A U.K. child psychologist has developed a digital detox program that treats teens and children as young as four -- weaning them off the technology dependency that he says often results in tantrums, agitation and even violence.

Dr. Richard Graham was working with adolescents approximately eight years ago, when he first noticed signs that the social networking aspect of video games was changing the way young people interacted with their gaming devices as well as others in their online network.

The evidence was worrying: Young people were spending more and more time plugged into their games and their online communities and unplugged from traditional social outlets. Graham has treated patients who sent hundreds of messages a day, spent 36-hour stretches online and operated up to 20 Facebook profiles at one time.

"They were then dropping out of education, social lives, spending more and more time at their games and when anyone tried to stop them doing so they would become agitated, sometimes aggressive, sometimes even at risk of self-harm. So we decided to develop a service that would offer the parents and the children some solutions to the dilemmas of breaking away from the games," Graham told CTV's Canada AM.

Digital detox clinic

He said the symptoms were comparable to those experienced by an alcoholic or heroin addict going through withdrawal.

In 2010, Graham set up the Technology Addiction Service at Capio Nightingale Clinic in London, offering a 28-day residential digital detox program at a cost of up to $30,000.

The clinic’s mission is not only to provide front-line treatment for youth, but to help physicians and mental health professionals collaborate on strategies to treat the "emergent problem" of technology addiction -- which in many ways represents a new frontier for health workers.

While many parents feel they lack the knowledge or understanding to deal with their child's addiction -- or even to discern whether their behaviour is abnormal or problematic -- Graham said there's an easy test to determine whether a child is in fact experiencing an addiction.

Is your child ‘addicted’ to technology?

"When the device starts to have more influence over the child's behaviour than anyone else or anything else, that is the moment when really you need to start changing things," Graham said.

"And in fact, the more we've been working on this the more we realize the earlier you start and the more you're aware as a parent of the impact technology can have on a child's life, the more you can put in place the boundaries and restrictions that facilitate a healthier balance."

Graham's treatment strategies vary depending on the patient's age and addiction level.

For a child of four -- whose parents could be struggling to find ways to reduce their tablet or gaming screen time without provoking a tantrum -- the goal would be to work with the parents to set boundaries and limit the amount of screen access time each day.

As well, Graham works with parents to help them manage the distress their children may feel when the device is taken away.

Teen strategies

With an adolescent or teen, the approach would be different. A patient at Graham's clinic would be asked to turn in their devices and unplug entirely from all social networking and gaming communities for the first seven days, replacing that time with "interesting, exciting" activities that reflect a healthier lifestyle.

After the first week, devices are gradually reintroduced with the goal of establishing a health level of online engagement.

"My sense is that the right balance is that you should be able to leave the device without too much stress," he said.

"We've come to learn this period of abstinence away from technology allows some recovery, particularly for those who have been excessively using the technology, to then negotiate with, then plan with them other activities that are social, enjoyable, and still then be able to use the technology in a more balanced way."

The more insight and understanding a parent has, he said, the better equipped they are to put boundaries in place to limit their child's screen time.