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Addiction in a modern world

Last week I attended a seminar on Addiction. Set in the beautiful city of York, the event was held by my professional body, the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).

Addiction is an area that interests me. With such strong links to mental health and with the amount of stress and anxiety that seems to be in our lives, for some almost constantly, the act of becoming addicted to something is very tempting and more available.

Whilst much of the day centred around drugs and alcohol, there was an element devoted to the growing problem of addiction to prescription drugs and the impact that is having. With the U-turn, earlier on in the month from the Royal College of Psychiatrists now admitting to the severe side effects of anti-depressants and the lasting impact coming off such drugs has on someone, the subject of prescription drugs is having to be discussed. With the numbers of people accessing tablets from their G.P, what has emerged is the lack of information patients are being given.

It seems to me that the image of ‘Addiction’ has changed. Once, possibly attached to certain pockets of society, nowadays that isn’t quite the case. With the addictive nature of social media, common prescription drugs and the growing need for excess (which could be masking what’s really going on inside), I wonder if addiction is becoming more acceptable in some circles, more than others?

We are heading into a new, quite dangerous realm of addiction amongst young people and worryingly it doesn’t seem to be viewed as addiction, but evolution. What I am talking about is technology and how it seems to have a role in the largest factor of a relational breakdown in modern times and it is impacting families.

When I brought this up as a concern of mine at the conference, I was challenged with the idea that technology is also used as a relational tool, enabling communication. I absolutely agree. I am of the age to have watched the evolution of the internet. It is a wonderful tool and honestly, I couldn’t live without it. But in more recent years and with my previous experience working with young people, both therapeutically and educationally, I have become concerned with the time and energy some people seem to be giving this one activity.

We appear to have lost the balance, maybe becoming complacent to the importance of being around others and in relationship. And whilst the subject of technology impacts us all on varying levels, it is somewhat isolating us.

I wonder if adults didn’t rely so much on technology, would children? It's an interesting idea. As a parent, I know my children see me tapping away on my laptop, texting on my phone, looking at social media and it has fast become another member of our household. But what children and young people don’t possess, is the capacity to think like adults and to self-regulate like adults. How many times have children copied or mimicked the actions of a carer; pulling a funny face, or trying on their clothes, well this kind of thing can subtly change over time. With the use of technology at an all-time high and it's getting higher each year, it’s no surprise the younger generations are catching on. After all, how dangerous can these colourful little boxes be? Everyone has them, including mum and dad!

So, what is so bad about technology? In my opinion, the danger comes when technology becomes addictive. Have you ever lost your phone? You try and call it and it's on silent, then the panic sets in! Yeah…….that. We’ve all been there. But why? It’s got every phone number stored inside it that we will ever need, it holds our work calendar, those priceless photographs of moments we don’t want to forget, our online bank accounts (for those who are super-efficient) and much, much more. We invest so much trust and energy in these devices, we can’t let them go and they never let go of us. Therefore the panic is so great when we lose them. But at least as adults we can process this. For younger people, having so much access to an entire platform of knowledge, games, education and people is mesmerising too, overwhelming even. Why wouldn’t it be attractive? And the more we experience it, the more we want. Children are thirsty for information, however that come’s and the attractive nature of most technology is that it can be accessed on their own, from their very own house, no need to go anywhere, do anything, just press a button and wait to be entertained.

I wonder what future generations will be like. Will they travel, have an intrigue for foreign lands, exotic foods, different culture or will seeing it on a screen suffice? Will our young people want to interact face to face or will that become ‘vintage’?

So, the next time we get frustrated or annoyed with our young people when they are spending too much time with technology, remember that they don’t have an adult’s knowledge; 20, 30 or maybe 40 years life experience. They have simply found something they enjoy. But as adults, we know that the wonders of living aren’t confined to our homes. As parents and care givers it comes back to awareness and education. Taking technology away won't always solve the problem (however its sometimes needed), but teaching our younger generations that the virtual world is just one dimension of the modern world, will provide them with the confidence to step out from behind the screen and embrace more of what this world has to offer.

If we believe that relationships are the glue that stick together our mental health, our happiness and our communities, what will relationships look like by 2119? Sadly, unless technology changes to that degree (and that’s another subject) I won’t be around to see it, But my grandchildren might.

Up until this point, I have looked about this from a relational aspect amongst young people and technology. The other worrying side to this subject is the impact technology, mobile phones and the internet is having on mental health.

This is of huge concern for any parent and one that isn’t going to be dealt with overnight. Suicide and self-harm rates have increased, as have the numbers of poor mental health amongst the under 18’s. I’m not saying technology is to blame, but I’m sure the advancements we have seen in the past decade have made an impression.

We all have triggers. We all get upset by things, as it’s our emotions that make us human. But with the virtual fingers of things like social media grasping ever tighter, it is more important than ever to understand the dangers that are lurking behind the closed doors of our children’s bedrooms. Not only is there the element of isolation, due to too much time with technology, which can cause relational breakdowns, triggering depression and anxiety perhaps, but now as parents, our children literally have the world at their fingertips and that feels overwhelming.

This alarming issue reaches to every young person with access to wi-fi. There are no exceptions, that is why it is so worrying. Peer pressure puts a young person in a very hard position. There is a chance of segregation and ridicule if someone doesn’t care for social media and if they do, the pressure to be ‘liked’ or ‘perfect’ is too much to bear for some. And as we have experienced with our own forms of technology, the moment we sign up to platforms, we are ‘live’, we just don’t turn it off. We are always available, plugged in and online. Which means if you are being bullied at school, you are ‘available’ to be bullied wherever your technology is. Nowadays, this will also include playing video games.

What I am describing is a virtual world, not a real world. Therefore, relationships are so important. They keep us grounded, from being sucked into something that can be so manipulated and false.

To conclude, my thoughts surrounding technology and young people are mixed. Whether you view this as a matter of addiction or not, the impact and addictive behaviour that is associated with young people and technology can be seen and heard in most places. It has begun to isolate us and change behaviour. The thought of getting rid of a console, laptop, tablet or phone to a lot of us, young or old, would terrify us, sending us into despair. Do we really want or need our children to have access to this much knowledge? And how do we regulate the issue? Will improving the quality of relationships with our young people be enough to steer them away from mental health issues now and in the future, or does the action need to come from higher? Have we bore witness to enough cyber-related incidents yet or do more young people need to feel the addictive power of technology? I don’t know, I wish I had the answer. But I do know one thing; technology is here to stay and it's only going to get more efficient, more extreme, more attractive and more addictive. We don’t have much control about that. But we do have control over how it impacts those around us.

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