Recovery in the Digital Age: Technology’s New Role in Addiction Recovery

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Woman's hands holding phone taking a picture of coffee on tableTechnology is a vital resource that has improved our lives in countless ways. For instance, it’s because of technology that information on nearly any subject is never more than a few swipes or keystrokes away. Additionally, technology has enabled complex medical procedures that save lives every day. And let’s not forget how much easier communication has become, allowing people on opposite sides of the world to have conversations in real time using smartphones, tablets, personal computers and other connected devices.

Despite our increasing reliance on technology, we’re always on the hunt for news ways that technology can be implemented, no matter how commonplace or obscure the application might be. So it was only a matter of time before the conversation surrounding addiction rehabilitation turned technical; after all, addictions that involve the overuse of various technologies — i.e., internet addiction1 and video game addiction2 — are considered very real problems. However, that’s not to say that the use of technology is more harmful than helpful. Let’s look at some examples of how today’s technologies are beneficial for addiction recovery.

Mobile Apps

Blue background with silver graphic about percentage of Americans who use smartphonesAccording to recent data, of all Americans who carry mobile phones, approximately 70 percent are using smartphones.3 What makes a smart phone “smart” is its ability to function as a personal computer: it can install/uninstall software (usually called “apps”) and offers internet access and the ability to browse the web. It stands to reason that a similar ratio of those struggling with addiction are carrying smartphones too. Therefore, if smartphones could somehow be a recovery resource, many addicted individuals would benefit.

The most apparent way for smartphones to be a recovery resource would be with software. Sure enough, many mobile apps are designed to be recovery-oriented resources. A prime example is AA Big Book Free, a free mobile app that contains the entirety of the “Big Book, “the main text of Alcoholics Anonymous and its derivative groups. Available for both iPhones4 and Android smartphones,5 the app deconstructs the 12-Step method, making each individual step, prayers and even personal stories easily accessible. In addition to making this literature available, this app essentially provides an on-demand copy of the Big Book at all times. In addition, there are also other apps designed to help find support groups and other meetings based on a person’s physical location.

Web Assessments

While apps can be great resources for people to explore on their own, they’re not as useful on the “back end” of addiction recovery, including areas such as screening and actual treatment. However, that doesn’t mean technology isn’t increasingly found there. In fact, screening for addiction and substance abuse problems has been an area that has seen much improvement through the use of technology.6 For instance, the availability of alcoholism and drug addiction screeners on the internet has helped a number of people to realize the scope of their substance abuse, which sometimes leads them to seek treatment or at least be more receptive to the prospect of rehabilitation.


There are actually a variety of different addiction treatments and therapies in which technology is increasingly becoming a focus. For instance, a number of addiction treatment centers are offering a treatment called neurofeedback. Appearing very similar to biofeedback, neurofeedback — sometimes called “brain training” — involves attaching an electroencephalography machine to a patient so the therapist can view the electrical activity in the brain. By observing the brain’s activity, the therapist can instruct the patient how to better control or alter the brain’s activity.7 In the case of addiction, the goal would be to minimize the effects of stress — especially when it is triggered by painful memories or trauma — and to overcome cravings.

Technology-assisted Care

The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) have been working together to use technology to make addiction treatment programs available from anywhere. While this may seem to be an unusual strategy, the idea is that poor availability of treatment programs and lack of reliable transportation can be mitigated by making addiction treatment programs web-based, either in part or in whole. One possible way to offer technology-assisted care is through a therapeutic education system, which consists of educational videos, lessons, exercises and other interactive modules that are accessible online.8 Of course, a therapeutic education system as described isn’t a total replacement for addiction treatment programs, but it could serve as a solid foundation. In addition, trials involving therapeutic education systems for individuals with substance abuse problems have been promising.9

Cyber Support Groups

It’s difficult to imagine life before social networks. Initially, social networks were a way for us to reconnect with people we hadn’t seen in a long time, but we’re now using social networks as one of our primary methods of communication. In fact, social networks have made the internet an inherently social place, which can be a major benefit for those in recovery.

Before the advent of social networks and smartphones, someone who wanted to attend support group meetings would have to track down a time and place that fit into his or her schedule and go in person. Today, a person can attend a few meetings per week in person while also engaging with online support groups in between those meetings. There is also a variety of recovery-oriented forums across the web, providing safe places where people can talk to others while still maintaining their anonymity.

Even though we’ve found many ways of using technology to enhance or supplement addiction recovery, we’re nowhere near the point of technology replacing traditional recovery methods altogether. There are certain components of traditional treatment programs for which technology doesn’t yet offer a comparable option, including detox treatment, sober living environments and holistic therapies. However, considering how many innovative uses of technology we have for individuals suffering from addiction today, there’s no denying that technology will have a major role in the future of addiction recovery.

1. http://www.addictionrecov.org/Addictions/index.aspx?AID=43
2. http://www.psychguides.com/guides/video-game-addiction-symptoms-causes-and-effects/
3. http://www.pcworld.com/article/2999631/phones/pew-survey-shows-68-percent-of-americans-now-own-a-smartphone.html
4. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/aa-big-book-free-for-alcoholics/id990308161?mt=8
5. https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.goodbarber.aabigbookfree&hl=en
6. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh334/320-326.pdf
7. http://www.aboutneurofeedback.com/conditions/addiction/
8. http://sudtech.org/about/
9. http://sudtech.org/tes_research/

Written by Dane O’Leary

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