How technology can exacerbate mental health problems

The AP alert flashed over my phone, its words chilling — gun shooter — elementary school-Connecticut — then the report: 27 killed, 20 of them young children. Killed by a young adult not old enough to legally buy a drink, but able to get his hands on a fearsome amount of firepower, and old enough to have developed a hatred of others that nobody will ever comprehend.

Struggling with this since, I have realized a few truths. These children and this shooter are no different than my patients in my pediatric practice. We see children from first day of life through-22 years of age. We see innocent little ones and difficult adolescents. We see children, some happy and well adjusted, while others are clearly lonely, anxious, depressed and oppositional.

Our technological advances, those that we hail as great improvements in many of our careers and lives have not benefited us in managing mental health problems. In fact, technology may have played a role in exacerbating the problem.

Kids can bully on the Internet 24/7 without ever seeing the emotional impact on the face of their victim. The power of social media allows them infinite resources to torture from behind a seemingly  impenetrable wall. Video games are abound with violence; these, I refuse to view myself. Movies are now accessible at the tap of a finger and sadly, many of the most popular of them illustrate in blood and gore the power and lethality of guns. These films rarely show the emotional endpoint of the deaths of their countless characters.

Video games are available even for free across a countless sea of electronic devices; many glorify the power of killing. Television?  You can’t even count the channels. The enormous popularity of the CSI series and the like, as well as an unending library of on-demand, violent content; it’s available all day and all night from the family living room through to the borderless possibilities of our teens’ tablet computers.

In my office, I run late sometimes, okay, frequently. When I open the door to the room, there are the patients — 4-year olds watching movies, teenagers texting or playing shoot’em-up video games — even parents are forever texting, gaming on iPhones, or reading on Kindles. I used to joke with parents that “I am sorry I am running late, but happy I was able to provide them some quality time with their children.” These days, I am not so sure. Is there such a thing as quality human time or are we all so attached to our electronic devices that we don’t know how to be with our children? With each other?

As pediatricians we are supposed to talk about everything in our 15 minutes slots. In addition to the medical basics, we are expected to address parental concerns about management of complex psychological issues. There are barely enough mental health professionals in this country to man the acute care facilities and crisis centers.  Resources for patients with problems like the shooter, or for other children with less serious, but still significant behavioral concerns are scarce. Is it possible to prevent another Newtown slaughter?  We have many discussions to have about gun control, mental health, culture and education.  What can we do as we race through our day?

Don’t get me wrong, I am one big-time technology fan and I sure appreciate the benefits, but I think I will be trying much harder to encourage my patients to spend more time with people and less time in front of a screen — not only because it will help prevent obesity, but because it will help foster humanity in what seems to be an increasingly inhuman world.

Sally Ginsburg is a pediatrician and is a regular contributor to the athenahealth blog.

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