Monday, January 9, 2012

Technology and Relationships

I’ve been without a computer at home for a week now, and I’m going through serious withdrawal! I know it’s only for two weeks, while my computer is in the shop, and I can check email and do other simple things on other devices, but I still can’t wait to get my computer back. Nevertheless, it provides a useful opportunity to reflect on the ever-expanding role technology plays in our lives.

Most of us spend most of our time linked to technology. If we’re not actively using an electronic device, we have our cell phones close at hand, promising instant access to friends and family, information, and entertainment. Sure, we can live without that kind of instant access, but we’d rather not. Sometimes it’s just a matter of convenience: it’s easier to make decisions about…well, anything really…if you have all the information at your fingertips. For example, we can now go shopping at one store and simultaneously find out what the prices are at competing stores.

Other times, our tie to technology seems more than a matter of convenience. A telltale sign that our technology has a greater significance is the anxiety one feels when separated from it. This anxiety isn’t really explained by the loss of convenience. I think it points instead to technology’s role as a transitional object - a stand-in for important relationships in our lives. Because we use technology to connect with other people in “real time,” the technology itself comes to symbolize the relationships. Even when we’re not actively connecting with someone, we may be able to see their online “presence” (e.g., the little colored dots that show up next to the names of friends/contacts on facebook, email programs, etc), reassuring us that we are in fact still connected.

Technology as a stand-in for relationships can be helpful and healthy, when (like traditional transitional objects) it is a temporary placeholder for actual relationships with real people we interact with in person. It becomes problematic when it instead becomes either a replacement for real relationships, or gets in the way of real relationships (for example, my pet peeve, people busily text message other people instead of interacting with the person they’re actually “spending time” with).

Perhaps the most likely people to have technology take on an unhealthy role in their lives are the ones who already struggle with relationships – people who are socially awkward, have been bullied or teased, are isolated/withdrawn, have social anxiety, agoraphobia, or are on the autism spectrum. In other words, many of the people we see for therapy.

I’d argue that part of our role as therapists is to assess our clients’ use of technology, to determine whether it is a healthy addition to their lives, or an attempt to replace the need we all have for real human contact. The challenge becomes bridging the gap from technology to real, human interaction, for those who struggle with the latter. Therapy itself, as a face-to-face human relationship, is a good start. Group therapy or support groups may be even better. Beyond that, it’s a matter of encouraging baby steps toward socialization – speaking to the cashier at the supermarket, calling the theater to ask for show times (yes, you could just get them on your phone, but call just for the practice!), ordering at a restaurant, etc.

How do you think bout people’s use of technology (your own and your clients)? How do you encourage more socialization when your clients prefer to hide behind technology?

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