This past week I had the privilege of attending a conference on technology and mental health by social worker Ozgur Akbas, LMFT. Ozgur presented some compelling date in terms of technology and mental health. In general, people that have difficulties with technology generally spend a lot of lot of time alone with a phone or computer, are defensive and unaware of the impact of their use of technology, prefer time spent with their devices over time spent with others, lose interest in other activities, become moody, socially isolated, and irritable; and have problems with school or work.
One of the big issues around social media also has to do with its accessible use of pornography, the ability to have phone sex/ send nude photos, and the trend creating unrealistic (online) expectations about body image and relationships. In general, Ozgur presented data that shows us that our youth are having much less sex. In the past, only 2-3% of the population showed problems with erectile dysfunction, while after 2008 that number has increased to 26%. More and more people are relying on “safe” ways of interacting that don’t involve risk, intimacy, putting oneself out there, and developing social and dating skills. In essence, our increased reliance on technology has decreased our competence at being able to relate with authenticity and visibility. The socially anxious person has found more places to hide, and their disappearance makes it almost like they don’t even exist. Imagine that!
Problematic use of technology can fill a short term need and provide short term, temporary relief; yet create long term problems- sleep being one of them. Companies, designers, gamers, marketing agencies, and yes- even neuroscientists are part of a burgeoning market of keeping your kids’ attention for as long as possible. Consistent high arousal increases blood pressure, dilates pupils, induces sweaty palms, increases the flight or flight response, and creates problems in a person’s ability to regulate emotion. Persons who have difficulty “turning it off” or regulating arousal are at risk for being wired all the time and thus having problems with attention, aggressiveness, or moody behavior. Therefore, any number of diagnosis (ADHD, ADD, social anxiety, Bipolar Disorder, Mood Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, and even Psychotic Disorders) may show up when technology use becomes a problem- and can be easily treated with the treatment of problematic technology use!
Group therapy puts teenagers in a social situation where technology can’t be relied on to solve social problems. Groups offered in my practice focus on building group cohesion, which means looking for and finding what members have in common. In some cases it means creating a space for abrupt disclosures, tearfulness, honesty, sharing struggles, and openness. This means staying in the room with all emotions -both easy and hard- and struggling at times with knowing what to say, how to say it, or what (if anything) should be said at all. What social media can’t do for your teens is to help them safely navigate tolerate feeling awkward or uncertain. This great and wonderful developmental task is a significant part of risk and survival. How else do teens build self-respect, find integrity, and “show up” with all of their emotions? If it is easier to ghost someone, what is the value in learning how to end a relationship with grace, to bow out on a situation you don’t want to be in, or to speak up and assert oneself? In my groups the commitment is to do the work, show up regularly, give and and receive feedback (even when it is hard!). Most important, when technology takes away our teens’ ability to grow and develop, they stop growing. Group services can help teens continue to grow in real life situations with real life problems- with real people and with real pain.