A Canary in the Coal Mine

A Canary in the Coal Mine

A Canary in the Coal Mine Michael MacDonald, MA, RP

The Holiday season is fast approaching! Before you go out to the mall to buy your loved ones, or yourself, the latest high tech gadget, however, let me tell you about dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane.
 
In 1945, an effective pesticide called dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) was introduced to the public market. Widely available, it was considered safe for wildlife and agriculture. However, early on a number of scientists warned of possible side effects; their warnings went unheeded. The first casualties, or the “canary in the coal mine”, were literally many species of birds; it took longer for it to show up in humans and it was almost thirty years before this noxious, cancer causing substance was banned.
 
Technology and scientific advancement, it seems, is often ten steps ahead of us. There are countless examples of disastrous consequences to what we initially thought to be helpful technological advances. We can’t always know the consequences of our advancements until they have been incorporated into our lives and we depend on them. After all, that’s what technology is for, to make our lives easier and to advance us as a species, right?
 
We now live in the information age where, at a click of a button, we can access more information than thought possible than even just twenty-five years ago. Computers have a place in pretty much every aspect of our lives. Think about it, there are young families now where all of the family members, including the parents, have only known a digital world of computers, smart phones, video games, the internet, Facebook, Twitter, Snap Chat, Instagram, etc... They aren’t able to make the comparison of life before computers to how things are now. This is just how things have always been.
 
Of course the benefits of these digital tools are many. I can talk on my smart phone hands-free, while my driving app navigates me around traffic; then I can ask my phone to look up the number and directions for a restaurant. It’s science fiction! And the rate of scientific advancement is exponential. In five years these technologies will seem like child’s play. And I’ll be left in the dust shaking my obsolete iPhone 5 in the air yelling “what do you mean that App isn’t compatible with my IOS?!”
 
So where does this leave us? With the ever quickening pace of techno-evolution how do we know what the consequences are? Like with DDT, can we afford to wait thirty years to see the longitudinal effects? How is our “canary in the coal mine” doing? In fact, what is our canary in this case?
 
Fortunately as we advance in technology we also advance in our ability to study ourselves as a species. Unfortunately though, the initial numbers are in and they are not looking so good. They are revealing that our children and their families are in fact, the canaries showing signs of distress.

 
Initial studies are showing disturbing trends. For instance, The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health surveyed 9000 students ages 8-12 and about 10% reported at least 7 hours a day of screen time (this includes TV, video games, texting, social media...etc.) Other studies are revealing how as little as 2 hours a day of screen use in young children contributes to attention problems. Other studies show an increase in anxiety and depression in all ages related to certain media use. 
 
Comparisons are being made to “process addictions” like gambling, work and porn addiction where the user develops an unhealthy psychological and even biological dependency. They experience a decline in the quality of other aspects of their life like school and work performance, poor sleep, an increase in family relationship conflict and poor psychological functioning. The effects are showing up not only in children but in whole families.
 
What we’re also learning is why these devices are so addictive. Many addiction specialists agree that addiction happens when a person receives a “reward” for participating in an activity and then continue to seek that reward. In process addictions the reward is a boost in feel good chemicals in the body like endorphins and serotonin. These natural processes in the body help a person feel good. It’s similar to the “high” that runners experience. At face value this doesn’t seem like an issue; there’s nothing wrong with wanting to do things that make us feel good.
 
The problem arises when a person “uses” something like gambling, work or videogames to make them feel good and it’s due to the absence of feeling good in the rest of their life.  Many “gamers” talk about the sense of purpose, achievement and control they have while engrossed in the game experience. It can be a powerful distraction from any feeling negative feelings or lack of control or purpose in one’s life. This isn’t to say that something needs to be wrong in a person’s life to become addicted to tech.
 
Facebook has over 1.5 billion users worldwide. Beyond the fact that it’s a great tool for staying connected and for social change, there must be something else going on that makes it so hard to resist. Social media platforms like Facebook have their own unique “hooks” that grab us. Ever find yourself endlessly scrolling, hoping to find that interesting article or post…or cat video? (I love cat videos). It has the flavour of standing at a slot machine with the hope that the next pull of the arm will be the jack pot…or the next pull…or the next…      
 
Regardless of why these things take up so much time and energy, the fact is that we are seeing how they directly contribute to dysfunction in individuals, families and even society. It feels better to calm myself in the virtual world where I have control rather than struggle with my child who is demanding my attention in really negative ways. It’s easier to get lost in fast paced, exciting video games than it is to sit with the discomfort of boredom and allow myself to just “be” for a while. There’s practically no effort in clicking “like” on an old friend’s Facebook post to let them know you’re thinking of them versus taking the risk to call that old friend and asking them to coffee.
 
I do not claim to be immune to the pull of these flashy things. It wasn’t that long ago that I proudly proclaimed that I was not on Facebook until I caved in and opened my own account. I have spent many hours searching for that next interesting or funny or inspirational video. It wasn’t until recently that I identified a particular feeling I’m always left with after “using” Facebook. It’s similar to how I feel when I have an occasional cigarette (I use to smoke a pack a day). There’s a longing, even an excitement about indulging; I enjoy the first few inhales and by about half way through I start to feel gross but something tells me that the next inhale will be better so I ignore the feeling; I finish and butt out and immediately feel disgusting and full of regret. (my social media experience isn’t quite so dramatic but what’s similar is that I seem to be ignoring a growing discomfort hoping for something better).
 
So what is the answer? How do we utilize and enjoy these wonderful technological advances without losing touch with ourselves and others? Once again it seems that through adversity comes innovation. Many parents are beginning to institute scheduled screen time both for themselves and the kids so that screens don’t become the default activity. People are intentionally reclaiming time to focus on personal relationships, doing simple things that we take for granted like family board game night or going to the park. Individuals are going on social media fasts for weeks or months at a time and finding more fulfilling activities like calling a friend, reading a book or writing in a journal.
 
So if we listen to our own personal canary in the coal mine, we may hear a longing for connection and meaning. Are we willing to turn the volume down or even unplug in order to hear its call?
 
For further reading on Gaming and process addiction go to: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/video-game-addiction-does-it-exist-1.879584
 
For information about treatment of process addictions go to:
http://www.camh.ca/en/hospital/care_program_and_services/addiction_programs/Pages/guide_problem_gambling_srv.aspx