Sylar Wang is the founder of True Digital Detox, an agency that helps young people to recover from internet and gaming addictions without the need for formal therapy.
He focuses on an approach to moderating internet usage based on improving people’s life skills, using the entire family to help refocus people’s energy into more productive outlets.
Sylar, what made you start up True Digital Detox?
Back when I owned a tutoring franchise, some parents talked with me about their children’s lacklustre academic performance and how to improve their study habits. I asked them about their children’s daily routines and eventually deduced that a sizeable minority are overly fixated on social media, gaming, streaming services, or any other Internet activity the moment school is over. Some parents tried to downplay this problem or rationalise it as a superior alternative to “letting kids play outside” to ensure their “safety.”
This lack of socialisation and community involvement among younger people is of great concern; being able to communicate and deal with others effectively is one of the hallmarks and prerequisites of success.
Likewise, I confronted a similar problem trying to regulate my online gaming habits during my college years; after going through many “trial-and-error” events, I eventually figured out what works and what doesn’t work. I’m convinced there’s a huge disconnect between what truly needs to be done versus the standard “advice” peddled by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.
(For the record, I am including “gaming addiction” as a subset of “Internet addiction” given how closely they are related.)
I started True Digital Detox to bridge this gap between reality and perception.
Is internet addiction really a big problem?
It is not as serious as, say, drug or alcohol addiction, but it’s certainly more widespread than most people think.
The true percentage of Internet users who are addicted is difficult to determine because most countries don’t officially recognise “Internet addiction” or “gaming addiction” as a disorder. There is also a wide range of results between studies that have attempted to ascertain the prevalence of “Internet addiction” due to methodological discrepancies.
Back in 2010, the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Abuse cited a study claiming that 1.5% to 8.2% of the North American and Western European populations had Internet addiction problems, with an average of 4.85%.
The proposition that 4.85% of Internet users are “addicted” is consistent with studies performed on other compulsive, behavioural disorders (like gambling addiction) that conclude about 5% of active participants reach an “addicted” state.
In terms of scope, there is no doubt that adolescents and college kids are spending inordinate amounts of time on social media, gaming, and web surfing in general. It’s not surprising when parents drastically underestimate the amount of time their kids spend online.
Most of these “excessive” users are not addicted, but excessive use is just one step away from “addiction.”
What differentiates internet addiction from regular use, given it is such a huge part of modern life?
Addiction in the context of Internet (and gaming) means compulsive use. The user feels compelled to use the Internet or games to cope with real life challenges and emotional trauma, but this habit only ends up degrading other parts of his or her life and creates a self-reinforcing cycle.
A simple litmus test is: “Are you primarily using social media, gaming, or any other recreational Internet activity as a way to relax and have fun, or are you primarily using it to evade your real life problems?”
If it’s the latter, then addiction is a high probability.
Why are so many young people developing this issue?
There are far too many relevant factors, so instead, I will list two of the more common reasons that are overlooked.
1) Parenting style
Some parents go overboard when it comes to overseeing their children’s activities. For example, there are parents who expect their children to “come back home” immediately after school every day. Some disallow or discourage their kids from playing outside on a normal basis, which creates little room for social growth or organic interaction under these circumstances.
Since kids are not going to sit around and do nothing in their spare time, it’s obvious their “next best choice” would be sitting in front of a PC or fiddling with their smartphone. Once again, most of them don’t get addicted (a good thing, to be sure), but a certain percentage inevitably will.
By examining cultural trends in two countries (China and South Korea) that have formally acknowledged the existence of Internet and gaming addiction, we can indeed infer that parenting style plays a role in problematic youth behaviour.
The strict parenting techniques employed in those two countries, coupled with the relentless focus on education and test scores at the cost of everything else, creates the perfect environment for Internet addiction to thrive. While parents in the USA, Canada, Australia, the UK, etc. aren’t as strict, the steady move toward “helicopter parenting” seems to have the same effect of making children more susceptible to compulsive Internet and gaming behaviour.
2) Lack of meaningful values
Many young people today are unable to define an overarching goal or purpose in life. When this happens, the default set of values becomes consumerism and self-absorption. These are neither positive nor enduring values, yet younger people are being implicitly indoctrinated into accepting them.
This is an indirect cause of compulsive Internet use that requires a bit of intuition to understand, so allow me an analogy to illustrate.
Person A: “I want to become a doctor to help other people stay healthy and recover from illnesses.”
Person B: “I want to become a doctor to make lots of money.”
Who do you think will be more motivated? Who do you think is more likely to weather difficulties and challenges ahead and press on?
Obviously, Person A will. Person B will crumble mentally and surrender after a wrench is thrown his or her way.
When we apply Person B’s mentality to life in general, we can then begin to foresee how behavioural problems can occur even if everything seems to be going well.
Contrary to what the economics profession has disseminated for the past two centuries, monetary gain and materialistic pursuit are not the only motivating factors that spur action. Behavioural economics in more recent decades has corrected this ill-informed belief and uncovered the power of intrinsic value. In other words, people need a sense of “fulfillment” to live happy lives, and money cannot replace fulfillment.
Addiction is one of several possible manifestations of the “dark” side of “self-interest.” In the past, cigarettes and alcohol were popular choices. Today, social media, gaming, and other forms of digital entertainment offer very high but short-term entertainment (consumerist) value for a very low price.
Values that depend purely upon fulfilling individualistic and materialistic goals are weak. They do not make for citizens with a strong sense of civic duty nor people who believe in a common cause.
Instead, this obsession with consumerism creates mentally fragile people who seek the next “big hit” to increase the experience of pleasure – a function that social media, web surfing, online pornography, and gaming are happy to fill indefinitely.
What is the goal of your treatment method?
The goal is to reconstruct the broken pieces of people’s lives, whether it be lack of community, lack of direction or motivation, lack of agency (freedom), or any other problems that lead to Internet or gaming addiction. The program is designed primarily for adolescents and young adults (13 – 24), since they are the most susceptible to this problem, but it can in theory work on almost anyone.
As a side note, the name “True Digital Detox” is a bit of a misnomer – the short “detox” period where we suggest restrictions on recreational Internet use or gaming is actually one of the least important aspects of the entire process.
This is not intuitive or easily explicable, but it is something I’ve learned the hard way.
What differentiates your recovery techniques from traditional therapy and counselling?
Unlike traditional methods that focus on medical therapy or “counselling,” I provide educational and “personal” advice for the entire family. This is an approach that adopts a holistic perspective instead of solving one or two problems.
When I talk with clients, I discuss the following:
- Changing values and mindsets. You cannot change on the OUTSIDE if you don’t change on the INSIDE first. We emphasise the power of internal regulationover external rules, as external rules can be skirted if the Internet addict is committed enough to get what he or she wants.
- Leverage strengths. People have untapped personal strengths that they rarely use to their full potential. We help them discover and use them to build an alternative lifestyle and routine that is in sync with their overall values.
- Renewed focus on the community and joining local organisations. Most Internet and gaming addicts lack any sort of meaningful attachment to social groups. While this can be blamed on a system that has, in recent decades, disparaged the notion of “community,” it can be easily remedied within a matter of weeks.
- Incremental goals and detailed plans. We encourage people to take one step at a time toward goals of their choosing until they build up the confidence to overcome the “demoralised” state that Internet and gaming addiction inevitably inflict.
Most people grow out of their behavioural addictions without therapy or counselling. Even though many people have this weird and misguided notion that “addiction” is supposed to last for a lifetime and requires “long-term treatment,” the reality is that recovery can be swift and self-directed.
The only question is the amount of time it takes, which depends heavily on picking the right strategy (our obligation) and putting in effort (the client’s obligation).
True Digital Detox is designed to accelerate this “organic recovery” process by adopting “tried-and-true” strategies that will not only moderate Internet use, but rebuild the foundations for a truly meaningful and value-rich life in the process.
How effective are your methods?
I have talked with many families over the years in informal (unpaid) settings, and the overwhelming percentage have reported excellent results. A 75% reduction in recreational Internet use on a daily basis without parental coercion was not an uncommon success story. The time frame for such changes to occur is typically 3 to 8 months and largely depends on the amount of effort put in.
The reason True Digital Detox works is largely due to the trial-and-error approach I adopted when I went through the same problem. For example, I know with almost 100% certainty that adopting a Puritanical mindset (“I can’t ever play games again!” or “I can’t ever go on Facebook again!”) will end up backfiring and causing relapse, so this is a tactic I would never suggest to a family.
Once again, most of the “advice” peddled on the Internet and even by “real life professionals” are from people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
As I mentioned earlier, most people will recover on their own, but without a proper strategy and focus, the process would likely take much longer (3+ years). It took me close to 5 years because my problems didn’t go away until I finally graduated.
This is what I mean by “accelerating organic recovery” – instead of taking 4 years and going through multiple relapse periods, now the time frame is closer to 4 months.
Scenarios where I wouldn’t be able to solve someone’s problems are extremely rare, and I will never take on a customer/client whose case I wouldn’t feel comfortable addressing.
Thank you for this interview, and people who are interested should have a look at the True Digital Detox website! On a final note, I am currently developing a course and walk-through that is a detailed walk-through of what I normally discuss or consult with families. This course will be available on July 27, 2019, and will be priced modestly.
Thank you Sylar for your time and good luck with your new course!