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Things Have Changed

By Bob Houghtaling

Alvin Toffler’s prescient book ‘Future Shock’ foretold of a time when the pace of life mankind creates will exceed his/her ability to cope (with the rate of change). When written in 1970, such notions were on the cusp of being completely understood. Now, nearly 50 years later, we are beginning to experience (to a greater degree) much of what Toffler spoke to. Alienation, stress, anxiety and information overload are all words we are deeply familiar with these days. All of which leads one to the topic of this piece, that being the impact technology has on how we communicate and relate to each other.

It goes without saying that advancements in technology have led to medical procedures that save lives, instruments that help with transportation, and devices which allow for instantaneous communication. While all of these marvels have significant benefits, there have been a few concerns posed by technology and its rapid change. Perhaps the most salient of these comes from how technology impacts the way we communicate and gather information. In short, I am talking about computers, cell phones, laptops, tablets, etc.. These devices have had a significant impact on our culture.

I have been employed in the Mental Health/ Substance Abuse field(s) for 35 years. Much of that time has been spent working with young people. Over the years there have been a number of ebbs and flows in terms of ‘hot issues’. With this being stated, two concerns appear to stand out for our present time. Mental Health concerns such as anxiety and depression are one, and the abuse of prescription medications the other. Both of these are often tied together. Also, both have connections to a world where relationships and communication with others has changed, leaving some to feel isolated and alone.

It wasn’t all that long ago when many of us were annoyed with people chatting on cell phones while in restaurants or the coffee line. It also wasn’t that long ago when schools prohibited all cell phones from being used during the academic day. In the words of Bob Dylan “Things have changed”. Now just about every kid in High School (and Middle School) has his/her own phone. All of this has occurred in the last 15 years. Norms have changed. We now accept these norms. However, with these norms come kids texting and chatting for hours on end. With these norms come conversations interrupted by gazing down at a text. With these norms come messaging friends while driving. In many ways man’s relationship with technology has gotten ahead of his/her ability to understand and cope. Each day we are confronted with unique problems caused by cyber communications. In fact, our own President occasionally gets into trouble over his tweets.

Recently, Michelle Carter was found guilty for her involvement with a former boyfriend’s suicide. Carter was seventeen at the time when she basically coerced a young man to asphyxiate himself in a vehicle. She conveyed her disturbing messages via text. There is much to debate about this particular case. One point of contention was the role text messages encouraging suicide played. Not only did these powerful messages appear to exacerbate the situation, one has to also question Carter’s detachment from the scene. In short, was it easier to tell someone to kill themselves while hiding behind a screen? I point this out simply as an illustration of some of the alienation and detachment many people experience these days. A portion of this is due to the fact that for a number of people, the amount of time spent in the cyber community exceeds face-to-face interactions. This is especially true for (but not limited to) young people. As a society are we becoming more and more detached? Obviously the Carter situation is unusual. A small minority of individuals become involved in drastic situations such as the one we just described. However, the rise of cyber bullying and situations like this are becoming more prevalent.

Another, less egregious situation, comes from a Social Media post that helped disqualify a Junior League World Series Team. Apparently, after winning a contentious playoff game, the victors posted a picture that included a number of team members ‘flipping the bird’. This picture violated league rules. The team was disqualified from further participation in the tournament. Again, much can be debated. One concern that must be considered however is – didn’t anyone understand how many people were going to see this? Unfortunately, like situations happen every day. It appears as though we are beginning to see the erosion of critical thinking when it comes to Social Media. This is simply an illustration. We are constantly hearing of people posting pictures and messages that wind up being problematic. Again, this doesn’t apply just to kids. We all remember Anthony Weiner. In later articles I will explain some of the causes and ramifications of this dynamic.

Parents are often bewildered as to how to limit, or control, their children’s use of Social Media. They are aware of the horror stories that abound. Over the course of the next few months I will be seeking to explore a number of issues presented by all of this technological stuff (by the way I am a semi-luddite). Special emphasis will be placed on strategies and resources available.

Technology has opened many new doors. Unfortunately, this has created challenges for parents. Are children spending too much time on their devices? Are adults able to monitor the information kids have access to? Parenting is difficult enough, now mom/dad are challenged to oversee their child’s computer and cell phone use. Apparently, we now appear to have a never ending concern.

Before concluding, it is imperative to acknowledge that there is no going back when it comes to technology. In fact, why would we? There is much good that comes from technological advances. With this being said, we have to gain more information, create viable rules, and most importantly, continue teaching young people skills that lead to responsibility. We are in the midst of significant cultural change. To a large extent there is a lot of catching up to do in terms of finding how we fit technology into our lives. Young people growing up with it are already establishing new modes of relating. Sometimes it is confusing and stressful. Taking a thoughtful look at the situation might reveal some wonderful opportunities.

Next month I will discuss the societal and emotional impact Social Media presents. Additional emphasis will also be placed on helping to create social skills and effective means of interpersonal interaction. See you soon and enjoy the summer.

Bob Houghtaling is the Director of the East Greenwich Drug Program and an occasional contributor to the Smithfield Times.