Over the last several months I’ve become aware that the practice of psychotherapy has expanded beyond the confines of the treatment room and into the ethers of cyberspace. No longer does my relationship with my patients consist of just the patient and me. We now are joined electronically with a host of others who are not physically present with us. Here are two examples from my clinical practice to illustrate this point.
Mark is a 42 year-old banker who came into session distraught over being “de-friended” by a woman with whom he terminated a short, but intense relationship. Several weeks earlier we had processed his emotions around the breakup and, in my opinion, had for the most part resolved his conflicts. Somehow this act of kicking him out of her social network cut him more deeply then the actual break-up itself and he found himself in a downward spiral.
Eliza is a 38 year-old stylist who has a rather tortured relationship with her mother. Hardly a session goes by where she doesn’t bring her mother into the session through the text messages she keeps on her phone. “You’re not going to believe what she said to me this week,” the patient huffs before pulling out her phone and delving deep into her resentments.
To be quite honest, I’m not sure what to make of these cyber situations. One the one hand, they are incredibly valuable. They enable the patient to reconnect with their emotions and represent the reality of the world in which they live. On the other hand, they hold the potential to distract the patient from their own personal experience and may indicate the presence of what researchers have labeled an Internet addiction.
Yes, that’s right. To the long list of things to which we can find ourselves addicted, we can now add an addiction to the Internet. For many of you, this comes as no surprise. As a result of our constant “connectivity”, we live in a world where people are not fully present in it. Rather than being where they are, many of us are obsessed with where we are being texted and emailed.
So what constitutes an Internet addiction? The researchers who have looked at this phenomenon base their definitions on other addictions that do not involve taking a substance like alcohol or drugs. These “non-ingestion” addictions include addictions to activities like shopping, gambling, video games and sex. In determining whether a person is addicted to the Internet, researchers look for the following six criteria:
- Significance: The Internet has become the central feature in a person’s life and dominates it.
- Mood Regulation: The Internet is used to change a person’s mood. When people are anxious or sad, they go to their electronic device to change how they feel.
- Tolerance: The Internet takes up more and more of a person’s time.
- Withdraw: When the person is not connected to the Internet they begin to feel anxious and uncomfortable.
- Isolation: The person’s use of the Internet begins to isolate them from other human beings.
- Reversion: After attempting to stop, the person reverts back to the same level of use or increases their level of use.
It’s unfortunate that a tool that can add such value to our lives holds the potential to detract from it. The Internet and the extraordinary content contained therein enhance our lives in so many ways. From the ability to learn about a wide variety of topics (via the Oz Blog) to the opportunity to connect with long lost family and friends, the Internet can help us heal and grow.
At the same time the Internet holds the power to limit our human experience and growth. By taking us out of our relationships with other human beings, the Internet can become yet another destructive addiction. Human beings are meant to live in relationship to other human beings, not electronic devices. We must mindfully use the Internet in ways that enhance our human relationships- not substitute for them.