Can we be mindful when we are using the Internet?That is, can we pay attention to the experience using our faculties of concentration, our moral compass and our capacity for empathy? Why does this even matter?
It matters because whether we are teenagers or adults the Internet can absorb vast amounts of our time and energy. It matters if we spend five hours a day posting and liking other people’s posts on Facebook. It matters if the most important thing in our thing in our lives is our FB status or how many friends we have or how many followers have clicked on our selfies. It matters if we lose sight of the values we have in our real lives as we process the vast amount of data that confronts us.
The Internet is here to stay but I believe these are fair questions to ask ourselves and our children. The world is happening all around us and many of its most tragic circumstances are not happening on the Internet. Poverty, famine and disease affect millions on our planet. Random acts of violence disturb the fabric of the universe again and again and we seem unable to stop them from happening. If we choose to spend hours a day on the Internet can we still make it a force for good, that is, a way of combatting the apathy and evil that swirls around us? I believe that we can and I believe that the operative word is mindful.
Mindful, active use of the Internet is distinct from a passive, essentially mindless, response to the myriad of stimuli we encounter. An active approach means that we are fully involved—sifting and discarding irrelevant information, engaging our value system, focusing not merely on self-promotion but responding empathically to others’ successes or predicaments. It means that we can respond in ways that are ethical and, dare I say, moral, to a never-ending stream of information.
A passive approach is quite different and begins to share traits in common with addictive behavior. Addictions share in common a sense of escape–a blotting out of real world problems that seem overwhelming. Using the Internet in this way is surely appropriate some of the time. We all need opportunities to kick back, relax and unwind. But three hours a night before we sleep? Days on the computer when we need to look for a job? At that point our behavior takes on the qualities of an addiction. If we observe that behavior in ourselves or those we love we need to take stock and do something different.
The Internet as a tool for creating and connecting a world community is unprecedented. Its usefulness in building long distance friendships and lines of support is truly amazing. But it means that as participants we must, at least some of the time, be fully present in what we are doing and saying. As with any other important activity we must cultivate concentration, carry along our moral compass and bring our best human selves into the experience.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.