Concern about the Internet and its effect, particularly on children, is everywhere. TIME (August 29, 2016) features an article on its cover about how we are losing the Internet to a culture of hate. What began as an innovative way to democratize communication on a global level has been infiltrated by “trolls” who preach a language of racism and misogyny. Joel Stein, the author of the TIME article identifies, correctly I believe, “an online disinhibition effect, in which factors like anonymity, invisibility, a lack of authority and not communicating in real time strip away the mores society spent millennia building.” (p.28)
A survey of 2,002 third through twelfth-grade students by the Kaiser Family Foundation has provided data both on the prevalence of computer use among children and its starting increase from 1999 to 2009. (Rideout, V.J., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. (2010).Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds: Kaiser Family Foundation Study Report. Menlo Park, California: Henry J. Kaiser Family) The study found that video game use has increased from 26 minutes daily in 1999 to 1:13 hours in 2009. The dramatic upsurge has been attributed to the availability of cell phones and other hand-held gaming devices. In 2009 cell phones were owned by 31% of 8-10 year-olds; 69% of 11-14 year-olds and 85% of 15-18 year-olds. Cell phones have also provided convenient ways to give and receive photos.
It is a new type of communication. It is embraced by our young people and, most emphatically, it is here to stay! Older generations have despaired of wayward youth since the time of Plato. It remains a familiar cycle in which the young then become the old and bemoan the fate of civilization just as their forbears did. This time, however, it may be a bit different. The digital age poses a new set of problems—a potentially unbridgeable gap between old and young. For one thing, it changes the power dynamic. The elders are no longer wiser at least when it comes to technology. I go to my 8-year-old grandson for computer help. My six-year-old granddaughter is hard-pressed not to laugh at my ineptitude in entering addresses into my cell phone.
Another new and very significant issue is that the Internet has changed the way we communicate. Children can interact freely with a wide range of people without any interference from parents. Teens have been sullen and silent forever but hand-held devices have taken their lack of communication to a new level. I have had a number of teens in my office who were virtually isolated from parents and family and sometimes from the outside world—appearing only for food and money.
So the question remains: What do we do? My friend and colleague, Brenda Lovegrove Lepisto, has provided an excellent example of communicating with a sullen and unresponsive teen. (All Wired Up: Tweens, Teens, Technology and Treatment. Journal of Infant Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy. January 2013) The incident occurred in a therapy session but the method can certainly be adopted to a parenting situation. The 14-year-old patient whom I shall call Alice was brought in by her parents because she was totally unresponsive to household rules and was spending inordinate amounts of time on Facebook where she was posting vaguely suicidal messages. Weeks of therapy went by in which Dr. Lepistos’ efforts to communicate were met with stares, eye rolls and silence. Alice was also texting frantically all the while. Finally Dr. Lepisto brought her own cell phone into the room and texted her young client. When Alice saw the text she burst out laughing. There followed a productive three-year treatment in which important issues were addressed—mostly by texting!
The point of this example is that if we want to communicate with our children we must learn to speak their language. Next week we will pursue more ideas about how we can enter their brave new world—not as strangers but as friends whose expertise may be outdated but whose wisdom is not.
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.