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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Tuesday's Psychology Tips: Are Smart Phones and Computers Turning Us Into Vulcans Like Dr Spock on Star Trek

Thought for the Day: It is amazing how dependent we become on our computers. Yesterday, while anxiously awaiting to pick up my new computer with all my programs loaded into it, I felt somewhat handicapped when I tried to work on my cell phone. Although I was able to upload a photo, when I tried to post it to my blog it would only capture a video that was not related to the post. Late last night, I was thrilled to get my new computer. It is faster, lighter and far more powerful than my 7 or 8 year old Mac. I was planning to write about the days of awe between the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement, but something else which seems related arose in light of my new acquisition. It's a longer "tip" than usual, but I hope you will take the time to read it and let me know what you think about these important issues.

While talking to a colleague about the benefits of new technology, we wandered into the down sides, dangers and challenges it represents for parents, children and people of all ages. On the one hand, technology has opened new avenues of communication with people worldwide. The opportunities to communicate with people are endless. It's easy and quick to just write a text, tweet or send an email to anyone, anywhere in the universe. Skype makes it possible to talk and even see the person in real time, whether they are around the corner or on the other side of the world. There is no doubt in my mind that these communication techniques as well as the wealth of internet support groups and chat rooms can be invaluable resources.

However, there are dangers and challenges that worry me both professionally and personally, as well. Could all the technological advances be jeopardizing our ability to connect face to face and maintain real relationships? Could smart phones and computers turn us into dumber human beings with limited, robotic interpersonal skills? Are immediate gratification and shorter attention spans produced by the speed of technology actually impeding our ability to delve deeper into both concepts and relationships? Will we become like the fictional character, Dr Spock, on Star Trek who was incapable of understanding or expressing human emotions? 
Read on to see some of the questions it is raising for me...

This week is a significant one for Jewish people. Although I am not religious, the significance of this week is something that people from any religious orientation could benefit from pondering. In Jewish tradition, the week between New Years and the Day of Atonement is reserved for contemplation about your behavior, especially how you have treated or mistreated people in your life. As a child, I remember resenting this task. I think the major reason was the idea that you were to repent for your sins. I was only a child. As a pretty well behaved child, I did not have any "sins" to repent and saw no reason to sit solemnly in a Temple all day. I realize now that the idea not only related to sins, although for some people they need to consider their  major transgressions, we all have made mistakes in how we have treated one another. 

The use of short, texts and tweets, posts on social media sites opens a wide array of possible mistakes which can hurt friends and family. Most of these are relatively minor in the scheme of things, but can lead to hurt feelings. For instance, when someone "unfriends" someone on facebook, blocks their messages, or simply ignores a post, misunderstandings may arise. Often, people simply don't say anything to the friend or family member, but resentments can grow. There have also been malicious bullying comments on social media with devastating results, leading to the suicide of the target of bullying. The anonymity of some sites opens the door for abuse. We must do all we can to prevent this kind of misuse of social media.  

What worries me more are the use of text messages as a way to avoid speaking directly with someone about feelings. Among young people, this has become a very common occurrence. Will our youth lose the ability to sit down and talk, heart to heart or expect quick text conversations that avoid real feelings. Parents of college students may be struggling with this new phenomenon. It is a critical time of transition for their young adult children. For most students, it is the first time that they are on their own for an extended period of time. There face multiple decisions and challenges daily. Before leaving home, they could talk to their parents in person when it was necessary. If they avoid even talking on the phone and try to get by with just text messages, there may not be enough communication to really help the young person learn how to maneuver in the college world.

A client brought up an even more disturbing trend among young people that many adults may be unaware of as a danger on the internet. There are now sites and apps that help young people find potential partners to "hook up" for intimate relations within a few miles of where they are. Instead of dating, many young people are going out in groups then turning to quick fixes using apps like these. The dangerous implications of these kinds of encounters may not be evident to young adults who have become accustomed to fast food, immediate answers to questions by using google, and limited time talking with and getting to know people in real time in real life. The potential physical and mental health risks, damage to self image and possible sexual abuse that this kind of instant gratification can produce is mind boggling to me as a psychologist. 

It is important to warn teens and young adults not only about drugs and alcohol, but help them learn the importance of getting to know people face to face before jumping into intimate relations. Certainly, there have been too many cases of young people being misled by predators on the internet for our youth to go blindly to "hook up" with strangers.

Somehow, for me, hearing about this kind of activity and not saying something about it would be a "sin" in my mind. As difficult as it is to talk about such topics, we must not ignore them. Which brings me to my final concern about the amazing possibilities of new technologies. When I joined Facebook, I was what is called a "lurker." In the Urban dictionary a lurker is defined as "Someone that passively trawls Facebook, but doesn't leave a Facebook footprint by writing on walls, commenting or liking things." As a psychologist, I justified my lurking behavior as form of observation. I was studying the behavior of people online. At first, I lurked on twitter, linkedIn, and Google+, as well. When I began blogging, and reading other people's blogs, I stopped being a lurker and began liking, sharing and commenting on posts that I felt were important. 

It is imperative, if we are to learn to use the vast array of new communication techniques to develop active, responsive, thoughtful interactions both on and off line. Don't just lurk. If you see something that makes you think, say something, participate in the conversation. If text is not doing justice to the task at hand, ask to speak on the phone or have a skype talk. Research on brain development shows that if we do not use brain cells, we may lose them. Our ability to communicate may be altered by not using in-person skills, so make sure they are part of your repertoire. 

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