Monday, December 2, 2013
The Toxic Relationship: Technology and Autism
Parent Education Seminar
Christopher Mulligan LCSW
The Relationship Between Technology and Autism
It is widely held computer literacy skills are critically important for children, teens, and young adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (hereafter ASD). Parents of young children are informed by a wide variety of autism specialists that school achievement and achievement in the 21st century workplace is dependent upon mastering computer skills.
Although it is undeniable 21st century education and employment requires some degree of competency in computer literacy, the importance of computer literacy in the lives of autistic children and teens has been vastly overstated. More importantly, the negative impact on cognitive, emotional, social development associated with the use of computers (and technology in general) is vastly understated or ignored altogether within the community of autism specialists.
Why Technology is Toxic for the ASD Brain
International research examining the relationship between technology and autism is showing that the enormous amounts of attention consumed through engagement with technology -- whether it be computer database searches, Facebook, watching YouTube videos, or video gaming – blocks the brain’s capacity to develop new mental processes which, in turn, exacerbates the core deficits of ASD: innovating, improvising, reflecting, anticipating, evaluating fuzzy logic, synthesizing contextual processing, insight, and empathy.
While some technologies promote higher level thinking, the majority of technology used by children and teens with ASD impedes cognitive and social development. Studies have shown that early exposure to TV, DVD/videos, video gaming, and the internet result in the brain “pruning” connections in the frontal cortex of the brain.
The ASD child’s brain develops increasingly complex and sophisticated mental processes in relationship to the environment and how they spend their time. If a child with ASD is repetitively exposed to the intense stimulation of technology, their brain efficiently “short circuits” or “prunes” neural connections in the frontal cortex of the brain
Exposure to technology can result in the loss of executive functioning, impulse control, and critical thinking -- three necessary elements for learning. Technology exposure also results in the loss of imagination and creativity, two mental processes necessary for learning and integral for eventual success and survival in increasingly competitive work environments.
Termed “The Learning Paradox,” early use of technology by ASD children actually serves to increase deficits in joint attention, thereby decreasing the ability to be successful learners in adulthood. Research is also showing that early exposure to technology changes brain structure, chemistry, and function in areas associated with addiction. The younger the child is, and the more intense the exposure to technology, the more prone that child will be to addiction.
Research in the United States and Europe has found that youth with ASD are likely to prefer computer mediated communication over face-to-face communication due to the reduced complexity of screen-based social interaction. The absence of nonverbal communication simplifies the amount of information required to communicate. Unfortunately, youth with ASD show a much higher risk of developing compulsive Internet use than youth without ASD and report higher rates of loneliness and depression.
The correlation between computer and videogame use and depression is documented in multiple research studies in United States, Western Europe, Korea, and China. Although it is unclear whether compulsive use of the computer and/or video gaming produces depression or individuals suffering from depression are more likely to engage in compulsive use of the computer and/or video gaming, it is clear that there is a strong relationship between increased levels of depression and compulsive use of technology. At the very least, technology does not improve the mood and overall social functioning of teens with ASD and very likely exacerbates an underlying vulnerability to depression and loneliness.
Parents and educators who think that early exposure to technology is necessary for eventual success in our technological world need to take an informed and critical look at the real cost of exposure to technology. This seminar will review current research on the relationship between autism and technology and provide parents with a skills and strategies to protect their children from toxic exposure to technology.
For more information on this seminar contact Christopher Mulligan LCSW at 310-2871640.
Monday, November 11, 2013
The Loss of Self-Reflection in a Networked Life
I can vividly recall lying in my bed at night, during middle school, thinking through the events of the day, scrolling through images and pieces of conversations. I recall enjoying this time alone, in the dark. I recall thinking, contemplating, remembering up until the point I drifted off into sleep. There was something deeply relaxing and fulfilling about this private time. It was in the quiet of the night that I could consider ideas, question feelings, let loose fantasies in complete privacy. I had the opportunity to work out and work through embarrassing encounters with friends, confusion about my feelings, wonder about a possible romantic partner, or fantasize about playing alongside Jerry West, wearing Laker purple and gold.
For many 21st century teens, the quiet of lying in bed is interrupted by the sound of a text coming through their smart phone or the sound of an instant message arriving on their laptop or desktop. Today's youth are “networked “at all times of the day and night. Many teens experience fear, even panic, if they are separated from their web of contacts/friends within their smart phone, Facebook page, or e-mail list.
The constant opportunity for communication seems to have the unfortunate consequence of decreasing opportunities to be alone and, in the experience of being alone, the expansion of self-awareness. The process of being in a contemplative state, a focused state of personal reflection about one's identity, is diminished by always being tethered electronically to one's peer group (and or family).
It is the expectation of today's youth (and adults, for that matter) they will be able to reach peers twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. The expectation of connection seems to have created an aversion to being alone, simply because being alone is so unfamiliar. Rather than see periods of quiet as opportunities for recharging, contemplation and reflection, quiet is experienced as alien and, because it is alien, as uncertain and frightening.
In William Deresiewicz’s essay “The End of Solitude,” he writes: “So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone.” He goes on to say: “Young people today seem to have no desire for solitude, have never heard of it, can't imagine why it would be worth having. In fact, their use of technology -- or, to be fair, our use of technology -- seems to involve a constant effort to stave off the possibility of solitude, a continuous attempt, as we sit alone at our computers, to maintain the imaginative presence of others.”
The implication of this essay is the more teens try to keep aloneness at a distance, the less they will be able to deal with being alone and the more terrifying aloneness will become. Because of this fear the “I generation” may lose the ability to be still or idle and, therefore, the capacity for solitude. And if solitude is gone, what exactly does this loss involve? What is at stake? Well, the ability for introspection, the capacity to examine the self, to discover hidden or nascent parts of the self. Deresiewicz writes: “But no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude.”
As Sherry Turkle points out in her book Alone Together, in addition to the fear of being alone and the loss of the opportunity for contemplation, when today's youth experience an uncomfortable feeling, they can fire off multiple texts immediately to gain support and validation. According to Turkle, the teen of today has little time or patience to sift or sort through their feelings. As feelings emerge, their first response is to reach out and share the feeling, achieving clarification and validation through a peers’ “texted” response. Turkle says one can make the case that for today's youth a feeling isn't truly “real” until it is communicated – which means texted or posted.
Another important dimension of today's youth is the messages that are sent via text or Facebook, must be brief and tailored for the consumption of an audience -- not for one' private consumption or process of reflection. Through this type of writing, it seems fair to suggest the self is reduced and diminished. Whenever teens begin to write, they “size up” their thoughts in terms length of “text” or “post” and public perception. They do not have the luxury of time to first rehearse what they want to say, to investigate their own private ideas and feelings, precisely because technology requires immediate, synchronous, communication.
The “always on” and constantly networked youth has little need or capacity to contemplate their lives because they are never truly alone. And, when they do express themselves, they are focused on tailoring and revising their thoughts with an audience in mind. The reality is, this type of communication decreases and, perhaps erodes, the circuitry in the brain responsible for self-reflection and contemplation.
It has been noted by Gary Small, M.D., that the high-tech revolution places teens in what he calls a “state of continuous partial attention.” This means teens are constantly keeping tabs on multiple activities without fully focusing on any one subject/activity/person at a time. Small says continuous partial attention ultimately places teens’ brains in a heightened state of stress, precisely because they do not have the time to reflect, contemplate, or make thoughtful decisions. They exist in an “alert state,” always waiting for a new contact or new information to come in through whatever technological device they are using.
Small argues the teenager’s brain was not made to maintain this kind of connection for extended periods. He warns that after endless hours of digital connectivity, the brain begins to strain. In this stressed state, the brain secretes cortisol and adrenaline, which can eventually lead to impaired cognition and altered mood, such as depression. Small also suggests a much more disturbing possibility: the fully networked brain may be permanently rewired, thus ending the capacity for contemplation, reflection, solitary moments.
As I write this blog, I am conscious of the obvious nostalgia, perhaps even romanticizing, a time long gone by. Perhaps the networked teen will experience an evolution in thinking and communication, rather than a regression or loss. Perhaps my concern for the loss of time for quiet contemplation minimizes the extraordinary opportunities for connection afforded through the technological modes of communication. Perhaps so.
But, I doubt it. One of the most important tasks of adolescents and young adulthood is the development of self-awareness. Self-awareness evolves through quiet moments of contemplation. Self-awareness grows through confusion and uncertainty about one's own thoughts, ideas, values, and feelings. If we can “text” a feeling before we are clear about what feeling we are having, we are deprived of the opportunity to deeply experience feelings, to turn them inside out, to connect our feelings and life choices.
So, what is the solution, if the networked teen is being deprived of the opportunity to develop self-awareness? Should parents step in and require teens to turn off their phones and computers? Should parents require teens to spend time journaling, reading, drawing, or having face-to-face conversations? Assuming parents did take on this responsibility, this mission to save the capacity for self-reflection and self-awareness, would any teen listen? Probably not.
Herein lies a fundamental decision in parenting today's “networked” youth: should the opportunity for deep reflection and contemplation be a requirement of family life? And, if so, what would this mean? What would it look like?
The 21st century, technologically savvy and connected teen, needs stewardship and guidance from his/her parent. Parents need to set firm and compassionate limits on access to technology. Reading, drawing, journaling, travel, exercise, outings, and face-to-face communication need to be priorities for the family.
Then the questions arises: is today's “networked” parent, who is very likely as engaged and as distracted by technology as their teen, truly interested in preserving contemplation, reflection, self-awareness, and above all moments of solitude and quiet?
Sadly, it may very well be that the power of multiple technological connections through multiple types of media have overwhelmed parental priorities, and thus parents do not have the time, the patience, the endurance, to fight the good fight, to hold onto the value of contemplation, self-reflection, and above all, self-knowledge.
Perhaps the best course of action is for parents to unplug from their network life a day or two a week and, in so doing, invite their children into experiences of a contemplative, interconnected, quiet life.
I will give it a try and get back to you… Via another blog, of course.
Christopher Mulligan LCSW
Sunday, October 6, 2013
Sunday, September 22, 2013
What’s Wrong with Porn?
My interview with Wendy Maltz LCSW
I recently had the opportunity to interview Wendy Maltz LCSW, co-author (with her husband Larry Maltz LCSW) of The Porn Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography, one of the most informative and thought-provoking books I have read on the topic of pornography. Over the past year, I have given considerable thought to creating a curriculum for teens that would provide an open and honest appraisal of the risks and rewards or cost and benefits of exposure to online or cyber pornography.
Since 2005 I have worked with adult sex addicts and through this work it is clear to me cyber pornography creates more problems than any other behavior, including sex with prostitutes, exhibitionism, voyeurism, and sex with multiple/anonymous partners. Cyber pornography is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week (home, work, or any place with Wi-Fi connection) and can be accessed without any financial cost. When combined with compulsive masturbation, cyber pornography can produce serious and long term problems in psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being. As would follow, the relapse rate with cyber porn addicts far exceeds the relapse rate related to any other sexually compulsive behavior.
In my clinical work with adult cyber porn addicts a consistent story emerged: exposure to pornography began as early as childhood and certainly by adolescence. The vast majority of my clients said they believe their addiction began with their first exposure to pornography, particularly if that first exposure was online. The intensity and variety of online pornography provides a degree of sexual stimulation that is simply impossible to match in any other sexual context.
As a result of my work with adult sex addicts, it became clear to me that there should be cyber porn education, prevention, and treatment for teens. With this topic in mind, I asked Wendy Maltz how she would construct a sex education curriculum for teens that specifically addressed cyber pornography. I began the interview by asking Wendy what parents should do to help protect children from the potential lifelong damage produced by cyber pornography.
Wendy first explained it is vitally important for parents to engage in an open and honest conversation with children about the way sex is presented in the media. She believes parents need to think about what type of sexual messages are being endorsed within the media, which includes television, music, film, and online pornography. Parents then need to talk to their children about what they are seeing in order to create critical thinking skills. For Wendy the central challenge for parents is to empower their children to take a critical stance towards sexual content in media rather than become passive consumers.
Wendy encourages parents to examine what type of sexual content (and stimulation) is being introduced into their child's psychological and biological “systems,” in the same way they discuss eating habits, the use of drugs and alcohol, and smoking. By beginning a process of sexual media education within the family at an early age, children can develop a comfort level and sense of trust in talking about sexual behavior with their parents, which is crucial for providing parental guidance. If both child and parent feel unsure, anxious, and fearful about the discussion of healthy sexual behavior, more than likely they will have great difficulty addressing the complicated issues presented by cyber pornography.
When I asked Wendy what she would recommend parents regarding cyber porn specifically, she said the message that needs to be related is that porn, although exciting and entertaining, poses significant health risks. This conversation needs to happen in a way where the parent is not shaming their teen for looking at porn or attempting to provoke a guilt response. Parents need to explain, in a way that avoids lecturing and moralizing, that the sex presented isn’t healthy sex. The sex portrayed in pornography is distorted as it presents “good” sex as impersonal, cut off from values and feelings, and removes relationship dynamics and consequences.
Again, the purpose of this conversation is inform and empower so that teens will be make positive choices with respect to their “consumption” of sexual content in the media and cyber pornography in particular.
I then asked whether she would recommend parents take the position of banning pornography within the household. Wendy began by saying that although she appreciates there are many different views of cyber pornography (e.g., it’s harmless fun, teens are only curious, porn shows a variety of forms of sexuality, censorship is wrong) and recognizes some teens can manage to engage with cyber porn without significant negative consequences, she would nonetheless recommend parents take the position that porn will not be part of the family’s media diet-- in the same way that a parent would set a limit with respect to drug use, alcohol, smoking, or overeating.
I then turned our discussion to sex education for teens focusing on cyber pornography (middle and high school settings). I posed the question “If given the opportunity to speak to teens, what would you say about cyber pornography? Would you recommend moderation? Abstinence?” In response to this question, Wendy talked about her personal journey through pornography, which began with the perception of pornography as a risk-free source of pleasure and stimulation, to a positive influence on individuals and couples in the context of sex therapy, to a concern about how pornography was affecting individuals and couples, to the belief that pornography represents a true public health risk. Wendy’s journey is described in detail in an article on her website (Out of the Shadows on www.healthysex.com).
Wendy explained teens need to be made aware that cyber pornography can have a destructive effect on the way their brains function that is very similar to the negative impact of drugs such as crack cocaine. Consistent exposure to cyber pornography, particularly when this exposure is combined with masturbation, dramatically increases the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which produces intense and sustained states of pleasure. The pursuit of this pleasurable/euphoric state can shape a teens’ sexual preferences and choices in a way that can permanently reduce (even eliminate) their capacity to experience healthy intimate and passionate sex.
Wendy made the important point that sex is a form of behavioral and emotional conditioning. Every time we have sex certain thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are reinforced by virtue of the pleasure or discomfort we experience during sex. Wendy explained that an orgasm is perhaps the most powerful re-award/reinforcer that exists in all of human experience. Wendy said teens need to understand that the thoughts and feelings they have at the point of orgasm are reinforced and ultimately become hardwired into their perception of sex -- which in turn shapes their sexual needs and preferences. Hence, if a teen is looking at porn at the point of climax, it is the images and messages of pornography that become part of the teen’s understanding of what sex means.
Wendy believes that as a society we are going through a period of experimentation with cyber pornography and this experiment has the potential to change our sexual values and needs and thereby alter our capacity for healthy sex. As we were concluding our, Wendy made the interesting and important observation that what is available to children and teens on the Internet has the potential to produce the type of trauma that we see in victims of sexual abuse. Wendy then wondered whether our society will ever take active and decisive steps to protect youth from online pornography, as we have with smoking and alcohol.
After our interview I began to think about how to frame a sex education for teens that that would include the topic of cyber pornography when Wendy forwarded me an outline of the type of content she would include in a cyber porn sex education curriculum.
Wendy's outline included the following topics:
1) Sex basics and realities (bodies, brains, desires, functioning)
2) How sexual interest begins and is developed and shaped
3) Defining healthy sex
4) The role of sexual pleasure in mating, bonding, love, self-esteem, and healthy communities
5) Sexual rights (in contrast to sexual exploitation)
6) Gender similarities and differences (what does it mean to “be a man” or “be a woman”?)
7) Sexual harm (what are harmful influences and behaviors and why?)
8) Pornography (defining pornography; traits of today's product; the effect of regular/heavy use on the brain; how porn differs from other sexually explicit materials; how content is often sexist/racist and becomes more violent/extreme; what pornography does not show/teach; the benefits/rewards of looking at porn; risks related to looking at porn; the lack of warning on pornography; the absence of informed consent and regulation; similarities to sexual perpetration/abuse; trickery; peer attitudes and pressure).
9) Making wise sexual choices
10) Understanding empathy and integrity (impact of your sexuality on others)
11) How to create and maintain a healthy sexual relationships
12) How to build a healthy sex life (with yourself)
13) How to develop skills of being a good lover
14) How to get help when needed
It is difficult to understand, 12 years in the 21st century, why the topic of teen use of cyber pornography has not been incorporated into mainstream of sex education at the middle and high school levels. The reasons for the absence of this discussion in school settings is obviously complex and would invite debate from many different groups, ranging from those who believe pornography is morally reprehensible, to those who see pornography as a First Amendment issue, to those who see pornography as a harmless form of sexual stimulation, to those who have worked with sex addicts and see the potential damage of a relationship with pornography. Notwithstanding the need to address the various concerns of these groups, it seems more than reasonable for adults, particularly those who are in a position to educate teens, to begin to at least take on the process of developing a sex education curriculum that candidly addresses the types of choices and experiences that teens have via the Internet.
Christopher Mulligan LCSW
CYBER ADDICTION RECOVERY CENTER
CHRISTOPHER MULLIGAN LCSW
Internet and Video Game Solutions
Three hour parent training session
Signs of Internet and Electronic Entertainment Addiction
1. Does your child/teen dedicate the vast majority of his recreational time to the internet and electronic entertainment?
2. Does your child/teen organize his schedule around specific internet events, gaming, or TV shows?
3. Are your child/teen’s grades slipping? Is she failing to complete homework or hand in assignments?
4. Does your child/teen refuse to leave the house because of his preoccupation with a particular video game or internet activity?
5. Does your child/teen talk compulsively about electronic entertainment, including monologues about the minute details of a game or show?
6. Does your child/teen avoid any type of physical activity in favor of sitting in front of a video/computer monitor ?
7. Does your child/teen argue and complain whenever he is asked to turn off the computer, TV, or gaming console?
8. Does your child/teen spend every weekend alone, playing video games, surfing the internet and watching television?
9. Does your child/teen complain that all activities are boring and useless, except for the internet and electronic entertainment?
10. Does your child/teen confuse internet acquaintances with true friends?
11. Does your child/teen lack awareness of the amount of time he spends on electronic entertainment?
Attend a 3 hour parent training session
This session will teach you to:
Contact Christopher Mulligan LCSW for more information.