A Discontinuity - Written by Brigitte Viljoen

Digital technology, specifically types of digital relating and communication such as social media, have been changing so rapidly – a digital revolution - that research has been at the beginnings in this area. Technology seems so integral in our way of relating to each other, especially for digital natives (children born into the digital revolution). Yet people seem busier, more stressed, less caring of others and somehow unavailable. Something seems to have changed in the way people (especially younger generations) relate and connect with others, compared with previous generations. 

The question is; what is the impact of digital communicating and the unfolding of human development and attachment – especially for children and teenagers? How are people (especially the younger generations) changing the way they communicate to a larger degree and how this has this impacted us neurologically, psychologically and socially, and what this might mean for our future?
Online relating may facilitate the maintenance and development of social networks and create online communities. In this process, what seems to be occurring, is that the use of social media has resulted in different language to offline language use, with different purposes and different meanings. However, in this process, it seemed something of the relating, via online communication such as social media, was lost in translation; i.e. depth of meaning seemed to be lacking in online communication and lack of non-verbal communication evident in face-to-face interactions. Along with the development of this online language, there seemed to be the development of an online culture. This online culture seems to be gaining momentum where as more people, especially teenagers and children, who spend incrementally more time online, their individual, family and community cultures in the real world seem to be forsaken for the online culture, or at least disrupt real world cultural norms.

I suggest that whether children and teenagers are securely or insecurely attached, the fact they are invariably all spending increasingly more amounts of time interacting with others online, rather than face-to-face with attachment figures, seems to be disrupting their attachment experiences as humans. Digital native’s online behaviour and drive for peer connection and attachment seems to be pervasive and seems to be impacting on offline healthy attachment relationships. The digital revolution has arrived and continues to change and develop at such a pace, that researchers are, seemingly, continuously on the back-foot, in terms of exploring and endeavouring to understand the impact of these technologies on humans and human relating. Additionally, it appears that the increased use of the Internet has effected family life and relationships, where there seems to be declines in family member communication, smaller social circles and the corresponding increase in depression and loneliness. Resulting in the digital natives’ important developmental stage being significantly impacted as a result of the effects of the digital communication technology.
It would seem that mass social media communication has become the norm, especially among digital natives, with the result that intimacy with others is diminished or lost entirely. I wonder about the increased insecurity, and anxiety around being vulnerable and intimate with others, that many experience as a result of insecure attachment experiences, perpetuated by their online relating. It seems a downward spiral of seeking more connections online, as a form of protection from their insecurities, which seems to result in rather superficial attachments that rather preoccupy than result in meaningful, deep bonds – which humans innately need. Additionally, as adolescents who are experimenting and developing their identities, are highly influence social media which is more likely to reshape their identity. I wonder what society will be like were more and more people display insecure attachments, are preoccupied online as opposed to relating with the people around them offline, and more disconnected from themselves?
It has been reiterated that humans have a preeminent need for attachment and connection to other humans. This seems to be the driver in the exponential use of online relating through technologies such as social media which, in turn, seems to be impacting on our ways of relating, being and thinking. It raises the questions; such as, what will become of ‘real world’ society if we ‘forget’ our humanness – our empathy for others, our multi-generational heritages and cultures that make us unique and who we are, our physical contact with our attachment figures and subtle non-verbal communications?

As a human species, we have an innate need for attachment to others, as a means of survival, both physiologically and psychologically. Essentially the human species drive is deeply relational in nature. The disruption of this vital aspect of our humanness, is bound to have serious implications on society and on the public health system. The cyberspace world is potentially a silent threat that has taken hold – especially for digital natives. It is important to bear in mind that throughout the generations, where new tools and technology are developed, there has been radical changes to the nature of the human society. However, digital technology, specifically the availability of online relating through the portable devices of Smartphones, has rapidly revolutionised human connection and relating. As such this technology, seems to have happened so fast that we are not sure what the effects will be. I believe the answer lies in parental and community education, and working with the children and teenagers presenting with mental health issues, and their families. 

Digital technology allows a broad scope of connections and impacts and, therefore, requires a broad treatment response. For example, if parents have a better understanding of their own parenting styles, as well as, the 'how' and 'why' their children use digital technology the way they do, they are more likely to have more healthy outcomes for their children both neurologically, psychologically and socially, and in their direct relationships with their children. This will then have a knock-on effect within their communities as well.

Staying Close When Apart by Gordon Neufeld

Holding on to our kids in a digital world by Deborah MacNamara

Clear Communication: Making Clear Statements or Questions

Tips for making simple statements or questions are below:

  • Use short statements or questions
  • Ask one question or request at a time 
  • Be specific
  • Avoid strong emotional statements

Praise: Everyone needs to feel appreciated, though sometimes we forget to express this to those we care about. If you praise people for their good behaviours, they are more likely to continue those behaviours than if you criticise the negative behaviour. Just as importantly, praise can help others feel better about themselves, and it can feel great for you to.

Tips for praising others are below:

  • Look at the person
  • Say exactly what he or she did that pleased you
  • Tell the person how you feel
  • Give praise for even small changes
  • Praise people immediately after the behaviour
  • Avoid ‘back-handed’ compliments

Requests: If you want or need someone to behave in a particular way or do something for you, you are unlikely to get your needs met if you do so in an aggressive or ‘nagging’ tone. If you want or need something from someone, you should state clearly what is required of this person and if you tell them how much it is appreciated it is more likely to be successful.

Tips for requesting of others is below:

  • Look the person in the eye
  • Be specific with what you need or want from this person
  • Say how you feel

Please keep in mind that we also communicate with out body language and tone of voice. If these do not match your request you are unlikely to succeed.

Unpleasant Feelings: Often people find it difficult to express their unpleasant feelings, however, if they are not expressed then the person will not know that what they are doing is upsetting for you. Often, if you do not express these unpleasant feelings they can build up and create resentment, which can cause more damage and pain in the long run. We tend to dislike expressing our unpleasant feelings because we are afraid or worried about the other person’s reaction. However, expressing how you feel, even when it is difficult or painful is an essential part of communication and relationship.

Tips for expressing unpleasant feelings:

  • Create eye contact and speak in a calm and assertive manner
  • Be specific!
  • Tell the person how you feel
  • Suggest how this could be prevented in the future

Please keep in mind again, that body language and tone of voice are essential to express your message correctly.

Listening: We have all had the experience where we talk to someone who does not seem to be paying attention to you, and how painful this is! Therefore, listening and paying attention to those around help maintain and create relationship.

Below are some tips for being a good listener:

  • Make eye contact
  • Appear interested
  • Minimise distractions around you (put your cell-phone down, turn off the TV etc)
  • Ask follow up questions
  • Repeat the main theme of the conversation to check you haven’t missed the point.
  • Show that you care about their feelings.

Hunt, C.J., Andrews, G. & Sumich, H.J. (1995).