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Growing up fast and furious – Media’s impact on our children: “iDisorder”

iDisorder by Rosen

iDisorder: Part 1

By Fr George Liangas

Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist

Assistant priest, St Nectarios Church, Burwood, Sydney

Fr George Liangas

“If you can make use of something that makes your life easier while maintaining enough inner strength and freedom to avoid dependence, you are the master. If you do not cultivate this inner strength and freedom, you become the slave”.

Ulrich Weger, senior lecturer in Psychology, University of Kent[1]

 

Many books are currently being written about the mental health problems caused by use of electronic media. One such book is iDisorder: Understanding our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming its hold on us[2], by Professor of Psychology Dr Larry Rosen. He writes that even though the problems of electronic media are very new, they are similar to more conventional mental illnesses. Examining these similarities can help us understand these newer types of problems. A strength of this book is that it provides very good advice about dealing with those problems.

The “iDisorders” that Rosen discusses include:

Narcissism

Narcissism is about promoting one’s own self, and social media in particular are good at increasing narcissism. Young people on-line can become very self-absorbed, e.g. by being concerned about how many ‘friends’ they have, spending time updating their on-line status and putting on a particular persona. Narcissists appeal to others superficially, but struggle to maintain healthy relationships over time: “the problem for narcissists is that their addiction to admiration hinders them from establishing relationships”.

It is often very difficult to help a narcissistic person, because their narcissism prevents them from accepting help. Some narcissists can be helped, in the following ways:

–          Help the person to reduce time spent using media and increase time spent on other activities, e.g. in the outdoors;

–          Respond to their narcissistic tendencies in ways that are neither too positive nor rejecting;

–          Do not respond to someone’s narcissistic rages.

Of course, it is helpful to look at our own narcissistic tendencies, and to reduce them by:

–          Monitoring the time that we spend on-line;

–          Monitoring how engrossed we become by the technology;

–          Adopting an “e-waiting period” (i.e. waiting and re-reading a message before sending it, especially when we write it in anger);

–          Decreasing the use of personal pronouns (“I”, “me”) in our electronic communication;

–          Consciously increase our empathy for those that we communicate with,  reminding ourselves that behind that screen there is a human being with feelings; and

–          Work harder at improving real friendships rather than ‘virtual’ friendships.

Obsessive-Compulsive behaviours

Smartphones have become for many people an object of obsession. People check their phone constantly regardless of where they are and who they are with: “we have lost some of the common rules of etiquette in the service of constant worldwide connection”. For many people, their mobile devices lead to great anxiety, out of a need to constantly check them.  For example, some people do not go on holidays if they know that they won’t have mobile phone reception.

The author suggests the following ways to deal with “Obsessive-Compulsive iDisorder”:

–          Recognise when you are experiencing anxiety related to your on-line device and take a break (“Rethink” and “Reboot”);

–          “Adjust the volume” on your online connections (“Reconnect”);

–          Put a priority on human contact over electronic contact at every opportunity (“Revitalise”).

Addiction

Internet and other electronic media use can become an addiction when they are grossly overused, and accompanied by symptoms of withdrawal (getting the jitters when not using the media) or tolerance (needing a higher dose to get the same ‘fix’), and when media use interferes significantly with relationships, school, work or other areas of life.

“Internet Addiction” has become such a problem, that it is likely to form a new formal diagnosis, along with recognised disorders such as alcohol dependence, illicit drug use and problem gambling. Other technology-related pastimes can also become addictive, including text messaging, social networking and computer games.

Standard psychological interventions for addictions do not appear to be sufficient to manage this problem. The book provides the following recommendations:

–          Replace technology-based activities with healthy activities that provide novel and interesting stimulation, e.g.: spending time outside, gardening, reading a good book;

–          Set alarms to remind you when it is time to log off and do something else;

–          Set a schedule for being online and offline;

–          Avoid applications that the ‘addict’ has problems with, e.g. online chatting;

–          Remind yourself of the good and bad of the internet;

–          Examine what activities are lost due to excessive internet use;

–          Try support groups and family therapy if necessary.

Mood problems

Excessive media use can lead to loneliness and depression, and in some cases it can involve users so much, that they develop frantic, manic-type behaviours. Researchers have described a particular phenomenon called emotional contagion, where the mood of a particular song or movie can affect the mood other people quite drastically. Also, social networking sites such as Facebook has been shown to lead to problematic interactions that has precipitated depression and even suicide.

Ways to combat depressive or manic iDisorder include:

–          Avoid being immersed in technology so much that you lose a perspective of real life. Monitor your media use (e.g. by keeping a chart). How much are you communicating on-line versus in real life? How much are you multitasking? Monitor how your mood varies according to your electronic media use.

–          Guard against emotional contagion by being mindful of the negative or depressing messages that you are getting. Monitor the mood of your online communication. Limit contact with anyone who is emotionally contagious.

–          If you are feeling depressed, spend more time with people you consider real friends, limiting contact with online acquaintances with whom you do not feel a real connection with. Empathy and support can be shared in the online world, so do not altogether eliminate on-line communication if that is where the good support is coming from.

–          Pay attention to signs of childhood depression. Monitor the use of all technology and media for children. Practice co-viewing and discuss what is being watched. Discourage the use of technologies in the children’s bedrooms. Set rules around what, how much and with whom the child is with on-line.

–          Prioritise the ritual of eating meals together; reclaim the sanctity of the family dinner. Keep it at a duration that is not too long or too short: e.g. 45 minutes. Turn off all electronic media at the beginning of the meal, including the parents’ mobile phones. Let the children talk about their use of technology: use this opportunity to gather information and avoid discipline or critique. Discuss good on-line practices and etiquette.

–          Look out for distortions in your child’s thinking patterns, e.g. all-or-nothing thinking (“I didn’t get the job and I will never get a job”) and magnification (“Jean unfriended me. Nobody likes me at all and I have no friends”). Gently help your child confront those thoughts with logical reasoning.

–          Discourage too much multitasking on the screen to minimise the sensory overload that may lead to manic-type behaviour.

The book discusses several other “iDisorders”, including ADHD, safety and communication problems, physical problems, body image problems, and perceptual abnormalities. These, God-willing, will be discussed in next month’s article.


[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/feb/14/information-overload-research. Accessed Dec 16 2012.

[2] Rosen L, Cheever NA, Carrier LM. iDisorder: Understanding our obsession with technology and overcoming its hold on us. New York: Palgrave MacMillan; 2012.

Addicted to Electronic Gadgets

iDisorder: Part 2

By Fr George Liangas

Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist

Assistant priest, St Nectarios Church, Burwood, NSW

 St Nectarios Burwood03

My husband and I used to go to the movies and out to dinner with friends every weekend. Now he says that he doesn’t really like going out and would rather stay home and “be with me”. But he’s not really doing anything with the kids or me. Instead, he’s always on the computer updating his status and commenting on articles he reads or in one of the dozens of online groups he follows. In just a short time he has gone from Mr Social to Mr Online.

iDisorder, p.123

 

In last month’s issue, we introduced the concept of ‘iDisorders’, as described in Prof Rosen’s book[1]. We described how electronic media can foster narcissism, obsessive-compulsive behaviours, addictions, and mood problems. This month we look at other ‘iDisorders’.

Attention-Deficit

Young people often struggle to focus on their school work and other tasks. Excessive or ill-disciplined use of electronic media can make this struggle a lot worse. Students may seem to be in their computer doing their assignment, but at the flick of a key they may be playing computer games or chatting on-line with their friends. The quantity and quality of their schoolwork can be severely compromised. The problem is not limited to students, as anyone can become distracted by technology. Rosen writes that ADHD can be a disabling disorder, but “our dependence on technology, the 24/7 availability of the Internet, and our constant use of devices makes us all behave as if we have ADHD”.

Steps to avoid Attention-Deficit iDisorder include:

  1. Start with a prioritized task list and stay focused to complete the task.
  2. Carefully select a work area that will minimise potential distractions. Turn off the TV, shut off the computer screen and move the mobile phone out of range.
  3. Establish tech breaks. By checking email and other messages at set times (e.g. for one minute every 15 minutes), it decreases the temptation and preoccupation to do so while you are doing your work.
  4. Learn what distracts your mind and work hard at removing that distraction first, using the tech breaks to decrease preoccupation.
  5. Pay attention to your stress level. Incomplete work leads to stress, so preventing interruption reduces stress. Tell people you communicate with regularly that you are not available for a certain time frame. Also, keep a set of your favourite nature photos and use them to calm your brain, stopping it from incessant task switching.

Social and Communication Problems

Studies have shown that those who use media excessively have less empathy for others; e.g. they show less concern if another person has a problem, and they struggle more to see things from others’ perspective. The researchers conclude that “perhaps it is easier to establish friends and relationships online, but these skills might not translate into smooth social relations in real life”. Also, just like the example at the top of the page, excessive online communication leads to isolation and impaired communication in more important parts of everyday life.

Face-to-face communication is different from most on-line forms of communication in that it is synchronous (it happens in real-time, with immediate reciprocity) and is accompanied by many non-verbal cues (such as body language). We improve our social and communication skills simply by getting lots of practice in real life. For people that have trouble communicating (eg. those with social phobia), electronic media can help by getting them to practice communication in less threatening ways, but then it is important to move on to more synchronous forms of communication.

Excessive Worry about Illness

The internet can be a vast source of information about our health. Looking up health information is one of the commonest uses of the internet. For those that worry a lot about their health, the internet can amplify these worries so that they get out of control. For example, self-diagnosing using on-line information can turn a minor ailment into a fear about the most deadly illness. They trust the impersonal on-line information more than their own doctors! These people end up suffering a lot from depression and anxiety.

Managing excessive health preoccupations includes the following steps:

  1. Recognise that you have the problem.
  2. Seek advice from your doctor rather than websites. If you don’t like your doctor’s diagnosis, get a second opinion.
  3. Understand the credibility of health websites. Learn to filter out information not written by experts.
  4. Do not fall for claims made by commercial companies that are just trying to sell their products.
  5. Reduce general anxiety in other parts of life.
  6. Increase physical exercise.
  7. Unplug: spend more time away from the internet.

Disordered Eating

The prevalence of eating disorders has increased hand-in-hand with the increase in media use. The media very often promotes unrealistically thin female bodies as the ideal. This causes vulnerable young people, especially girls and young women, to be dissatisfied with their bodies, who then go to extremes to attain the ‘perfect’ body shape.

Preventing these problems in our children may include the following:

  1. Ensure that children and teenagers are supervised in their consumption of media. Practice co-viewing, and discuss the messages portrayed in the media, including messages about body size.
  2. Encourage a positive body image by not making fun of or teasing about appearances and by avoiding comments about people’s weight or body type.
  3. Reflect on your own preoccupations about your own weight and body size.

If a young person does signs of an eating disorder, it is important to seek medical and psychological treatment.

Delusions, Hallucinations and Social Avoidance

Even though some research suggests that the internet helps bolster social connections, other research shows the opposite – that media and technology use can cause social withdrawal and isolation. This in turn can lead to developing schizoid disorders: disorders of emotional disconnection from others, of unusual thinking and perceptions. It usually does not lead to full-blown schizophrenia.

Ways to help people in this predicament include:

  1. If you feel someone close to you is becoming emotionally distant, or is becoming suspicious or superstitious, check to see if they are how much they are using electronic media. Talk to them about how it has affected them.
  2. Check to see if they are depressed. If so, encourage them to get professional help.
  3. Help them to unplug and to get involved in other activities.

Sexual Content

Sexting has become a somewhat common occurrence between young people, with serious legal and personal implications. For example, it is easy for these images to be widely disseminated (‘go viral’), e.g. by a disgruntled ex-partner. And yet, our society encourages teens and preteens to engage in this form of behaviour, e.g. by promoting various types of sexting games in top-selling fashion magazines.

Modern media also allow for voyeurism of various kinds (especially of women), and this can become a massive preoccupation for some people. Many adolescents also access pornography, which leads to worse relationships with family and peers, and increased risk of mental illnesses such as depression.

The production of voyeur-fuelling material ultimately leads to the exploitation of women as well as men. Realisation of this may help motivate the voyeur to cease these unsocial pastimes, and to fill their time with other more wholesome pursuits.

Resetting our Brains

There is no doubt that information technology has enhanced our lives. It is also clear that most people can acquire some form of ‘iDisorder’. Our aim should be resist being slaves of technology, but instead harness it in ways to enrich our lives. What is required of us is to reset our brains, to find ways and pastimes that calm rather than overwhelm the brain. Regular exposure to nature, suitable forms of music, reading a book, exercise, being in positive environments, having a rich social life, learning a language or a musical instrument are just some examples. To gain mastery over technology, one needs to be mindful of what is not helpful, and make disciplined decisions to switch off the technology when required to do so.

How can parents best help their children to gain mastery over technology? This will be explored in a future article.


[1] Rosen L, Cheever NA, Carrier LM. iDisorder: Understanding our obsession with technology and overcoming its hold on us. New York: Palgrave MacMillan; 2012.

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