~ Mathew Meyers, MA, LMFT
Technology in the 21st century is growing exponentially. There are new devices every year that are more sophisticated, more efficient and more user-friendly. The core purpose of these devices is to connect us to friends and family, to entertain us, to inform us, and to make us more productive in our occupations and academic pursuits. It would be difficult to argue that any of these things is inherently wrong. And I’d agree that all of these things in and of themselves are a good thing. However, with this rapid growth in the use of these myriad devices and their availability and access so widespread it is important to consider the implications of the integration of these devices into our daily lives and in the way that our families use them.
Today’s devices give us a platform to perform many functions. The boundaries between devices have blurred (thank you Steve Jobs!). No longer is a phone just a phone, or a television just a TV. Having a Smartphone is not only a phone, but a device to play video games, watch television and movies, an internet browser for checking Facebook and watching YouTube videos, and for checking email. Larger screens too, have become able to perform these functions. There are many televisions that, with the addition of a webcam can be used to Skype. With almost any screen the world is literally at our finger tips!
We are living in a time when many of these technologies have become available and accessible so quickly, and seeing how useful they are in organizing, communicating, and entertaining that they have been quickly incorporated into our lives. Perhaps because there is so much potential for the ways that technology can make our lives better, easier, more efficient, few have stopped to set limits or even recognized a need to. After-all, things like Facebook and twitter have been important communication tools in helping to communicate and organize powerful social movements that have helped topple oppressive regimes all over the world, most notably the Middle East. Email, Skype, Facebook and other communication tools have allowed family and friends living apart to remain closely connected. Things like Amber Alerts sent to emails and in text messages have helped to find children that were lost or abducted quickly. For couples, families and friends, sending and receiving text messages can be a great way for them to stay connected throughout the day not only with parenting responsibilities and scheduling changes but also by sending thoughtful and loving messages that enrich their relationships.
We also are now seeing some of the challenges associated with the explosion in the use of technology and perhaps a lack of adequate limitations and boundaries. Things like compulsive gaming, compulsive internet use and compulsive texting are becoming studied and understood better. There have been instances in which individuals have died while playing video games because they did not stop to eat or sleep. There is a growing body of evidence indicating that many utilize these devices to avoid stress and anxiety, whether social anxiety, or the stress of the many responsibilities of school, work, parenting, or other family obligations. Of course, the irony is that the avoidance can numb the feeling of anxiety and stress in the short term but in fact increases levels of stress and anxiety in the longer term. Other challenges include individuals isolating themselves in the virtual world from the real world, using technology devices while driving making our roads less safe, even seemingly smaller annoyances such as taking calls or texts while in the midst of conversation with another person face to face. These digital devices have become digital appendages. When you have an itch, you scratch it, when you have a text, you answer it, sometimes with little or no thought given to one’s surroundings or current company. The consequences of overuse and over-consumption of these devices is that we are less safe, less connected, less healthy, and have higher levels of stress.
From a neuropsychological perspective, the Implication is that technology has hijacked the brains prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain in which rational thought and decision-making occurs and consequences of actions are evaluated). No longer is the locus of control internal, but external. We are responding to a beep, a buzz, or an invasion of Orc’s in World of Warcraft, by clicking, texting, or responding in some other way even when there are significant negative or potentially negative consequences to doing so. It is clear that there is a new developmental task for all of us; to interface with technology in ways that are productive, safe, healthy and in ways that are relationship affirming. In many ways technology does and can continue to facilitate these but not without limits. It is our job as parents and caring adults to help establish, model, and reinforce these boundaries within our families and communities if we are to avoid more and more of the challenges associated with letting our devices take control of us.