I read something really good today over on BrainPickings, something I aim to explain to most of my clients, but also something that defines my personal networks:
“We reflexively blame on the Internet our corrosive compulsion for doing at the cost of being, forgetting that every technology is a symptom and not, or at least not at first, a cause of our desires and pathologies. Our intentions are the basic infrastructure of our lives, out of which all of our inventions and actions arise. Any real relief from our self-inflicted maladies, therefore, must come not from combatting the symptoms but from inquiring into and rewiring the causes that have tilted the human spirit toward those pathologies”
More often than not my clients ask me to support them with “Internet addiction”, “Fortnight obsession” or other digital wellbeing concerns. Most of which in the end can be narrowed down to behaviours connected to our basic human needs – the need to avoid feeling lonely, the need to have fun, the need to spend quality time together or simply rest after a long day of stressful work. Some of those statements are overused and should not be taken, nor mentioned lightly. I think they should really be explored in more details with our actual context in mind. So today I would like to start by having a look at the three most common things I hear from my clients and friends. Here we go!
- Internet addiction or in other words obsessive, automatic, prolonged time online can often be used lightly. Everyone seems to have it nowadays, but what does it really mean? It is generally a very overused term but in some cases can stand for an actual problem. Spending a disproportionate time online is often a combined result of our inner need for genuine human connection and life in the world which is increasingly lonely. So it’s worth asking yourself some honest questions: why am I doing this? what is missing? what do I gain from going online? and finally: does it actually help? do I feel better? If you feel that going online does bother you it is really worth exploring the real, deep reasons for your concerns. Does it affect your health, work and relationships? It’s really worth exploring all those questions and if in doubt, having a chat with your GP. The Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) was now added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) (the bible of official mental health conditions) but with a clear note that it is still not fully confirmed – a lot of research is needed to fully confirm it as a condition. I would recommend this article which explains how it is measured and diagnosed at the moment, but also what challenges lie ahead of us in pinning down the exact impact of the Internet of our mental health. Example: a single, middle-aged, financially independent and fairly fulfilled woman asked me once for a tip on not checking her emails on her mobile first thing in the morning. When we explored her morning routine in more detail something very sad became apparent (she said it but I had to reflect it back at her, she was not even aware of stating her own truth): she was lonely and hated the feeling of waking up in bed alone. In the end, she decided to get a dog to keep her company and tackle her sense of loneliness and stopped checking her phone in the morning.
- Fortnight/Minecraft/(any other game)+ obsession is the first thing I hear from many parents or partners of regular gamers, but what does it really mean? Google defines obsession as “an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind.” but let’s just very quickly look at its synonyms: “fixation, ruling/consuming passion, passion, mania, idée fixe, compulsion, preoccupation, enthusiasm, infatuation, addiction,..” As you can see some of those words are indeed negative, but what would happen if we were to replace the word with some positives? What if our child has a “Minecraft passion”? What if our partner has a “preoccupation with playing Call of Duty”? Does this term also describe their actual feelings and state of mind? In some cases, gamers might and will overuse their time online and that habit might and will affect their health, real-life performance and quality of their relationships. But in other cases, in most cases, really, their gaming habits will be a result of something fairly easy to explain: the need to connect with peers (since we cannot really hang out in the street anymore and the youth clubs are shutting down); the need to rest after long day of work/school – simply a quick way to relax or maybe simply wanting to have some fun? Is that really so bad? I would like to add something to this mix: each situation is unique but our personal feelings about other people’s gaming habits might reflect our own issues or needs to. So I would recommend asking ourselves some questions too: am I missing this person? do I want to spend more quality time with them? do I want to join in and feel excluded? do I judge them without having a chat about it? and finally: if we did not have games in our lives, what would be our alternatives? It’s also worth noting that Internet Gaming Disorder is defined in DSM-V but it is also mentioned “that gaming must cause “significant impairment or distress” in several aspects of a person’s life.” You can check the proposed symptoms of the actual disorder but it is still an area that requires a lot of research. Gaming disorder has been also listed last autumn by WHO so you can find more information about it here. It’s worth having a chat with your GP if you are concerned. Example: I worked with a dad who initially was so worried about his son’s “Minecraft obsession” that he decided to ban him from the game for the entire summer holidays. Needless to say, this particular idea backfired. The boy was struggling with fitting in any way and was left with even more reasons to be bullied and misbehave. We have worked with both dad and his son on creative ways of using the game to build, invent and present ideas. During that process, dad learned how the game works and how it can be used for fun, for creative ideas but also for studies (of maths, science or even hand-writing). At the end of our work both dad and son shared the same laptop and both came up with new ideas for creative use of Minecraft. Both found a way to talk to each other and collaborate – within and outside of the game.
- The negative impact of screen time on our health is a myth and after 15 editions of Safer Internet Day, we are finally openly talking about it with a bit more grounded and academic context. My son is 13 and through his entire life, he was told by his teachers, health professionals and other adults that spending the time of screens has a detrimental effect on his health. Despite the fact that we did not even have good, extensive research into this topic (all but impact of TV screens, to be honest), we have been telling our children and ourselves that screens are simply bad. Here in the UK that exaggeration became officially demystified this January by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health: “The evidence base for a direct ‘toxic’ effect of screen time is contested, and the evidence of harm is often overstated. The majority of the literature that does exist looks only at television screen time.
Evidenceis weak for a threshold to guide children and parents to the appropriate level of screen time, and we are unable to recommend a cut-off for children’s screen time overall. Many of the apparent connections between screen time and adverse effects may be mediated by lost opportunities for positive activities (socialising, exercise, sleep) that are displaced by screen time.” We now need to admit that most of us were wrong: it is not the actual screen time that can be damaging, but lack of movement, sleep or human connection. If used wisely and negotiated with our children in the context of its value and benefits for the family, screen time can actually be educational, relaxing and bonding. There is also another danger in making this assumption: by focussing on the mere technology of screens we are moving away from discussing the reasons behind our activities, feelings evoked by specific online activities and their meaning to us individually and as a group. It is a huge simplification to look at our screen time – we really have to think about the why behind our time on screens. Example: I met a mum recently who was worried about the screentime of her son so she decided to introduce a “no screens in the bedroom before bedtime” rule. The rule was discussed together so that her son and all other members of the family could have their opinions expressed. It was agreed that like with all other house rules, everyone would follow it. This small, but collaborative change to their habits improved the quality of everyone’s sleep but also opened up a channel for discussion around other areas of technology used in the house. Let’s face it, screens are really not the next big thing;)
I hope this very short introduction to the core three questions I am working with nowadays will provide a bit of context to how complex the digital wellbeing of our lives can be. Please remember that the research in this area is still new, but already substantial. We now know that our digital activities are complex and there is not one size fits all solution. We need to explore our motivations, impact of our activities on our lives and keep having honest conversations to nurture our relationships: with each other and with ourselves as well.
(Please note: these are my experiences and my understanding of the above-mentioned topics, if you have other experiences, I would love to hear from you – please leave a comment!)