Paired Substance/Sex Addiction and Technology Safeguards

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Dr. David Fawcett

Recovery from any addiction is difficult. Recovery from a paired addiction, such as we see with fused substance and sex behaviors, is doubly difficult. There are twice as many triggers, and twice as many opportunities for relapse. Recognizing this, it is imperative for substance/sex addicts (and all addicts, really) to implement as many safeguards toward sobriety as possible.

One of the more useful safeguards, especially with behavioral addictions like sex, porn, gambling, spending, and the like, is the installation of “parental control” software on the addict’s phone, tablet, laptop, gaming devices, and all other digital communications equipment. After all, behavioral addictions (especially sex and porn) are heavily reliant on digital connectivity, so the filtering and accountability that programs like Net Nanny, Qustodio, CovenantEyes, and WebWatcher can provide are almost essential to recovery.

Happily, the products mentioned above (and numerous others) can filter or block content and contacts that substance/sex addicts struggle with, while still allowing the addict to use digital technology in non-addictive ways. Better still, these products can also create and send reports to an accountability partner (usually a therapist or 12-step sponsor), so the addict can’t run off the rails without someone who supports his or her recovery knowing about it.

As you shop for protective software to help you or a loved one maintain sobriety, you should look for the following features.

  1. Customizable Filtering and Blocking: Nearly all protective software products offer some degree of filtering and blocking. Often, they have preset levels ranging from settings appropriate for young children to settings meant for teens and adults. The better products allow customization, with whitelisting and blacklisting of specific sites. You also want a product that analyzes web pages in real time. What this means is that, for example, a sex/porn addict could access a fan fiction site without any trouble but would be blocked from any eroticized stories on the site.
  2. Monitoring and Reporting (Accountability): Accountability is important for all recovering addicts. Generally, your accountability partner will get reports at regular intervals showing how much time you spent online, where you went online, and who you interacted with. The better products offer real-time notification if you attempt to use your digital device in a non-sober way. Some products will also monitor and report on texts, downloads, uploads, search engine requests, instant messages, apps, usernames and passwords, etc.
  3. Time Management: Time management features let you set an amount of time or certain times of day when you can (and can’t) use your devices. The best products can be customized to allow or prohibit the use of certain programs and apps at various times of day.
  4. Location Tracking: Most addicts carry their phones with them everywhere they go. Recognizing this, many protective software products now come with location tracking. Loved ones of addicts tend to like this feature, as it helps them know where the addict is at all times.
  5. App Limits: There’s an app for everything these days, including apps for viewing porn, sexting, flirting, hooking up, etc. There are even apps that are designed to hide other apps. So what might at first glance look like an innocuous game could actually be a porn or hookup site. Most apps are fine for most recovering addicts, but plenty of apps are not. You will want a protective software that blocks access to apps you use as part of your addiction.
  6. Easy to Install and Use: The best protective software products are easy to install, easy to customize, and easy to modify. You also want to be able to globally configure the software, meaning you put the settings in one device and they automatically transfer to your other devices.
  7. Compatibility/Licensing: Not all protective software products work on every digital device. In fact, many are quite limited. It is important to make sure the product you buy works on all of your devices. It is also important to see how many devices the license covers. Ideally, you want to cover all of your equipment with only one license.

Please note that even the best filtering and monitoring software products will not guarantee an addict’s ongoing sobriety. Most addicts can, if they so desire, find ways to work around the protections, like using a friend’s device, purchasing and using a new device in secret, restoring factory settings on the device, downloading new browsers to the device, etc. That said, I nevertheless recommend installing protective software because, at the very least, it puts a barrier between the addict and active addiction, and this barrier may slow the addict long enough to think about potential consequences and reach out for help.

Not all filtering and accountability software products are created equally. For up-to-date reviews on the most effective products, visit the website of my colleague Dr. Robert Weiss. He provides annual updates on these products on his resources page.