Saturday, January 28, 2012

Interview with Wendy Maltz LCSW Author of the "The Porn Trap"

I interviewed Wendy Maltz LCSW, co-author of "The Porn Trap," yesterday for an hour. We had a great discussion about how to approach teen sex education in the age of cyber porn and cyber sex. I will write up a summary of our conversation this week. It is amazing that in 2012 cyber porn and cyber sex are largely ignored in sex education programs even though more and more teens are getting a heavy dose of sex education via the net based porn!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Being Lonely and Problematic Internet Use?

Here is a summary of an article posted on the ReStart website about the link between being lonely and problematic internet use. Research is showing that those who develop problematic use of the internet use are trying to develop social networks --  and the use of the internet for this purpose doesn't seem to result in better social supports. Certainly, this has been my experience of teens on the autism spectrum that are part of gaming guilds or who communicate about with "friends" they met via the internet.

Internet Use and Its Relationship to Loneliness

Posted in Internet Addiction
CyberPsychology & Behavior

Internet Use and Its Relationship to Loneliness

Published in Volume: 4 Issue 3: July 5, 2004
Eric J. Moody, BS
The association between Robert Weiss's bimodal theory of loneliness and Internet use was examined. The degree of social and emotional loneliness was assessed using the Social and Emotional Loneliness scale. This was compared with self-report measures of Internet use and the breadth of one's network of friends, both online and on a face-to-face basis. Low levels of social and emotional loneliness were both associated with high degrees of face-to-face networks of friends, while high levels of Internet use were associated with low levels of social loneliness and high levels of emotional loneliness. This supports recent research that has found that the Internet can decrease social well-being, even though it is often used as a communication tool.
Access this research article

To cite this article: Moody, E. J. (2004) Internet Use and Its Relationship to Loneliness. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 4(3): 393-401. doi:10.1089/109493101300210303.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

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 My Space page.

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.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Meaning of Online and Offline Continuity

The majority of teenagers who are online, using e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, participating in chat rooms, and downloading and uploading photos and videos, have continuity between their online and off-line identities. Although many parents fear teens have secret identities and secrets lives as they move about in cyberspace, research shows teens are much more likely to have integration or continuity between their online and off-line lives than adults. Adults are far more likely to engage in secretive and dishonest behavior online, such as cyber affairs, clandestine spending on eBay, and gambling.

Teens use the internet to maintain established social relationships: they instant message, e-mail, and post messages, comments, and media content on Facebook as a way of enhancing and expanding friendships. Certainly, some teens are engaged in accumulating online friends and, in many cases, compete with one another to acquire hundreds of friends on Facebook. Social media sites can stimulate an unhealthy preoccupation with the quantity of friends rather than the quality of friendships. Additionally, it is fair to say, many teens who are engaged in social media sites express themselves in sound bites and tend to tailor their comments in a manner that enhances their social status and popularity. As a result, teens are spending less time seriously deliberating and contemplating their identities and via traditional methods such as journaling.

Notwithstanding the potential problems of status or ego oriented Internet based communication, teens do not see a meaningful distinction between their online and off-line personalities, preferences, interests, and motivations. Facebook, Twitter, texting, and instant messaging are used as a way of tracking and connecting with peers (sometimes on a minute by minute basis). Thus, due to the motivation of teenagers to connect with their off-line friends, they are unlikely to engage in secretive or compartmentalized behavior.

One of the red flags of problematic Internet use for teens (and adults) is a disconnection between off-line and online friendships, activities, and interests. Teens that have become compulsive in their use of Internet pornography, for example, tend to isolate from their family and friends. Internet pornography can become an all-consuming and result in teens living in a cyber-fantasy world that replaces their off-line lives. In some cases, the compulsive interest in Internet pornography is a result of alienation and rejection by off-line peers at school. In fact, one of the well-researched triggers for a compartmentalized and disconnected online life is a disappointing, impoverished, and unsuccessful social reality off-line.

In addition to the compulsive use of Internet pornography, the compulsive use of video gaming, whether it be console-based or computer-based, can lead to a disconnection between off-line and online reality. Many teens (and adults) who engage in role-playing games become solely invested in the fantasy world they participate in and co-create with other game players (thus creating an experience of a social community). Although role-playing games do involve coordination and collaboration with peers, some across the globe, the nature of the relationships are entirely oriented around the execution of the goals of the game. The commitment to the game and to the gaming community can create a barrier that completely cuts off a teenager from off-line opportunities and activities.

The integration and balancing of online and off-line lives is a sign of health. Why? Because integration, like all forms of connection, has the potential to create synergy. Integration, as John Suler says (author of The Psychology of Cyberspace) leads to “development and prosperity where both sides are enriched by the exchange of information and energy.” Suler goes on to say that if one of the goals of life is to “know thyself,” then this applies to connecting different parts of the self that are expressed via online and off-line friendships and activities. In order to reach this goal, teens and adults alike must learn to take down barriers between their online and off-line identities.

One notable and very important exception to the goal of integration and synergy between online and off-line living, is online communities that provide support to individuals who cannot access support off-line or are not ready to access support off-line. For example, a person struggling with sex addiction may initially be more comfortable seeking a support group online rather than risk exposure off-line. Another important example of separation between online and off-line identities/activities is a teen or young adult who is working through the process of coming out as a gay or lesbian and utilizes resources on the Internet to gain information and support about coming out process. Other examples include researching topics that may be potentially embarrassing, such as contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, human reproduction, and forms of sexual self-expression.

As we move deeper into the 21st century, there will be an increasing pull to separate online and off-line life simply because technology will become more pervasive and increasingly complex and compelling. Cyberspace is an expanding universe with extraordinary opportunities for education, growth, and development. Cyberspace is also filled with potential risks and hazards, most notably compulsive behavior and the escape into fantasy worlds that serve to split online and off-line life.

For parents who are considering modifying their child/teen’s online activities, the important consideration is the balance between online and off-line activities. As long as a teen is demonstrating consistent balance and interest in off-line and online activities, the opportunities offered by cyberspace can be fulfilling, motivating, and lead to skills that are applicable to the 21st century workplace.

When parents begin to see splitting between online and off-line activities and a preference for online fantasy, it is very important to step in and establish a contract or agreement regarding how to achieve balance between online and off-line activities and preferences. Parents are often reluctant to intrude into the privacy of their teenager’s online lives; however, without parental guidance and wisdom, it is very easy for teens to lose their way and end up in a very isolated and disconnected world of online gaming, chat rooms, porn, and databases. When in doubt, parents need to step in to their child/teen’s online world and provide balance and structure that will help them successfully navigate the interplay between cyberspace and three dimensional space.

Christopher Mulligan LCSW

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Youth Sexting: A National Study

The Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published a national study on youth sexting in the January 2012 edition. The study showed that estimates of youth involved sexting vary considerably -- depending on what type of activities are included in the definition of sexting. The number of youth who have created or sent images that constitute a violation of current child pornography laws (i.e., images of nude or nearly nude children or youth engaged in sex acts) is very low at one percent.

These results indicate that sexting involving sexually explicit content is far from a normative type of behavior for youth.  This means that sexting data, like data on cyber bullying and cyber predators, is often distorted by the media and this distortion can lead to responses to youth sexting that are not aligned with the reality of youth behavior. What is of the utmost importance is to develop a clear understanding of the reasons for youth sexting on a case by case basis so that instances where conflict and malice are involved can be addressed immediately. The identification of this type of behavior can only happen if youth believe they can safely go to an adult and explain that an incident of sexting was hurtful, destructive, coercive, etc. Monitoring phones and computers for sexting activity by adults isn't nearly as helpful and efffective as having an open line of face-to-face communication between a parent and a child/teen.