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technology and enmeshment

I wanted to catch up on some reading over the Easter weekend, so I pulled out an old book and dug in, thoroughly enjoying the quiet time and endless hours stretched out in front of me. And then it happened. Tap. I wanted to get to the next page. Tap. Why isn’t it working? And before my brain could process that I was reading a real book and not my Kindle my finger went tap tap tap on the paper about four  more times. This happened in a matter of seconds before the situation fully registered.

I can hardly blame my finger or my brain; they were only doing what they’ve been programmed to do. But I ask myself, when did this happen? When exactly did my brain become re-wired for technology? And it’s not just simple re-wiring, I’ve noticed other changes, too.

It’s been a long time coming for me, this synchronisation with tech, but I notice it’s here now, and it’s probably here to stay. This is most obvious in the close relationship I’ve forged with my smartphone. I take my phone everywhere with me during the day and I feel lost and anxious on the rare moments when I forget it. I’m out of touch with others! How will we communicate? I’m offline! I also take my phone to bed with me, where it ‘sleeps’ next to me on the nightstand. Sometimes it’s the last thing I see at night and the first thing I look at in the morning. My ears are honed to pick up the ping of an incoming email or text at fifty yards. What’s even worse is I find myself responding to the ping like a Pavlovian dog, impulsively reaching for my phone, practically salivating at the promise of being fed a new morsel of communication and information. I even take my phone on walkies, where I can take pictures of what I’m doing and post it online.

This is quietly disturbing. However, I’m not the only one who has a co-dependent relationship with their tech, not by a long shot. It’s happening to many others.

From a psychological perspective I view this as enmeshment, the state of being entangled, involved, or caught, as if in a net. In terms of human relationships, this means becoming entangled psychically, emotionally, and mentally with another. Enmeshment produces a relationship in which there are no clear boundaries or identities that separate one from the other; over time they become fused together. People feel as if their wellbeing depends on the other. Enmeshment is  a drug, and produces additive behaviours. I see enmeshment as addiction, actually.

The enmeshment pattern is occurring with increasing frequency for many people around technology. A friend’s teenage son is currently in group therapy for his addiction to video games. He’s depressed, withdrawn, isolated, and anxious, and uses gaming as a way to escape. However, he began to realise that the gaming was, over time, making his depression and anxiety worse, not better. The better parts of him were ebbing away the more he turned to the online world. He’s spoken to me of the pressure and impulses he feels to get back online. While a part of him wants to detach from gaming, ultimately he’s become addicted (and enmeshed) and will need to break the physiological and psychological bonds of attachment before this can happen.

I see this in clients, too. Sometimes they forget to turn off their phone, and how they respond when they get a call or message during session is always telling. Other clients speak of the way they feel tethered to work and unable to detach and unwind because of their technological umbilical cord. Lately, I’ve taken to asking any client with anxiety, stress, self-esteem issues, or depression how often they’re online, how close they are to their tech, and their social media habits. I find this helps me understand them better on many different levels, and helps me strategise more effectively on coping skills and resource management.

There are strong correlative links between anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation and internet/social media usage. Look to the recent spate of teen suicides due in part to bullying, where Facebook and other sites have played prominent roles. People often ask, why didn’t they just leave the sites? Why still log on?

One answer to that is because of addiction – when you log on and the site comes up, chemicals like dopamine in the brain are released. You want that hit again and again, even when there’s also pain involved. The enmeshment factor means that you are emotionally and energetically invested, that you’re fusing with the very thing that’s causing you pain. It isn’t that easy to separate out from things you’re fused to. Ever lick a metal pole in the winter? Ever have to tear a plaster off that’s become stuck to a scab? That’s what it’s like.

Do I sound alarmist, old and cranky? Of course I do! I come from the last generation of teenagers who still wrote love letters and sent postcards during summer holidays, who rang each other up on a home phone only (my beige kitchen phone still had a curly line), who used to type up school papers on word processors or even write them (gasp) by hand.

And it’s perhaps why anyone who is 35 or older  may be more disturbed by the enmeshment/addiction factor with tech than anyone younger. We grew up without it, and we remember what it was like without it. And we were all just fine. In fact, I was much better at dealing with the unknown and waiting than I am now. That’s because there was no choice in the matter, you simply couldn’t get instant answers.

The bottom line is that if you use tech to go online, and use it often, you are being changed by it in numerous ways. The effect of technology and the internet on developing children’s minds is the hot research topic at the moment. You may wonder, do I think everyone will eventually become enmeshed and addicted if they aren’t already?

No, I don’t. Yet I do see the need to develop a personal  threshold for capacity around tech. This means instilling personal boundaries and improving awareness around it all. Boundaries are the key to maintaining enough distance so that the enmeshment and addiction cannot happen so easily, and awareness means we’ll at least know when things are getting out of hand.

For the record I don’t think technology is all bad or dangerous, either. I love the connection and linking power that it provides me. I can catch up with loved ones all over the world, in real time. I can see their faces, and share, and get support when I need it. I can use it express myself and meet new people. The convenience and access to knowledge (after sifting through all the crap) is unparalleled. Speaking of which, now where did I put my Kindle…

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