There is great optimism: the digital revolution heralds a utopian, democratic, postmodern world where we are all connected, resourced, empowered, heard, transparent, authentic and free to be who we are. There was even a theory that the internet might flatten a chronically unlevel playing field, though perhaps only for those that have a smart phone and good wifi.
There is great pessimism: we’re entering a dystopian, virtual world where a person is reduced to an online profile to be swiped left or right, texts replace conversation, virtual friends replace real ones, “likes” replace activism, emoticons replace emotions (except for anxiety—lots more anxiety). Human intelligence outsourced to machines, vast amounts of time wasted, attention spans worse than a goldfish, retrograde evolution. We plug into a world wide web and watch helplessly as our humanity drains away.
To stay alive, and truly connected, we sometimes have to unplug.
One story this week highlights the internet as a problem for our inner worlds; another explores its claims to be a solution:
Parent Zone’s report, The Perfect Generation: Is the Internet Undermining Young People's Mental Health?, contains the results of a survey of teachers and teenagers. Among the findings:
• 44% of teachers think the internet is bad for young people’s mental health, compared to 28% of young people.
• 91% of teachers believe the frequency of mental health issues among pupils is increasing.
• Of these issues, schools report stress and anxiety (95%), depression (70%) and self-harm (66%) as the most common issues amongst pupils.
• 84% of schools say they do not have adequate resources to deal with pupils’ mental health issues.
Vicki Shotbolt, CEO of Parent Zone, says: “The internet has destroyed any notions we might have had about keeping some things away from children until they were ‘old enough to cope’.
“All of the indicators suggest that the prevalence of mental health problems and the severity of those problems are increasing. Some people are linking the internet to the increase.”
The report concludes that new problems require new solutions, that schools need much better resources for responding to mental health issues, and that tech companies “should recognise both their duty of care and their unique opportunity to create online spaces that are positive and inspiring.”
Meanwhile, in “I tried to fix my mental health on the internet,” anxiety sufferer Joe Madden made himself a human guinea pig to see if computers could replace counsellors, subjecting himself to three varieties of e-help: text-based, social media and video-conference.
Writes Madden (for the BBC): “Could e-counselling be the answer to the mental health issues escalating amongst under-30s? With cuts to mental health services really starting to bite, digitised therapy could be just the ticket for young adults who already filter nearly every aspect of their lives – friends, work, sex, entertainment – through a screen.”
He concludes: “E-counselling still feels like it's finding its feet: there are useful tools out there for the mild-to-medium prang-brained, but, as yet, no killer app that feels destined to reinvent mental health care for the hashtag age. What form might that ingenious wonder app take? No idea. If I knew that, I'd be off making it, instead of here, recklessly toying with my mental well-being for your half-distracted amusement.”
In “The psychodynamics of social networking,” therapist Aaron Balick quotes Kranzberg’s First Law of Technology: it is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.
Concludes Balick, “The need to relate has not changed. The need to recognise and be recognised has not changed. The need to seek and be sought has not been altered. The architecture, however, of the ways we do all these fundamental things that ake us human has indeed changed, and that may be changing us.”
We are increasingly addicted to our “electronic cocaine” and sometimes we must unplug, disconnect, such that we might return again to the real connections, the ones that are a primary human need—connections with self, with others, with nature.
Traditional therapy, as old as the hills, remains untouched by technology, and untouchable. Two people sit in a quiet, spare room. One is there to serve the other. If all goes well the encounter facilitates acceptance, change and growth. For the better. It is not a cure, for there is no cure for life. But it helps.
Therapy is a place where you can become who you want to be—who you are meant to be. Where you can learn to live—if not the life you imagined, then the life that has been waiting for you all along.