewarding, it became Justin's world. When McCaffrey intervened and decided it was time to disconnect, Justin became threatening.

"It was a full meltdown," said McCaffrey.

She says when she turned off the Internet, Whiteside went off too. McCaffrey says he was raging, threatening to hurt himself, and pushing past her. She says twice Whiteside crossed a well-established line of unacceptable behavior which resulted in a call to 911. Police took Justin after the separate incidents to inpatient treatment.

Looking back now, the video that went viral is more vivid than Justin's recollection of his own outbursts.

"It's embarrassing to be honest. It makes me think of the times that I have done similar stuff. At the same time it does really seem excessive and ridiculous, which makes it even worse," Justin said.

But licensed family therapist and addictions counselor George Brenner says there is a physical and psychological explanation.

"One of the things that we know about this is people wouldn't engage in this compulsive behavior if there wasn't some aspect of reward. It is a neurological reward, we do know that. We can map it in the brain. We can see the brain light up when people engage in these types of activities," Brenner said.

Brenner says we have withdrawal when our technology routine is stopped. If you factor in teenage development, rage could rule.

"The frontal cortex which thinks, reasons and emotionally regulates is not fully developed until the mid twenties. So when you take something away that is rewarding, that is very self-directing and you also have the hormonal changes of adolescents, you will get these moods," Brenner said.

Brenner says cases like Justin's are rare, and like Justin, usually involve some co-existing condition like attention deficient or compulsive disorder or depression. Justin has a developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others called Asperger's Syndrome.

Brenner says cases like Taylor Pelton is more typical. She is a 16-year old from Fishers. Pelton is always on her phone, but for our story, she agreed to go dark for 24 hours. Her mother, Allison Black, was curious how her daughter would do.

"I will see her just fidgeting with her hands. It's really weird. I was so happy doing this because I'm like, 'You really do display strange behavior when your phone is taken away from you'," Black said.

Immediately, Pelton was frustrated "Well, I don't know what to do!" Pelton said.

As the hours added up, Pelton appeared lost. After three hours, she was irritable.

"You go from having everything you need to know pretty much to nothing. All this communication with the outside world and all of a sudden you are by yourself at your house," said Pelton

Black calls it an addiction.

"She is different if she doesn't have her phone," Black said.

When asked if she was addicted, "I am not going to deny it, probably," Pelton said.

And sure enough, the moment the 24 hours were up, Pelton quickly typed, "I'm back!" and scrolled through her messages to see what she had missed. Her smile was back.

Pelton is glad she went through the exercise. She says she learned to "not pay as much attention to your phone and see what is around you." Of course "going dark" was easier for Pelton because she agreed to the break. It wasn't a punishment.

As for Whiteside, he feels he has matured.

"I've just learned self control a lot better than I used to have," he said.

Still, gaming and computer time drive his routine.

If dinner happens right in the middle of a key part of a battle, he won't eat. If it's bedtime, he puts off sleeping until it's over. He says he will put off just about anything to stay at the game.

And that, Brenner says, is the key sign that you are hooked and have lost control.

"It's a classic conditioning of the brain. The brain is salivating the whole time because these kids are saying, 'I got to the next level.' That's just Pavlov's dog."

"I've spent 40 hours on a single fight before. When it's over, it's like a rush," Whiteside said. He believes the lure is trying to get the rush again.

Brenner says to stop the cycle, the person has to first recognize the compulsive behavior and then want to change. He says often clients reveal that they like the activity and don't want it to stop.

McCaffrey traces back the first signs of a problem back to the summers when Whiteside was 13 and 14 years old. He had outgrown structured summer camps that, in years prior, had worked so well. She was working and was relieved Whiteside could stay busy and safe on the computer while she was gone. She says she failed to anticipate how difficult it would be to break Whiteside's reliance on technology once school resumed in the fall. He passionately wanted to stay on the computer and did not want to re-engage in the classroom. It was a turning point that led to where he is now.

Whiteside is now 21 years old.

"His life is very limited and most of his interaction and interaction with others is on the Internet, " McCaffrey said.

As an adult, he owns most of the computer equipment. McCaffrey says taking it away now is a punishment she would be very reluctant to pursue. They both hope the outbursts are over.

"I don't like that it happened," Whiteside said.

When asked if it will ever happen again, he replied, "I have no idea."