I don’t need the test at the Center for Internet Addiction website to tell me that I spend too much time online. I know I do. But for a web journalist like me, disconnecting for any length of time is unrealistic.
“What are the dangers and what can I do?” I asked Laity Leadership Institute Senior Fellow Allan Josephson, M.D.
Rather than direct me away from the internet, Josephson offered hope for responsibly managing my relationship to it.
“Technology is a tool to facilitate our work,” he said. “It’s not an end unto itself.”
If we have a poorly formed sense of our own personal direction or goals for the day, we’ll find ourselves wasting time in ways we hadn’t planned, he said.
“Technology can help or hinder you in your work. You have to make choices to control the intrusion.”
Just as new doctors often need to learn that the first thing to do in an emergency is to redefine the medical event as not an emergency, technology users need to recognize that every text, tweet, or email isn’t an emergency either.
“There are very few things in life that one needs to move on right now,” he said. “So you build in ways to get through emergencies, but then you figure out how to control your down time.”
Caller ID is a great technological aide for managing telephone intrusions, for example, but checking work email on vacation defeats the purpose of taking time off.
“Technology allows us to do things more efficiently, so we take on more responsibility. But the principles of defining who we are and what we want to do are the same as they were before these technologies emerged,” Josephson said.
He acknowledges that like television, there is addictive potential to the internet, but thinks the comparison to drug and alcohol addiction is overstated.
“If you mix in the sexual stimulation people get from pornography, that’s a different issue because pornography has an inherent draw to it. The internet can speed up the process of getting pleasure from things we enjoy whether it’s sex, music, sports, or a beautiful sunset. There’s always a physiological correlate to any mental event, but it’s a correlate of the activity, not a cause of it,” he explained.
Technology Can Help or Hinder Relationships
Technology can also either facilitate relationships, especially for people who work remotely or who are housebound from illness or age, or it can hinder them.
Josephson recalled his daughter’s 2009 wedding as an example of how technology can strengthen relationships. The wedding was in Georgia, and her 92 year old grandmother was miles away in Minnesota, unable to make the trip.
“With Skype, she could see the wedding and we could see her. Talk about heightening intimacy! I’ll never forget looking at my daughter, with tears in her eyes, seeing grandma watching,” Josephson said.
“That actually helps intimacy,” he explained. “Those who have relationships and other good things in their lives that compete with the draw of technology are more likely to withstand temptations that are pretty reinforcing. But for lonely people who have trouble making connections, the internet provides a convenient way to form superficial relationships. One could argue that such relationships are better than none, but they could also feed into the loneliness. As with other addictions, the most emotionally or relationally vulnerable people are often the most likely to get into trouble.”
Long before the advent of social media, Josephson taught psychiatrists that if a child said they have 30 or 40 friends, they probably don’t have any.
“It depends on what they mean by the word friend,” he said. “Do they mean an acquaintance or do they mean being known by someone? Technology can be a tool to stay in touch, but it is more difficult to be known through technology.To be part of friendship, that connection has to be matched with other kinds of experiences.”
Managing Technology Responsibly
When I asked for suggestions for managing my use of technology, Dr. Josephson declined to provide rigid guidelines, but compared the challenge to managing television viewing.
“If you’re on a computer three or four hours a night and it’s not related to your work, that’s too much. The question to ask is: What is the quality of my interpersonal relationships? Do I have any?”
He noted also that emerging research indicates that multitasking can sabotage efficiency. “There are strong questions being raised about how many things a person can keep in their focus at any one time. The more demanding a mental activity is, the less extraneous distraction can be tolerated,” he said.
Our conversation, like a satisfying therapy session, ended on an encouraging note.
“You’ve got to be fair to yourself, Christine,” Josephson said. “Technology helps you do your job. It’s a great tool.”
Then he told me how much he enjoyed a YouTube video that his wife shared with him of the late Opera star Luciano Pavarotti singing a duet with R&B singer James Brown.
“We never would have had that experience, were it not for the internet. If learning is a fun thing, as it is for many of us, it’s an exciting world to be in right now,” he concluded. “But if you’re not sure who you are, someone will tell you, and if you’re not sure how you’re going to use your time, what your goals are, or why you’re using technology, it has the potential to consume you.”
Read other parts in our series on Integrating Faith and Psychiatry:
Allan Josephson, M.D. is Vice Chairman for Adolescent Psychiatric Services at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and author of three books, including the Handbook of Spirituality and Worldview in Clinical Practice, a text he edited and contributed to that is used in psychiatric residency programs to help psychiatrists understand the diagnostic and therapeutic implications of their own and their patients' worldviews. Image by Pedro Veneroso. Used with permission.