“On the Computer.”

You can often tell a lot about how people value (or don’t) something by a preposition.  It is very subtle, but I have come to find that “on” in particular is a problematic one.  People are on drugs, on parole, etc.

Often I hear parents or clinicians talk about how much time Janey spends “on” the computer, or on Xbox, Playstation, etc.  I also hear about how much time Eric is “on” Facebook, 4Chan, etc.  There is always a negative connotation to this.  I have never heard someone complain about how much time someone spends “on” the book, on the gym, on the dance, etc.

This may seem like a small detail, but why are the recent technologies, things that we are “on?”  Is it because the web and video games were seen as analagous to the phone and television in their early days?  I don’t think that is the whole story.  Maybe we view technology as still cold and alien so we don’t curl up “with” a video game like we would a good book.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there seems to be something perjorative about being on the computer or social media that just isn’t presented the same ways with the older more familiar literacies and arts in our culture.

But my biggest problem with this preposition is that it allows important clinical data to hide in plain site of the clinician: Our patient telling us that they are on the computer at night tells us next to nothing about what they are doing with it.  The same goes for Facebook or Tumblr.  When someone tells you in your office that they spent several hours on Facebook, do you ask them what they are doing on it?

These question matter, because as technology has become more advanced and mainstream the computer can be used to access many things: information, play, sexual excitement, art, all these and more are a mere mouse-click away.  And when we are told someone is on the computer, I’d suggest we are only one question away from a panoramic window into their conscious and unconscious life.

So to with Facebook.  In 2012 being on Facebook can mean any or all of these: reading, status updating, letter-writing, IMing, game-playing, listening to music, political activism, remembering a birthday, seeing photos of grandchildren, searching content, RSVPing to a party, planning a party, and yes, even having a party.  Many relational things are happening on social media, real connections are beginning, middling and ending on it as you read this.

One good check for you is to pause and ask yourself what you think they are doing on Facebook.  I am often amazed at how disinterested therapists appear to be about that.  I have heard things at workshops like, “I don’t want to have anything to do with Facebook.”  End of subject.  Well, the statistics are accurate, more than half of the people in the US are “on” Facebook.  And I personally think when  half the population is involved in something, we can’t afford to be disinterested in it.  At best this dismissal of a patient’s interest is an empathic failure, at worst it is dangerous.

I believe more and more that we have an ethical duty to educate ourselves about social media sufficiently so that we can help our patients and our society move towards universal digital literacy.  We need to be able to help parents understand privacy settings, as well as challenge them not to think parenting has a privacy setting they can “park” their responsibility on.  We need to help schools help kids learn how to communicate online even as we educate them that cyberbullying is different than traditional bullying, and in fact often more indicative of a moral panic about technology rather than an “epidemic.”  We need to help extend our support of the individual’s reality testing to the online world, or as Howard Rheingold says, help them develop their “crap detector.”

Additionally, we need to become more nuanced in our understanding of what can be done or experienced “on” the computer, in order to understand how to keep psychology and social work relevant.  We need to include video games in play therapy, use Pinterest for DBT skills building, YouTube to provide transitional objects or guided imagery.  These do not have to dilute traditional psychotherapy, but our reluctance to use them does.  As a psychodynamic practitioner I note how we are falling behind our more behaviorally-oriented colleagues in using technology.  Technology has always had its place in psychoanalytic theory, as metaphor, analogy, and the technology of literacy to help us make sense of human experience.  Technology aids and abets the ego defenses, creates another arena for object relations to play out, and provides selfobject functions.

We are not just “on” the computer or Facebook, our relationship with them and their’s with us is much more complicated than that.  If by on we are talking about position, we’ve got the position all wrong.  “On” implies perching on top of something, like a precipice.  We are within experiences of the computer and social media, the plunge has been taken and we are swimming in it.  Now we need to begin to figure out what that means.


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  1. Great post! Just last night I had a chance to go onto Facebook with a parent and teen to reframe a post she had seen on another’s wall and talked about – we went from parental fear and outrage to being impressed about the teen’s dignified responsibility. Then there’s sharing a video on an iPad in session and discussing, and apps like Wreck this App where clients can take a picture of themselves and paint all over it. We’ve only just begun to use tech as a way to connect.

  2. Vivien K. Zak says

    I definitely see your points, Mike. And I am simultaneouly reminded of my own youth. From age 12 “on,” I spent some 2+ hours each night “on” the phone for most of my junior HS and HS years, with my mother saying things like, “I don’t understand what you two have to talk about! You see her in school every day.” There was an aspect then — early to mid-1970s — of being “on” the phone that indicated a new way of using the phone, different from how our parents had done, perhaps. To me, those hours and hours were spent bulding a separate life, a separate identity and separate values, from those I had “at” home.

  3. “…more than half of the people in the US are “on” Facebook.”

    Great point. Technology is important to us a culture but I think that most digital immigrants are a little perplexed by the whole thing. Unlike their kids, they don’t see the potential for connection and expression. I was had a session that I was able to connect with a younger client because I could understand that playing Call of Duty online does not come with a pause button. His mom ended therapy shortly thereafter.

    I am willing to bet that most clinicians use technology and social media at least personally. We do need to understand what meaning that being “on” the computer has for someone. For some I have worked with the connections on Facebook are as real and important as physical relationships.

    Great post!

  4. I find this spot on. I’ve just this hour completed a discussion document for a communications agency to help them grasp the difference between a website and an immersive 3D world. I’ve asked them to notice the difference between the subjective experience of being “on a website” and “in a virtual world” and therefore to understand that the latter is more than “like being “on” a website with 3D stuff thrown in. Great that I read this before sending it off. I think I will go back an emphasise this important point! Thanks Mike!

  5. Brilliant entry!! 🙂 This is what I was looking for. I enjoyed this article is being very meaningful and contains really good information. I appreciate you mostly in this important issue bcoz why clinicians should use technology and social media for their discussion and communications to help them grasp as always. I think technology and social media are very important to grow their essential services for us. Thanks 🙂

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