No Time To Lose

Photo by Matt Metts, on

In the past year we have seen the power of technology to impact human lives in sad and brutal ways. More cases of cyberbullying, live camera feeds in dorm rooms, Facebook page harassment. We have seen young people take their lives, go to jail, shun their peers. We have read about a grown woman setting up a MySpace account,  pretend to be a teen’s peer and persecute her. Every day people experience emotional assault, risk of job loss, conflict, infidelity, insult and cruelty online, ingame, via email and social media.

And still my colleagues often talk about how they can’t possibly learn to use Facebook. Or lack the skills to go on Second Life or WoW; or have never heard of blogging; or think “Tweeting is for the birds.”

I’ve said it to you before, and I’m saying it again: You cannot afford to remain ignorant of these things. I’ll say it more strongly: It is hurting your patients. It is driving referrals from your waiting room–People who need to talk with you desperately about how their life struggles and hurt play out in the virtual and digital environment. I’m not even talking about the business you are losing, I am telling you as clearly and as forcefully as I can, that you are practicing suboptimal treatment.

The days in which the laptop was the exception rather than the rule have ended. The majority of people now use technology on a daily basis. And they use it for psychological reasons, emotional reasons, personal reasons. In the above tragic stories, technology was not the problem; it was the arena the problem played out in, maybe even the weapon used. But the problem is the emotional distress and violence.  The people using technology as a weapon and expression of hatred are people. We are STILL talking about human relationships here.

It’s high time we stopped confusing technology with pathology and tools with abusers. And it’s high time we stop being complicit in the problem. Every therapist I know has a continuing education requirement each year, yet how many of us fulfill part of that requirement by taking a webinar on social networking, or a workshop on online therapy, or listen to podcasts on gaming? Very few, if the patients I have heard from over the past 10 years are to be believed. I’ve heard tales of colleagues judging their patients about how much time they spend on the computer, without having the least understanding about what their patients may be doing there. I’ve seen how people have been “trained” by prior therapies about what they are allowed to talk about, and Web 2.0 is not on the allowed list. This is what we call in the business an “empathic failure.”

You may think by the above tirade that I am exempting myself from this, but I am not. I still catch myself shying away from talking about online gaming because I worry we won’t talk about the “serious stuff.” I still struggle to refrain from interpreting that conversation about blogging as avoidance. I still send dozens of nonverbal cues that shape the expectations about what can and cannot be considered important in the therapy room. I do it too, and this is a work in progress.

You may also think that I’d be happy as a businessman to have found a niche that few of my colleagues are tapping into.

I’m not.

I used to be, but now my practice is mostly full, and when I have a request to take on a patient who wants a gamer-affirmative therapist, or a therapist who does not view blogging as social phobia, or a therapist who takes virtual affairs in Second Life seriously, I don’t know who to refer them to. I have many names to offer for EMDR, IFS, CBT, DBT, psychoanalysis.  I have many trusted colleagues who have years of dealing with mood disorders, anxiety, trauma and bereavement. But I have only a handful of peers who I can refer to and trust that technology talk will not be taboo or overlooked.

I need your help, and I need you to care enough to learn. People are dying, or living alone in pain, because not enough of us are staying in learning mode. People are flunking out of school, losing jobs, ending good relationships and beginning bad ones, and they don’t have time to explain to you and I what Twitter is on their dime. Please begin to push yourself. Download a new iPhone App for the DSM IV ($.99,) , or surf over to Technorati (free) and read a few blogs, or create a free character in Second Life.

This is continuing your professional education:  This is important.