The Internet, Your Clients and You

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argues “online life breeds narcissism, alienation and depression, that it’s an opiate for the lower classes and an insanity-inducing influence on the politically-engaged, and that it takes more than it gives from creativity and deep thought” in this article.

I was glad to see this though I’m not in total agreement. What’s important, I think, is that the Internet and those little smart devices that populate your pockets, bags, homes and cars are changing the way we live our lives. At the dawn (perhaps late morning) of the smart environment, this may be a good time to pause and consider their influence. The consequences, as Mr. Douthat and many others write, are enormous.

It would be too easy to just declare these devices to be good or bad.  Just like the sunshine on a summer day can promote the growth of wild flowers and bring us warmth and happiness or a painful sunburn, it depends.

The ease with which technologically-enhanced connectivity and access feeds into addictive tendencies has been a windfall for all sorts of stakeholders. On the one hand we have the advertisers, politicians and pundits. On the other hand we have family, friends, loved ones and generally members of our self-identified tribes both far and near. Our devices are sources of instant news and belonging.

So what’s the issue for therapists? Given the importance of these devices in so many of our lives I think it’s incumbent to add “device use ” assessments to our client history.

Do these devices bring people closer to others, add insights that help live a better life, support meditation or other self-help devices like the Muse? Are they a source of

longed-for contact for the socially isolated? Or do they provide an excuse to stay home in front of a screen? The question here is do they create isolation or connection? Does a chat group combat alienation that would be better served by joining a meet up group or learning how to strike up a conversation with a neighbour?

I do not know the answer to these questions. But what I propose is that these are terrific topics to investigate and explore with few preconceived notions. This is the “curious therapist ” in action. Not proselytizing for the advantages of a walk in nature’s versus a TedTalk, notwithstanding our instincts for (and research findings promoting the advantages of) walking in nature.

What a great opportunity to learn what technology means for our clients. And the younger they are the more impact technology has. Not to say that my “senior” friends and me are much less caught up in the swirl of attention-grabbing devices.

If we are in an ADHD world let’s explore it with each other and with our clients.

Understanding early childhood and family history connections can be very useful in assessing the current state of the people we work with. Understanding their connection with technology will also help us help them.

Here are some questions/issues we might consider when speaking with clients:

  • Tell me about the extent of time you have in front of screens? Internet? Writing? Social media?
  • How do you feel after spending time online or at your computer?
  • Is your time on social media helping you connect with others in ways that you are finding enjoyable and useful?
  • Sometimes social media is a great way to connect and make plans. Is your social media use limiting or increasing your “in person “time with others?
  • How often do you check for messages?
  • Do you have times where you turn off your devices?
  • If you were raising teenagers what advice would you give them about computer or device use or social media?
  • Do you have favourite times to check messages or do you do this continually through the day?
  • What else do you observe when you are on devices?

The questions around technology use need to be raised in a caring inquisitive way, as an exploration of how your clients are living their life right now without insinuation that technology or their relationship to it is inherently bad or harming.

While Ross Douthat clearly thinks we are going to hell in a handbasket, even if your client is relating to technology in a maladaptive way, it is important at the outset to listen to the purpose this behaviour serves.