Disconnect to Reconnect:
Can Elements Wilderness Program improve the mental health
functioning of adolescents with technology issues?
A study performed by researchers at Elements Wilderness Program
“We’re training and conditioning a whole new generation of people that when we are uncomfortable or lonely or uncertain or afraid we have a digital pacifier for ourselves that is atrophying our own ability to deal with that.”
— Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google
Undeniable benefits from the rise of the digital age have been paralleled by possible negative consequences to society, specifically to adolescents. Research shows a steady increase in adolescent digital media use from 1976-2016, with a reported 4-6 hours of average daily use as of 2016.1 A cultural shift this swift and widespread may not come without consequences. Overuse of technology can lead to behavior that ranges from unhealthy to addictive. This burgeoning modern phenomenon has been widely studied and described with a variety of terms: Problematic Internet Use, Internet Addiction, Compulsive Internet Use and Digital Overuse. We will use Digital Media Overuse (DMO) to describe all types of excessive or compulsive behaviors associated with a wide range of different digital activities involving all types of media and mass communication regarded collectively, not only on the internet.
The existence of DMO often occurs in tandem with other disorders such as autism, ADHD, depression, anxiety, and substance use. This relationship is sometimes understood as a vicious cycle where digital media overuse exacerbates other issues in an individual’s life and life’s problems lead to increased digital media use which serves as an ineffective coping mechanism to manage or temporarily escape these problems.
Digital Media Overuse Vicious Cycle
Elements Wilderness Program, an Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare (OBH) provider, offers a chance to interrupt this cycle by completely removing interaction with digital media from their client’s experience. A key feature of OBH is “the prescriptive use of wilderness experiences by licensed mental health professionals to meet the therapeutic needs of clients.”2 The tenets of OBH include extended wilderness living and backcountry travel, active use of client participation, continual group living, formal group therapy, individual and family therapy, adventure experiences, use of nature in the therapeutic process, and a strong ethic of care and support throughout.
Since OBH has been shown to be an effective treatment modality for a wide variety of different diagnoses and issues individuals face, Elements Wilderness Program recently completed a study to explore if the outcomes of students identified by their therapists as having Digital Media Overuse issues differed in any significant way from the portion of students who did not have these types of issues. Mental health functioning was measured by the Youth Outcomes Questionnaire (YOQ), a standardized clinical outcome instrument to measure treatment progress. The following graph includes student and parent scores who completed the YOQ survey at both admission and discharge from the program between 2017 and 2021. Above the dotted line indicates a score in need of clinical intervention while below reflects the normative range.
YOQ Total Scores From Admission to Discharge
As shown in the graph, the students identified as having issues with digital media overuse improved significantly from participating in the therapeutic intervention at Elements Wilderness Program. These students did not differ in any statistically significant way from the group of students not identified as having technology issues.
Elements focuses on addressing the underlying
root emotional causes of maladaptive behavior.
One explanation as to why the results show Elements to be helpful to the DMO individuals could be due to the similarities between substance abuse issues and digital media issues as both compulsive disorders. Both types of compulsions can result in a vicious cycle where an individual’s emotional state drives the maladaptive behavior and acting on the behavior negatively impacts that individual’s emotional state. Elements has been so successful with addressing compulsions and behavioral issues because instead of attempting to just address the surface level behavior, we focus on addressing the underlying emotional and psychological causes of maladaptive behavior while simultaneously removing the physical possibility of acting on impulse and engaging in the behavioral compulsion.
Another likely contributor for the results shown lie in the healing power of being immersed in nature. Researchers have written extensively on nature being the primary driving force in adventure therapy and other interventions that take place in the outdoors. Being in nature reduces stress, fear, anger and anxiety positively altering your physical state by reducing blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and the production of stress hormones.3 Immersion in natural environments has been shown to improve self-esteem, self-efficacy, resilience, academic and cognitive performance, and social skills in adolescents.4 It should not be surprising that nature plays an important role in improving the mental health functioning of digital media overuse individuals.
Immersion in Nature Improves:
As technology becomes an increasingly integral aspect of society, concerns about the impact it may have on people’s well-being follows. This may be particularly true for adolescents and adolescent development. In order to respond to this burgeoning trend, it is important to identify potential treatment options for adolescents that develop issues related to technology and digital media overuse. The results of this study encouragingly show Elements Wilderness Program to improve the mental health functioning of adolescents with digital media overuse issues.
- Twenge, J. M., Martin, G. N., & Spitzberg, B. H. (2019). Trends in u.s. adolescents’ media use, 1976–2016: The rise of digital media, the decline of tv, and the (near) demise of print. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 8(4), 329–345. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000203
- Gass, M. (Ed.). (2014). Manual of Accreditation Standards for Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Programs. AEE.
- Bowler, D. E., Buyung-Ali, L. M., Knight, T. M., & Pullin, A. S. (2010). A systematic review of evidence for the added benefits to health of exposure to natural environments. BMC Public Health, 10, 456.
- Mygind, L., Kjeldsted, E., Hartmeyer, R., Mygind, E., Bølling, M., & Bentsen, P. (2019). Mental, physical and social health benefits of immersive nature-experience for children and adolescents: A systematic review and quality assessment of the evidence. Health & Place, 58, 102136. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2019.05.014