By Robert Matylewicz, DO, ABAM, Medical Director at Clarity Way
It’s common for inpatient drug rehab centers to prohibit clients from using smartphones and laptops during their stay. At first glance, this seems to make sense. Shouldn’t people be detached from stressors and potential triggers and focus only on treatment? What if their dealer texts them or they get an upsetting email from work?
In reality, it’s not so black and white. There’s actually a strong argument to be made for staying plugged into everyday life during treatment.
To some degree, clients should be removed from everyday life enough so that it gives them the space they need to work on their issues. But if you completely shelter them from life outside of treatment, you may be setting them up for an overwhelming, oversaturated experience when they walk out the door.
There are a number of benefits to allowing people access to cell phones and laptops in drug and alcohol rehab with close oversight and support from their treatment team. These include:
The stress of returning to hundreds of texts and emails, perhaps some from people they really shouldn’t be associating with anymore, can be a potential minefield for people in recovery. It can also be shocking to return to a world you’ve been cut off from for 30 days or more with regards to current news and world events.
For better or worse, these days people are very attached to their smartphones and laptops. We’ve found that not having access to these devices for a period of time can be enough of a sticking point for some to forego getting the life-saving treatment they need. My philosophy is that being in drug rehab with a cell phone or laptop is better than being out on the street using drugs any day of the week. If smartphone and internet use present a problem, I prefer to get them into treatment and work with them on that here.
Some people have legitimate reasons for using these devices. They need to stay in touch with their children, they have legal issues due to their substance abuse and must be in touch with their lawyer, or they just can’t completely detach from their work for 30 days without jeopardizing their jobs. Allowing them to stay connected helps make treatment possible.
It’s especially important for people with children to be able to stay connected to them during treatment if it’s clinically appropriate. Being able to call family helps clients maintain relationships and fulfill personal responsibilities while in treatment. It also presents an opportunity for them to address everyday interpersonal issues that arise with the guidance of their treatment team.
A Nielsen study estimates that people spend 10 hours and 39 minutes per day on smartphones, computers, televisions and other media devices. If a client is excessively using technology, the treatment team is able to work with them to develop heathier usage practices. Without clients having freedom to use these devices in treatment, we would never know their leisure habits and if there is a problem. With guidelines around when clients can use smartphones, they learn the benefits of unplugging for a while and how that can improve sleep hygiene, reduce anxiety and contribute to an overall balanced, healthy lifestyle.
Many people in treatment for addiction haven’t been trusted for quite some time. Allowing use of smartphones and laptops with guidelines can help develop trust between the client and therapist. We’ve had some instances where clients have broken the technology guidelines – for example, not deleting contacts they agreed to remove – but have come to us later and admitted to that and made the choice to follow through. Feeling trusted again can be a very healing experience.
In order to ensure smartphone and laptop use isn’t a hindrance to treatment, guidelines need to be set. At Clarity Way, our policy of allowing these devices has been successful because of the parameters we’ve set, which include:
Individualized usage rules – Even before clients enter treatment we assess their need for and the clinical appropriateness of smartphone and laptop use. For example, if a client has had issues with gambling in addition to their primary diagnosis of drug or alcohol addiction, more strict rules will need to be placed around usage so they’re not visiting online gambling sites, contacting their bookie and so on. Or if a client has social anxiety and is using their phone to avoid connection with others, that will need to be addressed. We revisit these guidelines throughout treatment to make sure they continue to be appropriate.
Five-day black out period – When they first enter treatment, all of our clients are asked to refrain from smartphone or laptop use for five days. This way they can focus solely on getting physically and emotionally healthy enough for treatment, adjusting to their surroundings, and building connections with peers and staff.
Set times for use – Clients’ technology use cannot interfere with treatment. They aren’t permitted to use their phones in group sessions or any therapeutic activity. They can use their smartphones and laptops during personal time and at night.
Technology boundaries – We have agreements with each client about how and when they can use their devices, such as appropriate websites they can visit and people they can contact. If a problem arises, they understand that they might be blocked from WiFi, have their SIM card confiscated, or only be permitted to use their devices in public areas or under staff supervision.
Adherence to privacy laws – All technology use must be in accordance with HIPPA regulations. For instance, clients cannot take photos of each other or the facility and post them on websites or send them back and forth.
We’ve received positive feedback from clients that our flexible technology policy has made treatment feasible for them with their work and personal obligations and has lessened the anxiety of being away from family during this time. As long as clients remember that their primary reason for being here is to get better and checking into work or contacting loved ones is secondary, the use of smartphones and laptops can enhance recovery work in many cases.