Taking Stock on Screens – and a challenge to take charge

by Sarah Piper, Psychologist

It’s like we’re being ambushed. They’re coming at us from all angles, and in all sizes. Like an army that just keeps storming new fronts: first it was television,then it was video games, then came computers, mobile phones, fancy i-pods, i-pads, laptops, tablets…the list goes on and we’re surrounded on all sides. Irrespective of all their fantastic uses, they’re all SCREENS, compelling our eyes to watch and dominating many aspects of our lives. It’s like they arrived first and foremost as an exciting piece of technology to ‘help us’ and to ‘make our lives easier’. Somehow they came disguised as a friend, yet increasingly they seem to manipulate; demanding much of our attention and complicating a lot of our time. Now, many years on, as I reflect on the impact of screens, I’m left feeling that the ‘friendship’ they offered didn’t really have our best interests at heart.

So what’s the problem with screens? We’re all adapting pretty well to them, and let’s be frank, they’re pretty useful and efficient (when they work). Technology has been a great connector on many fronts and it has enabled all manner of things to progress faster than we ever dreamed of. What is it exactly that I think is a stumbling block to our human development?

It’s the simple fact that the screen is not a human face and the screen is incapable of feeling. Forgive me for stating the obvious but, in order to develop as relational beings, we need regular contact with real people. This includes all people we come across, in all of their human-ness, whether it be appealing to us or not. To be able to see someone’s face and their expressions (real time), to be able to hear them exactly (irrelevant of a microphone’s quality), to touch and to feel, to smell them (for better or worse), and to taste (in more intimate cases) is something a computer cannot replicate. A while ago, when our family went overseas to live, it was the easiest farewell comment to friends and family: “I’ll miss you but we’ll keep in touch over Skype”. It temporarily alleviated the pain of being separated from those we loved but in reality we realized that computers were a poor substitute for real human contact. As much as we encouraged the children to keep up with their friends and extended family, the complaint was always “it’s not the same”. More than anyone else, it’s the very young and the very old who notice these things most accutely. On a screen there is no human company in the flesh: and that means no hugs or handshakes, no eye contact or kisses, and no distinctive smells (whatever their aroma!).

This lack of real human contact can be seen in many areas of life that the screens seem to have invaded. The part that I see most often is for young people and adolescents. All their friends are using social media and this results in many of them communicating late into the night. This in turn affects how they sleep; whether it be from the screen light that has decreased their natural melatonin levels thereby making them feel quite awake or perhaps it is the conversations that have been going around on the group chat leaving them to lie awake in bed trying to process what was said. In addition to this, if there is an electronic device in the bedroom, there’s a high probability of being woken by a ding or a beep. That is certainly an interruption they don’t need! It can be lonely in a bedroom doing study for hours on end and it’s possibly made lonelier by the pressure to keep up with social media. For a young person going through a tough time, the absence of a comforting or even distracting human presence may only serve to make things worse. Any adolescent is unlikely to be aware of this themselves, but a caring adult in the house might have a ‘sixth sense’ that too much time alone in one’s room with a screen might just be a toxic combination.

Only five to ten years ago, I’m sure it was quite a relief for many parents to send their offspring to school knowing that they’d have to talk face to face to their friends and not rely on other digital devices. Now that many students need a laptop or similar for school, the whole game-plan in the playground seems to have changed. Sadly, it’s not uncommon to see groups of kids or even kids on their own just glued to a screen. Is there no respite? If, as Andrew Fuller suggests, “it is the skills of negotiation, problem solving, lateral thinking and emotional intelligence that predict young people’s ability to be successful” then how does this all pervading use of technology assist them? Perhaps we are doing them a dis-service by allowing these devices to be such a huge part of our lives? No doubt you’ve felt a similar hunch yourself; that this embracing of technology may not be to our benefit.

One of the most moving experiences I had in a counselling job overseas was with a 13yr old girl named Jacquie*. As the oldest of three in a fairly affluent, stable family, she had a father who was quite good with technology and a mother who wasn’t. When Dad was at work, Mum was happy to have her children using the screens ‘a lot’ as this afforded her large chunks of time get all the domestics done and keep her house pristine. Consequently, each of the 3 children tended to go off on their own and play on their phones or I-pads. Jacquie, meanwhile, was having some social difficulties at school, often feeling like she didn’t fit in. She strongly disliked the tendency of many of her friends to play on their phones at lunchtime and she wondered why people couldn’t just talk anymore. To make things worse, she would arrive home to find that her younger sisters were playing on their screens and didn’t really want to do anything and her Mum just looked busy. She had heaps of fun and interactive ideas but it was made pretty clear to her that she’d be doing them on her own. It became obvious that Jacquie was lonely and this was a significant part of her very low, sad mood. Fortunately the story doesn’t end there. Not many sessions later, I had the joy of seeing her smile and even look me in the eye as she recounted a recent day trip that the family had taken. It turns out that she had courageously told her father how she was feeling and suggested that sometimes the wi-fi be turned off and perhaps the family could start doing more things together. The next session was my first experience of her beautiful smile, as she described an outdoor day trip that the family had taken. This tentative step of openness had made a massive difference in her ability to make changes for the better. The best thing being, in Jacquie’s words, that “we talked”.

All the research on this topic is interesting but somewhat inconclusive. It would certainly make things easier if some hard and fast rules were laid down as a result of some significant findings. Or would it? I suspect that we can come to our own conclusions about what is right for us and what is appropriate for our children; what helps and hinders our sense of well-being and connectedness. That wistful question about why the family doesn’t talk as much anymore and that niggling feeling that it might have some connection with the dominance of screens in the household just might be addressed by the old saying “all in moderation”. We can’t ignore technology altogether yet we can be deliberate in how we use it or perhaps how we engage together on it. Here are a few simple questions as you take stock of your personal or family situation in this area:

– What are my boundaries around screens both for me and for my family?(when, where, how, who with, why etc…).
– How can I actively promote more opportunities for human togetherness

so that significant relationships might have the opportunity to develop? And finally, a question to be answered without Google: If there were 100 things to do before screens were invented, and now there are 101, what are your other 100?

 

* name has been changed for confidentiality

References
Creating Resilient Families http://www.tps.vic.edu.au/2013/PDFs/Resilient-families.pdf

How do we prevent Youth Suicide?

If suicide is preventable, how do we prevent youth suicide in our communities?

By Lyn WorsleyLyn Worsley Resilience Doughnut 06

(Clinical Psychologist)

After some tragic recent suicides in the lives of our school children, Michael Carr Greg stated in the SMH on March 27th 2015, “Alertness to Mental Health disorders is the key to preventing youth suicide.”

Certainly knowing what is going on in the minds of the young people themselves and secondly knowing the difference between adolescent mood swings which bring an array of learning and personal growth situations, and suicidal ideation which brings a fear and shut down response to learning and growth is of course a paramount importance.

However the key to the prevention of suicide is to create hope and meaning in the young person life. It is essentially helping them to see there is a reason to live.

Hope is the opposite to fear and the steps and pathways toward hope in any situation involve connecting with others whose belief in you touch the very core of your own significance.

 But if feeling significant is the key, how do you help a young person to feel significant?

A person feels significant when their actions, thoughts and feelings matter to another, and their sense of worth is linked to the ability to make a significant contribution to another person’s sense of worth.

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My husband and I volunteer in the city of Sydney with a small group called Hope Street. On a monthly basis, we make sandwiches, and tea and coffee for breakfast for those who have slept on the street the night before. We are there with a team of people, each helping for various reasons. However it struck me as I sat with a young woman this morning, that her sense of worth was nowhere concrete. She had no home in Sydney, she had friends who only had an agenda for taking her into their home, and she didn’t have anything to do with her time that was valued by another.  Time with her was well spent, as her hunger for a warm hug, a kind word and a smile was enough to keep her in the centre for over an hour. But as she left for the day, it was again evident that she didn’t matter to anyone.

 But how do we explain the high level of depression and anxiety that is experience by those who do have families who love them?

 The contrast is obvious however in the minds of the young people themselves, there is the same deep need to feel significant, worthwhile and meaningful to others. Depression has a mind of its own and can overflow the brain with messages of hopelessness and worthlessness, which is why using a strength approach in everyday interactions, is valuable. Teachers, counsellors, parents and family members who use a strength approach are more likely to get to the heart of the problem and challenge the core negative beliefs that do so much damage.

 So how do we use a strength approach in out everyday interactions with our youth?

 Looking for strengths is like having radar on for exceptions to the problems. It means you scan the information from the conversation with the young person for anything that has some level of positive or hope to it. Using the Resilience Doughnut (a model for developing resilience in youth) is a good way to gather strengths, as the doughnut not only helps you to map areas of a person’s life that may have some positive experiences, it also helps to find out where and who the positive connections are. For example asking about extended family may uncover a caring grandmother, or asking about favourite subjects may uncover the interested teacher. Both of these connections would have the potential for hope if they were encouraged.

 Another article addressing the youth suicide crisis noted, “Suicide is preventable. But the school community needs to help prevent it.” Is it realistic that we leave the mental health of our youth with schools and if so, how do we help the school community in preventing suicide?

In schools we have many teachers who are faced with the daunting job of educating our next generation with many aspects of life. Some of these aspects of life in previous generations were the tasks of parents, grandparent’s cousins, aunts and uncles and also the faith communities in which the families existed.

With the increase in working hours, the pressure to have more stuff and to live in areas, which involve incredible mortgages, families, communities and parents have become time poor and detached, fragmented and disempowered in their role in the lives of the young person themselves. The village that raised the child has become disconnected, and the child’s emerging sense of worth is limited to being within the school where they compete for significance with over 1000 other young people.

The result is a generation of youth who have increasing rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, so much so that suicidal ideation is falling into the normal curve of a youth’s development. The stats are frightening when you consider the number of deaths by suicide. At present suicide is the 3rd largest killer in youth between the ages of 15-24.

If we are to give the task of alerting mental disorders to the schools we need to have tools that can do that, but these tools need to be helpful for the child to gain hope, the family to feel empowered and the strengths to be enhanced. That is we need tools that are therapeutic, developmentally appropriate but also give the information that is needed to those who can help.

The Resilience Report (an initiative of the Resilience Centre Australia) is an on-line tool that does just that. It is the first of its kind in the world in that is gives the agency back to the people who are there to build the strengths around the child. The report highlights a child’s strengths, tracks their developing competence and alerts to any changes in mental health. Not only is it useful in schools but also for families, parents, counsellors and coaches, as well as the young people themselves. (www.resiliencereport.com). 

So how do we help schools to prevent suicide?

Actually it isn’t about getting the schools to do the work. It is about all of us being part of the “doughnut” for the young people themselves. It is enabling parents, extended family members, community groups, and workplaces to be valued parts of the young peoples lives. We each have a vital part to play and we each are involved in young people’s lives in some way, whether it is as a small business owner, or an employer, or as an aunt or uncle.

Simply remembering a person’s name, sending them little notes of encouragement when they do an exam, or go for an interview can be enough to make a person begin to feel significant.  Putting another person’s needs before a task to be completed can often have a huge effect on that person.

Helping schools is also about helping the teachers feel significant themselves. Too often we default to school blaming when a young person is mentally unwell. This hands off and finger pointing doesn’t help to build hope in anyone’s life. Furthermore it actually disables the teachers from taking the extra steps to encourage and connect with the young person.

 So how do we help?

  1. Get involved with the young people in your local area. Know their names, say hello and be involved simply by believing in them and showing interest.
  2. Encourage teachers to feel valued in their roles as teachers, as well as caring professionals. Value them and let it be known they are doing a great job.
  3. Listen for what is working in the young person’s life. (Do a quick doughnut check*). Then ask them more about the things that are working.
  4. Help the community, parents, and family members to have more doughnut moments. This involves finding three areas of strength from the Resilience Doughnut and linking them together in some way.  (It has been shown that doughnut moments occur more frequently for those who do not show signs of depression or anxiety).
  5. Make mental HEALTH a priority in our communities. Being aware of what makes a person mentally healthy is of even more worth than recognising when they are not. That is being very aware that building and connecting with positive intentional relationships in strategic ways will encourage healthy development and significance in a young person.

 The Resilience Doughnut is a strength-based model that shows the internal and external factors that build resilience. The simplicity and usefulness of the model has been growing for over 10 years and is widely used by practitioners, researchers and families around the world.  If you want more information about the Resilience doughnut follow the links to the articles on the web page. www.theresiliencedoughnut.com.au.

 Lyn Worsley is the director of The Resilience Centre and the Author of The Resilience Doughnut. She is a senior supervising Clinical Psychologist at the Resilience Centre and well known for her training, research and therapy programs that enhance resilience in all people.