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Wellbeing and technology

06 Mar 2020 / Wellbeing Print

Digital dummies

Our relationship with technology – whether email, messaging or social media – at once contributes to, and diminishes, our sense of wellbeing.

Decades ago, in my primary school years, the most important line of communication to the outside world lay in the least suitable place – the cold hall of our house.

A private chat with a best friend was continually interrupted by various family members’ regular forays into that space, and it was, naturally, the favoured location for my much younger, and thus intensely curious, sister’s handstand practice.

Later, in my boarding school years, calls were made once weekly on a public phone, housed bewilderingly inside a converted confessional box, within easy earshot of the principal – and in full view of the orderly queue outside.

Connection on demand

Little wonder I was an early convertor to the joy of a personal mobile phone, promising as it did that most satisfying of all human experiences – connection on demand.

We reach for our phones upwards of 60 times per day, and spend an average of three hours and 15 minutes scrolling, reading, chatting or gaming – with 20% of smartphone users spending upwards of a staggering four-and-a-half hours gazing at their screens daily. Over a single year, that exceeds even a generous annual leave allocation – and then some!

It is all too easy, and perhaps simply downright reductive, to say we are ‘addicted’ to our devices – as if they hold hypnotic powers that bypass all resistance. The truth, of course, as with everything in life, is far more complex and far less awful.

To understand the grip technology has on us, we must return to our earliest relationships and consider how the dynamics of attachment with our parents and caregivers are recreated, and mirrored in the attachment we form with our devices.

First 1,000 days

Our first 1,000 days – from conception to around the time of our second birthday – determine much of our future lives. During these crucial early days, our brains undergo their most rapid period of growth, and enjoy their highest levels of ‘plasticity’ or responsiveness.

The quality of our care, nutrition, and our environment lay down physiological, neurological and emotional markers that remain with us throughout our lives, influencing the architecture and hard-wiring of our brains.

It is also in these tender months that we learn two of our most formative skills – skills that, interestingly, are both powerfully reactivated by technology: to relate and to regulate. In order to feel well (wellbeing) and to be well (mental health), we need to be in ‘good enough’ relationships with others, and we also need to be able to regulate our emotions.

You light up my neural system

Relating, while it remains a lifelong need, is never more important than in those early days of life. If all goes well, we form powerful attachments to the people who literally light up our neural systems – and we continue to enjoy and seek out connections as a source of wellbeing throughout our lives.

Emotional regulation, or soothing, is the skill of navigating big feelings, like rage, grief, envy and loss, and surviving the inevitable ruptures we have, from time to time, with people in our lives; without losing our own equilibrium, their goodwill, or indeed the relationship.

We learn this complex capacity by repeatedly experiencing the calming and containing efforts of our parents or care-givers. If they are able to tolerate our distress and outbursts of big feelings – anyone who has spent anything longer than an hour with a toddler or a teenager knows the score here – while remaining calm and connected, we gradually internalise their acceptance and soothing; offering it to ourselves and others as we grow up and away from them.

Meet ‘Ted’

Where relating and regulating become complicated is when our valued people are not reliably or readily available to us. As babies, many of us had a pretty smart workaround for this lack – a favourite teddy, blanket or even a scrap of a parent’s clothing.

The brilliant, late, child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott termed these favoured and beloved bits our ‘transitional objects’ – substituting when required for the presence of our mothers or fathers.

I know of at least one hugely clever lawyer who settled her sister’s tiny children to bed wearing their mother’s dressing gown when they were in her charge. It is not hard to spot the extension of this practice into our beloved devices, which we pick up on average every four minutes, and lay within easy reach of us, even as we sleep.

That reported levels of anxiety have never been higher, particularly in children and young people, however, would seem to indicate it’s neither as effective, nor as benign, as ‘Ted’ or, more importantly, the valued people it seeks to replace.

Bells of anxiety

Canadian trauma psychotherapist Gabor Mate considers anxiety to be a powerful ‘attachment alarm’. This also seems an apt term to describe the experience of so many people who become temporarily separated from their phones, and whose attachment systems are literally ‘alarmed’ and in need of the familiar soothing promised by this small gadget – our imagined gateway to relief.

The urgency and dread of separation, of which we all know something, arises, of course, from our very ability to temporarily invest the calming powers, usually held by parents and other loved ones, into our substitute ‘soother’ of choice.

As substitutes go, technology is the perfect storm, dangling a heady cocktail of seductive ingredients in front of us.

The multimillion-dollar technology industry backing this way of communicating ensures it hooks us on every level of our being – from sensory to rational, intellectual to emotional. Our habits, tastes, wishes, preferences, movements and desires are meticulously recorded before we ourselves have even consciously registered them.

It is this data that informs the next generation of even more covetable devices, and even more individually bespoke streams of information flowing into them – and so the cycle continues.

Shadow side

Humans have two basic needs – connection and authenticity. The need for connection will always trump authenticity, making life messy and leading us, at times, to abandon ourselves in favour of a sense of belonging.

We have all witnessed just how quickly online relating can move from generating belonging to stirring up a gang mentality. This virtual powerbase allows us, on occasion, to bypass our natural human empathy with, at times, tragic consequences.

Carl Jung maintained we all have within us a light side and a shadow side. Our shadow is the darker side of our personality, usually firmly repressed and not easily acknowledged. It seems, however, to find its way more easily into the virtual world, emboldened perhaps by the facelessness, timelessness and lack of boundaries.

Hello darkness

We do know, however, that technology itself is not the creator of this darkness. It is simply the platform, the vessel, the megaphone. It is up to each of us to set the terms for our own engagement and, as with any abusive behaviour, to remain vigilant to our own part in the growing appetite for, and tolerance of, hate.

We are still in the infancy of one of the biggest social experiments of our society. The emergence of a fully connected world, in which the thoughts, ideas and actions of the individual can, in a moment, become the property of the world.

While technology is a loyal companion, it is also a jealous thief of time. As with all healthy and happy relationships, it works best when there is mutual respect, and clear and reasonable boundaries.

And while it may convincingly mimic the soothing and energising aspects of relating, it must never replace them. But it has, undoubtedly, earned and secured its place in the hearts – and pockets – of many of us. I look forward to the next stage with the excitement of what might be possible.

Antoinette Moriarty
Antoinette Moriarty is a psychotherapist and heads up the Law School’s counselling service