Technology - Don't Let It Hijack Your Life
Our electronic devices. We love 'em, and we hate 'em. We spend a small fortune getting them. If we're not careful, we can spend the rest of our lives getting lost in them.
In the press of our busy 21st century lives, our devices are ever-present. We use them to calculate math problems. We use them to look up definitions. We turn to them when traveling, for guidance to get us to our destinations. We spend hours with them at work. Then we come home, and spend hours more with them to unwind and be distracted from the pressures of the day. We use them to connect with others. We also use them to disconnect from others, and enter the exquisitely unique bias of our own little cyber-world.
The Most Common Addiction
It is not an exxageration to say that media is now the most common of all addictions. Its rampant use - and overuse - fills the hours of our days, the action of our fingers, the thoughts of our hearts. Like all addictions, media addiction is often used to distract us from pain - to avoid difficult circumstances, to silence loneliness, to provide a means of escape from what feels most challenging to us. However, like all other addictions, media often ends up backfiring, intensifying the very problems we are trying desperately to escape.
As a counselor for 30 years, I have witnessed the escalating and expanding impact of media addiction. Even before the advent of the internet, I noticed how excessive media use could contribute significantly to emotional and relationship problems. Here are a few examples:
Contributing to Depression Paralysis
Early in my career, around 1993, I met a new client struggling with depression. She told me on the first session how meaningless and empty her life seemed - how devoid of purpose, how discouraging it had become. She told me of the soul-crushing fatigue, the dark mood, the sense of purposelessness she suffered on a daily basis. She told me of the suicidal feelings that occasionally descended upon her like heavy wet cement.
Week after week, I gave her therapy assignments to complete between sessions - exercises to try to help relieve her dark condition. But week after week she came back with those assignments undone - and with the added shame of not having completed them. Week after week, I asked her "So how did your week go? What happened this week?" "Oh, nothing," she responded wearily, week after week. "Nothing happened."
Mystified, after a few weeks of this, I finally had a hunch, and this time asked her a slightly different question: "If I had a video camera focused on you all day every day, from the time you wake up in the morning until the time you go to bed - what would that camera see?" "Oh," she sighed, "it would see me wake up around 11 or 12 every day. Then it would see me reach for my TV remote, and watch a couple hours of game shows. Then I'd finally get hungry, so it would see me head into the kitchen around 2 and grab something to eat, then head over to my living room couch to eat it, as I watch the rest of my soap operas and afternoon talk shows. Then it would see me head back to the kitchen around 7 or 8 for a quick snack, then I'd eat it in bed, watching TV movies, and finally fall asleep between midnight and 2 am. Then the same thing would happen the next day, and the next day, and the next.
Rebuilding a Life Beyond the Screen
Now I finally understood why day after day, week after week, "nothing happened" in this sad woman's life. Every day was about watching TV and eating junk food - and not doing much of anything else. She felt more guilty every day about the dishes piling up unwashed in the sink; the candy and food wrappers accumulating all over her house, the cat poop she hadn't removed for weeks, poisoning her home atmosphere with the stench of animal waste. But to avoid the pain of that shame, she'd flip on another show - and the cycle would continue.
Happily, that woman was able to recover fully from her depression, beginning the day she accepted the challenge to go through the entire week with no TV. She felt lost at first. So she listened to music and radio talk shows as she cleaned up her sinkful of dishes, gathered and threw away the candy wrappers and TV dinner tins, and freshened up the litter box. She began to journal. She began to go outside and take daily walks in the nearby park, chattering with neighbors and passers by. She went back to church, and accepted service opportunities there, to reach out to those around her in kindness and love. She read self-help books, completed the healing exercises I gave her in therapy, and made sure she at least got a shower every day. She stopped eating and drinking junk, and starting eating fresh healthy food and drinking pure water. In other words - she built an actual life, in the real world, eating real food, interacting with real people. As she did so, her depression lifted, her sense of purposeless disappeared, and her sense of hope and joy in life expanded exponentially. Before long, she no longer needed therapy, and she went on her way joyously in her newly reconstructed life.
Feeding Fear and Anxiety
Shortly thereafter, I started counseling a single mother and her two young daughters, about 10 and 14 years old. Understandably, they were all in a state of pain and shock from the unexpected departure of the mother's husband - the painful divorce that ensued, with all its financial and emotional impact. Week after week, as they came in and related their distresses, all 3 of them mentioned escalating fears. Strikingly, those fears were almost identical in all 3 of them - that someone would break into the house, terrorize and rob them, and then kill them. These fears haunted all 3 of them day and night, including in intense disturbing dreams.
Part of their anxiety seemed to be the understandable impact of 3 woman suddenly living alone, without the secure protection of a man in the house. But the fear was so specific, so enduring, and so intense I began to suspect that something else may also be at work, fanning the flames of that shared anxiety they all suffered daily.
One day in passing, the mother mentioned a show they'd watched together the night before - "Bad Boys." I then asked her what other shows they tended to watch together. She mentioned "Cops," "Miami Vice," and other TV programs featuring criminals who do bad things to people - including breaki into their houses, terrorizing, robbing, and killing htme. Suddenly it all made sense. That little family was consuming a daily dose of high anxiety through their TV screen - and then suffering the lingering and residual effects
Building a Happy Life, Free of Fear
Like the depressed woman mentioned earlier, this family was daily feeding its own emotional problems with a daily megadose of destructive media. Like that woman, they all 3 began to recover once they accepted my challenge to live media-free for a week. The nightmares stopped, peace desceneded, and family togetherness expanded as they started doing chores and cooking together, as well as playing board games, going on excursions together, and talking to each other rather than just watching a glass screen together. They didn't stay in therapy long. They didn't need to. They eliminated the problem, replaced it with a healthier new pattern, and happily moved on.
Disrupting Marriage and Family Relationships
One of the most common impacts I see of media overuse is relationship disruption. Strong relationships need a steady dose of shared time, in order to develop in the first plqce, and then in order to stay strong over time. Excessive media can disrupt that - whether through constant sports viewing, disappearing into constant video games, or more recently, into social media or other online pastimes. Currently, almost every couple or family I see demonstrates this affliction - and needs to find ways, early on, to curtail and limit media engagement, and intentionally investing more time and focus in each other instead. It is a delight, time after time, to watch couples re-engage, and children find a new sense of connection and purpose in their family lives, as media becomes less of a focus, and real life together in the real world becomes more of a shared focus.
Use It As A Tool, Not a Toy
A wise millennial adviser recently counseled me, regarding technology and social media: "Make sure it remains a tool, not a toy." I realized afterward - her insight extended not only to social media, but also to ALL of media and technology. These can be such magnificently powerful tools for us - allowing us to instantly share a worldwide message, to perform powerful computations, explore new vistas, and create videos, music, and other forms of self-expression for litttle to no cost. Our electronic tools can help us expand our positive influence to the ends of the earth. Or, they can become simply a way to waste and squander our time and other resources.
We would all be wise to consider carefully how much time and focus we are currently giving to our media devices, and what impacts that time is having on our health, mental health, productivity, and relationships. Then, we can courageously rebuild our lives - including elements of media use where it is helpful as a tool - but greatly expanding our lives and lur focus beyond the confining limits of those ever-present glass screens. Doing so can strengthen our relationships, improve our physical and mental health, and make room for a big beautiful world full of new adventures, joys, and discoveries.
-- Carrie M. Wrigley, LCSW
Counselor, Speaker, Performer, and Author of
Your Happiness Toolkit: 16 Strategies for Overcoming Depression, and Building a Joyful, Fulfilling Life
> For more complete Information on this topic, see the book, Chapter 4:
"21st Century Depression - An Expanding Worldwide Epidemic - How to Survive and Thrive"