Staff Perspective: Technology and Relationships - Finding the Balance in an Electronic Life

Staff Perspective: Technology and Relationships - Finding the Balance in an Electronic Life

Technology is changing our world.  The benefits of technological advances are clearly evident in many areas such as improved medical care, enhanced automobile safety, and substantial lifestyle conveniences.   No one would argue that these changes enrich our lives and make us potentially safer and healthier.  On the other hand, there are applications of technology that may be reducing our quality of life—possibly in ways that are not obvious to us now.   More and more people are becoming aware of the impact of smartphones, tablets, and easy Internet access on our ability to think, maintain relationships, and remain productive.

It has even been proposed that overuse of technological media can change our brains structurally in ways that will, over time, rob us of the ability to think deeply and utilize our cognitive horsepower!  This is a controversial topic, and undoubtedly people will have varying opinions, but no one can argue that various forms of technology are changing how we interact with each other.  You don’t have to look far to notice that in small and large groups of people, most everyone has a smartphone, and many of those individuals are as engaged with their phones as they are with the people around them, if not, more.    

So, how does this apply to mental health, and the military specifically?  Well, we know that healthy relationships contribute to good mental health, and conversely, troubled relationships create risk for mental health problems.  Perhaps some of today’s relationship woes and mental health problems are a by-product of our increasing use of technological gadgets. 

To learn more about this possibility in a military context, I interviewed Lt. Col. Kirk Rowe, an Air Force neuropsychologist at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.  In addition to serving as a neuropsychologist, Lt. Col. Rowe is also the Training Director for the Clinical Psychology Internship at Wright Patterson AFB.   He has a 21-year history as an Air Force psychologist, and has held numerous leadership positions along the way.  The subject of the impact of technology on relationships is somewhat of a passion for him, and he has spoken to many audiences about this in his career. Let’s hear Lt. Col. Rowe’s thoughts about the impact of technology on relationships.

Dr. Regina Shillinglaw: Lt Rowe, what prompted your interest in the subject of technology and relationships? 

Lt. Col. Kirk Rowe: “It was when I moved to Misawa and was the Flight Commander there and noticed that many of the Family Advocacy cases that came in were related to the guy’s [husband’s] use of technology or video games.  I remember that one of the cases time was when a woman took her husband’s X-Box and threw it over the railing outside.  She was fed up with his constant use of video games.  That got them [the couple] a visit to the Mental Health Clinic and really was the start of my interest in this as a topic.

Then, in 2007, I met a military guy who was playing World of Warcraft—I had never heard of that before—10 to 13 hours a day.   As you can imagine, this was not helping him socially.  He probably didn’t start out as a very socially skilled person and his video game use was putting him even further behind and causing him some problems in the workplace.

Next, I specifically asked Family Advocacy headquarters about this phenomenon—wondering if they were seeing relationship problems or family problems related to technology and they said that they definitely were—problems with both parents and children as a result of becoming engrossed in video games and computer games.   There have actually been infant deaths due to video game overuse.  I believe the parents play late into the night and then are not able to hear their children crying because they themselves are so tired.  If they take a sleeping pill, this adds to the problem even more.   These children are found malnourishment at the time of death so this would not likely be a one-night event that would cause their death, but likely a pattern of consistent neglect. 

Around this same time, I also began to notice Airmen coming in to work in the morning with red eyes, seeming tired.  That began to be my first question—‘how much are they playing games at night?’   I learned of a few that were overdoing it and some would not admit it.” 

RS: What did you think about this from a flight commander’s perspective?

KR: “My thought when I went to Japan [Misawa] was that we did not have many people in the clinic to provide services for the entire base.  Therefore, my approach was ‘How can I keep people from coming to the mental health clinic?  Is there some way I can educate people, so they don’t need to come to mental health?’  I know that may seem unwelcoming, but I was trying to think in terms of prevention.  Since we were working with limited resources in the mental health clinic and did not have a lot of people to provide all the needed services, I started getting out and doing talks on base.  It started as a suicide prevention topic and how relationships impact people’s overall mental health.  And, as we know, relationship problems are often involved when there is a suicide.  Over the years, I have given these talks on military bases, at a few universities, the annual Family Advocacy conference, and also while on deployment.”

RS:  You mentioned talking about technology and relationships in the context of suicide prevention.  Tell me more about what you think about the connection between suicide and technology?

KR: “I’m not saying technology is causing it [suicide] but it is causing relationship stress.  I believe that if people are less tolerant of the pain and suffering that comes with relationships, that’s not a positive trend.  Relationships hurt, but they are also a great source of joy and strength for all of us and we need to be able to navigate the highs and lows of relationships, hoping that the lows aren’t too low.  Also, we all know that not every relationship works out.  How do we recover from that?   I knew of a guy on deployment who put a gun to his head because his girlfriend was going to break up with him.  He took a picture of this and sent it to her—that is not a good sign!  That got him sent home from deployment and he was very embarrassed.  And as the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide suggests, thwarted belongingness is a part of suicide risk, and overuse of technology can hinder belongingness.”

RS:  But a lot of people would say that technology enhances interpersonal connections and belongingness.  Think of all the friends you can have on Facebook!

KR: Yes, but it seems like technology increases neediness in relationships—people seem to need so much these days.  One relationship cannot provide everything that someone needs, so I think technology makes it easy for people to get their needs met outside of the relationship which can be problematic, depending on what needs are being met!

When I was deployed, I went out to eat with about 6 other people and right when we sat down, the guy next to me pulled out his phone and began playing a game.  He was probably 35 years old and he started playing a game while the person next to him pulled out her phone and was engrossed in it.  I was stunned.  Some would call that rude, but it has somehow evolved into acceptable these days.  I began engaging in conversation with the 4 other people at the table, asking questions about previous assignments, places they visited in Europe, whether they had visitors or not, and what kind of truck they were getting ready to buy when they returned.  Interestingly, by the end of the meal, I realized that no one asked one question of me.  I never recall that happening before.

I often ask my daughter about how it’s possible to be close with 100 friends on Facebook.  The depth will be lacking—it’s similar to buying a few hits on iTunes off of an album.  I always tell her to go deeper and buy the entire whole album.  There are likely many other good songs on the album that will never make the radio.  The same with friends; go beyond the surface. 

RS:  What are some common consequences of technology on relationships that you observe today? 

KR: “I think people feel slighted sometimes.  It seems like it’s hard for people to pay attention to the person that they are with—it’s like ‘we’ve been in the car for an hour and you’ve been talking to someone else the whole time! What about me?!’   My impression is that the phone always seems to win out.  I know that the phone used to ring before, when it was hanging on the wall at home and we usually answered it, but now that it’s with us all the time it seems more disruptive.  I think people get their feelings hurt.  I read a statistic that 6% of people will interrupt sex to check a text, and that’s most likely not the best response in that type of situation.

Another subtle result includes losing the art of conversation.  I know people who just don’t like to call; I hear of people saying that they get too nervous when making a phone call…that they prefer to text.  I think we are losing something there when we aren’t looking at people and talking to one another.   When I was in Japan, I tried to initiate Commitment Friday: I was proposing that people take that day and talk to each other face to face [which is a personal commitment].  Talking on the phone and writing letters are also bigger commitments than only emailing or texting.  Facebook and group emails are even more diffuse, lessoning the intimacy that binds two people together.  I have heard of people hearing important information from friends on Facebook and they feel hurt.  They kind of wonder ‘Why didn’t she tell me one-on-one that she was pregnant?’  It seems impersonal through social media.

I have also heard of people having entire second lives online—in fact, there is an online environment called Second Life—and sometimes it takes over actual life.  I learned of one person’s suicide note that reflected this; the note said that his real life could not live up to his online life and that was part of his distress…it was not the only reason he killed himself but still, it was significant.   And of course, we all hear of countless affairs online.  One guy in a book I was reading said that he needed his online relationship to make his real life one work.  I don’t understand that, and it doesn’t seem like a real positive for his real life relationship and family. 

We are developing the need to project our lives onto others all the time.  It’s like we cannot just sit still with our own thoughts anymore; we feel like we have to share everything with others.   At the same time, there seems to be distance between people because of technology.  I was reading a book about the impact of technology and one mother described how her daughter was in Paris and was constantly texting and emailing friends back in the U.S. instead of being present and engaged with the world she was in—Paris!  The mother suggested that her daughter write a letter to her from Paris since this had been something that the woman had done with her own mother a long time ago.  Curiously, the daughter declined and asked ‘What would the subject be?’  It was kind of sad for the mother who had hoped to have a mother-daughter tradition like she had experienced.”

RS:   Do you think that the military population is different with regard to technology’s impact on relationships?

KR: “I think it is mostly the same, but when I was deployed I was struck by the neediness I mentioned before and that some people need to talk to their spouse or significant other numerous times per day.  This seems odd that they need to tell them every step of their day—“I’m going to eat dinner now!”  Or, “I’m going to the gym now!”    During my deployment, a few people were even keeping their Skype on all night so they could hear their spouse sleep!  That seems like a control issue, insecurity—issues that will continue to surface more and more often in the mental health world as our lives become more interwoven with technology.  And sometimes people I was deployed with had a hard time connecting with people in the deployed setting because they were so worried about staying connected to home.  I knew people who were texting 50 times per day in addition to calling multiple times per day!  I suggested to one guy that he tell his wife that he was going to turn his phone off for several hours so he could get some good sleep and he started crying at the thought of turning his phone off. “

RS:  What do you think about social media? 

KR: “I think of movie ratings when I think of this.  We have movie ratings to protect our kids and I think we need to do the same when it comes to social media.  I wonder how helpful it is for us, and particularly children, to use it.  I think children need to be doing other things besides showing the world what they have done.  I think it’s beneficial to do something just to enjoy it instead of constantly projecting your life to the crowd.

I think the thwarted belongingness I mentioned above is particularly hard when done on social media for the whole world to see.  There have been some examples of when this has happened to young people especially, and there have been some very bad outcomes.”

RS:  What’s the difference between the way it is now and when we were younger and wanted to talk on the phone all the time as teenagers?  That seems like an expected part of development.

KR: “Now, it’s with us all the time.  And everything, not just the phone, is right there.  It’s so hard not to jump in.   We don’t have to wait for anything anymore.

It’s interesting how this has come on slowly, and kind of fast in some ways, too.  None of us were ever really asked to be hooked up 24/7, but we are all now.  We [in the Psychology Department at Wright-Patterson] have talked about that with our residents who have wondered if they need to be accessible all the time to the clinic leadership.  If they are on call for emergencies, then they do need to be available.  But otherwise, no!   We are in the military, but we don’t need to be constantly and instantly available all the time.  Do yourself a favor and walk away from the phone for a few hours, and spend some uninterrupted time with your own thoughts or with your friends and family.”

RS: So, what to do about all this technology?  It’s here and not going away, so what do you recommend?

KR: “I mean, with video games, as a professional and a parent, I would just say ‘No.’ They will not be a part of children’s childhood.  If you cannot say ‘No,’ then limit them to a couple of hours on the weekend.  During the week, young people need to be focused on school and the real world around them. 

With Facebook, I would say ‘No’ as long as possible.  I am not sure how to control that or set limits other than just saying ‘No.’ Children can talk to their own therapist in 20 years about how difficult it was growing up without Facebook.  

We are losing the battle.  The last time I did the talk for the Psychology residents about technology and relationships, one of them said that when she worked on an inpatient psych unit for adolescents, 40% of the admissions were related to the stressor of a parent limiting time on their phone, video game, or something of the like.   These teenagers were cutting on themselves and sometimes suicidal because they lost their technology.  That seems like an addiction to me and should make all of us pause and consider the influence of technology on all of us. 

We have created a world where we all need access to technology, but I think that balance is the key.  The default will be to plug into the world, but when you thoughtfully disconnect you can ensure that you are ‘in the moment’ with the people you are with.  We all probably need to do a little better at this.“

RS: Thank you for your time, Lt. Col. Rowe!

As we know, the use of technology in our world has grown exponentially in recent years.  Even if we could “stop the train,” who would chose to do so, given the added convenience and improved quality of life we experience from technology in so many ways?  However, Lt. Col. Rowe’s observations and concerns are shared by many, and we all know that the way we connect with others is changing.  Whether we are more connected to others or less connected is a matter of opinion, and perhaps the final answer on this remains to be seen.  However, it would be wise for those on each side of the discussion to remain open and to continue to ask questions so that we benefit from advances in technology without paying a price that seems too high.

Dr. Regina Shillinglaw is a Deployment Behavioral Health Psychologist for the CDP at Wright-Patterson Medical Center in Ohio.