The Hyper-Connected Generation: Signs of the Times

Sep 24, 2013

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Today's Yoof

This month the news media reported that the first inpatient hospital-based treatment program for internet addiction has been created! Last month, Bill O’Reilly’s Talking Points segment contained a survey: “Are you Addicted to Technology?” The segment noted some recent statistics about the impact of technology in our lives. There were several questions offered to help one understand if one has problematic behavior with regard to living in our technology-based world. Some of those were: Do you spend more than two hours a day on the net? Do you use computers/technological devices for purposes that you don't want anyone else to know about? Would you be ashamed if other people knew what you were doing in cyberspace? Are you thinking about the Internet when you're not using it? Do you talk to strangers on the net? If you've answered yes to any of those questions, there might be a problem.

In 2006 a Stanford University’s School of Medicine survey concluded that nearly one in eight Americans suffers from at least one sign of "problematic Internet use." Given apps were not even around then, I can only imagine how outdated that statistic might be in 2013. The “net” of the situation, no pun intended, is that technology is a mechanism that serves to shape our behavior. Technology such as computers, smartphones, and tablets deliver a constant barrage of content that demands our attention. Texts, social media’s Facebook, Instagram,Twitter, and e-mail (that was so yesterday!) are stimuli that direct our attention and create an invitation for action. Remember Pavlov’s dog when the bell rang? Are we any different? The bell rings and we have a stimulus response. Our relationship with our technological devices is classical conditioning behavior of “stimulus-and-response” at its finest.

The problem with technology among our youth is even more concerning. In 2006, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey reported that middle and high school children were spending an average of 6.5 hours connected to a computer or some other electronic device daily. Twenty-five percent of those children are using several types of media at once. The study also found that when students are studying, two-thirds of the time they are doing something else. This is the “always-on” society. The brain never rests, which creates a pattern of fast-twitch brain switching. Is it any wonder ADHD has been considered overdiagnosed? We are conditioning our brains for hyperswitch attention, so paying attention in the real world becomes boring and slow.

Beyond the time factor and the brain conditioning, there is the problematic content that one can find on the internet. The content is akin to the wild, wild West, especially for the youngsters among us. Would you let your child go to the Red Light District in Amsterdam, let alone all by themselves? Would you let them talk to strangers? It happens every day in the land of technology. Children need help navigating their choices until they are old enough to choose appropriately. They need help with time limits, content, and social graces outside of the technological world. Why wouldn’t we think they need help in the land of technology?

As a therapist who helps families develop healthy communication and technology habits, I recommend parents set the tone, expectation, modeling and communication regarding technology in the family environment. Just as we don’t leave liquor around without family rules and expectations, and appropriate modeling, we shouldn’t leave technology around without rules and expectations for use, either. Parents need to set the rules and structure, and model appropriate behavior for the younger generation.  As computers filtered into our life, this didn’t really seem to be necessary. As a therapist, and a parent, I know children do better with expectations and following guidelines rather than having privileges revoked that they feel they have been given.

In my clinical role, I see people who have had negative consequences as a result of their internet behavior. Sometimes inpatient treatment becomes a necessary option to consider when one cannot keep oneself safe from excess or cannot hold the structure of daily living. If we know what the structure of daily living is from the outset (i.e. when to brush our teeth, eat, go to work and school), we do better observing the structure. Parents, and products, that help maintain structure for technology use, can service the development of healthy habits.