In the early 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution, workers in the textile industry began protesting what they considered unfair labor practices. Many of them drove home their demands by destroying the factories’ machinery. It disrupted operations and hit management where it hurt — the pocketbook. These protesters weren’t anti-machinery; they just wanted to ensure that factories weren’t using the technology as an excuse to underpay workers while cheaply and quickly producing inferior goods. Regardless, the moniker the protesters acquired — Luddites — today stands as a synonym for the technophobic.
Few people could be called genuine Luddites these days. It’s almost impossible to avoid the march of technology in the modern age. Do you use the ATM or pay by credit card at the grocery store? You’re using a computer — often one with a touch screen, no less. Your car has a computer, which may or may not require that you learn how to navigate multiple menus just to listen to the radio. You can summon an instant map to your destination, go online to find an unadvertised coupon while at the store, pay for your purchase without opening your wallet — all with your smartphone. There’s seemingly an app for everything, including your social life.
Texting instead of talking, catching up with friends via Facebook instead of a phone call, sharing your photos with the world — a lot has changed. Resistance to ever-expanding and ever-evolving technology options is, most likely, futile.
For some people, adapting to this vast array of new technology feels like sailing into uncharted waters, as though it were an unprecedented challenge. In reality, that’s not the case, notes Craig Windham, a member of the American Counseling Association who works with adolescents in private practice. “Every new wave of technology — telephones, radio, television, the Internet — has been met by initial apprehension,” he points out.
Part of that apprehension likely derives from a lack of knowledge. “I think everyone recognizes that technology is important, but they don’t necessarily understand it,” says Everett Painter, social media chair of ACA’s newly formed Counseling and Technology Interest Network (CTIN). “The speed with which it [technological advancement] develops sometimes outpaces our understanding.”
Is this cornucopia of technology good? Does it truly help us, or is it actually making life more difficult? Counseling Today asked several counselors to share their perspectives on the impact of technology, informed in part by what they’re seeing and hearing in connection with their clients. These questions seem particularly relevant now that many clients are experiencing so much of their lives online.
To begin with, the counselors with whom we spoke said that “good versus bad” is a false dichotomy when it comes to judging technology’s impact. “Technology doesn’t have any inherent goodness or badness,” exclaims Marlene Maheu, president of CTIN. “It’s just a tool … an instrument with which we can do harm or good.”
Finding love online
“The course of true love never did run smooth,” wrote William Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the age of social media, the rocky path to love may largely be charted online. This is particularly true for those in their teens or 20s, who not only vet potential partners on social media platforms but also gauge relationship status and develop further intimacy through site activity, says Renee Sherrell, an assistant professor of counseling and applied behavioral studies at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut. Sherrell has conducted several studies on the interplay between Facebook and college students’ romantic relationships.
For these students who grew up with social media, initiating romance online is a natural process, Sherrell says. One benefit they cite is that it makes the initial “getting to know you stage” less awkward, and they also think it is a better way to determine compatibility.
“Young people can use social media as a way to get to know the person superficially and then decide if they’d like to invest more in the relationship,” Sherrell notes. The students she talked to during her research consistently said that they preferred becoming Facebook friends with someone they were potentially interested in before even giving that person their phone number. That way, they could look at their prospective date’s profile to see whether their likes and dislikes aligned.
Commenting on postings and using Facebook messenger to talk, students increasingly rely on Facebook to communicate with potential partners, Sherrell says. “They like that online talking allows them the opportunity to perfect what they want to say,” she explains. Also, with a comment or text, they can choose to take as long as they want to reply rather than having to respond right away as they would on the phone or in person, Sherrell adds.
Once the students feel comfortable with each other, the interaction typically moves offline, and a relationship may develop. However, as the students in Sherrell’s study informed her, today’s romantic relationships are not “official” until a person’s status on Facebook reads “in a relationship.”
“Students explained that even though they could verbally tell their friends and family about a new partner, putting this news online for ‘everyone’ to see made the relationship more real to both partners,” she elaborates. “Furthermore, for some students, this relationship broadcasting also allows both partners’ friends to see that this is an exclusive relationship.”
Of course, there are also potential downsides to these virtual public displays of affection. By their nature, Facebook and other social media invite and encourage others to comment and offer their opinions, which may or may not be helpful, and, in some cases, can be actively negative, Sherrell says. This can have the effect of jaundicing not just the romance but also other friendships and relationships.
Another significant drawback to having a love life that plays out online is that it can be harder to detach when the relationship is over, Sherrell notes. “Many times young people decide not to unfriend or stop following an ex-partner in order to be able to still ‘see’ them [and] keep up with their life after their relationship,” she explains. “This can lead to increased heartache and sadness, which can lead to impairment in daily functioning. Some college students have reported skipping classes, calling off work and staying home from social gatherings.”
However, on balance, Sherrell believes that today’s connection between dating and social media is a positive. “I think that social media makes relationships easier for young people because it is their normal,” she says. “Although they report that at times it makes it confusing and complicated, in general, they enjoy it and feel happy to have another means of communication and connection.”
Sherrell notes that in the ever-changing landscape of social media, Facebook is already becoming passé for young people, including current college students. It is being replaced by platforms such as Snapchat (an application in which messages are more transient because texts self-destruct several seconds after being opened) and Instagram, a photo-sharing site. However, Sherrell thinks that students’ behavior on Facebook also applies to other prevalent social media platforms.
Wrestling with the ‘perfect’ image
Turning the camera on ourselves to snap a self-portrait is not a new phenomenon, but in the Internet age, the selfie has become ubiquitous. Selfies tell our stories: where we travel, what we celebrate, whom we love, what we feel and so on. Unfortunately, they can also drive an obsession with personal appearance.
The pursuit of others’ approval has expanded from websites such as Am I Hot or Not? to encompass entire social media platforms, such as the hugely popular site Instagram, which is somewhat like Facebook for photos. Users post pictures of all kinds to Instagram, from stark and barren winter landscapes to spectacular sunsets to the recent and widely shared images of rainbows over Ireland in the wake of the popular vote there that legalized gay marriage.
But the selfie is the lifeblood of Instagram. People who post pictures can use filters and tools to change a photo’s appearance, making it black and white, gauzy, sepia toned or adding other effects. They can also use programs such as Photoshop to significantly alter images, including thinning certain body parts, getting rid of a double chin or adjusting skin complexion. Once these images are posted, anyone can “like” or make comments about the photos. Users can also “follow” other users, be they friends, strangers or even celebrities.
Following can be fun, but for some people, it can also become obsessive and, in some cases, toxic. Michelle Bruno, a counseling professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, believes this widespread cultivation of the “perfect” image is exacerbating the struggle that many teenage girls already have with negative self-image.
“As adolescents, they are already engaging in social comparisons and fighting unrealistic media images at every turn,” notes Bruno, who studies trauma and resiliency in adolescent girls. Now they are also faced with the seemingly perfect images being portrayed on their friends’ social media accounts and on other websites. “[Adolescent girls] strive to maintain an online image and presence, to either take the ‘perfect’ picture or at least edit it in a way that makes it look perfect,” Bruno says.
According to Bruno, girls may obsess over several types of questions with their selfies. Among them: Is the lighting right? How about the pose? Are my friends editing their photos a lot, or do they just naturally look better than me?
Bruno asserts that women and girls are already socialized to value themselves on the basis of their appearance, and selfies create virtually endless opportunities to self-critique. And once their images become public via social media and the Internet, the likelihood that these girls will be demeaned, belittled or sexualized greatly increases, Bruno says.
“Additionally, girls can learn to garner their value from this external reinforcement,” she says. “They do not learn how to value themselves. They base their value on the reactions, ‘likes,’ responses and ideals of others.” Experiencing this at a time when self-esteem and cognitive development are still forming is particularly worrisome, Bruno says.
However, if social media and the Internet are often judged to be bad influences on the self-worth of female adolescents, so too can they help to counter the negative messages that girls are receiving, Bruno emphasizes. The widespread connectivity that the Internet allows can enable girls to find groups and individuals who want to emphasize positive messages about self-esteem and self-worth.
“There are currently many websites and Facebook pages full of many voices that advocate for body-positive, self-affirming and gender-equalizing stances,” says Bruno, citing examples such as A Mighty Girl, Girls Inc., Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls and To Write Love on Her Arms.
Just as the Internet can widely disseminate unrealistic (perfect) photos of celebrities, it can also be used to spread the message of celebrities who speak out about gender equality, diversity, positive body images and self-acceptance. In our celebrity-obsessed culture, these messages can have a profound effect on girls, Bruno emphasizes.
If people can change the critical things they tell themselves and focus on finding things they like about how they look, Bruno says, selfies can be used as a tool to allow girls and women to see and define their own unique beauty. “We must create platforms to discuss and combat the messaging and the factors that contribute to the way we see ourselves,” she urges.
From the playground to the computer: Cyberbullying
The relative anonymity of the Internet is in many ways a good thing. People can seek information on topics that they’re too embarrassed to talk about, and those with social anxiety may find it easier to interact with others when they can remain unseen and unnamed. However, anonymity has also allowed one particularly toxic behavior to bloom: cyberbullying.
Anyone can become a victim of cyberbullying, whether it involves abusive comments being posted on a personal blog, malicious rumors being spread through postings on Facebook or even doxxing, which is the public release of personal information that has previously been kept private, such as a person’s real name or alias, home address, phone number, place of work or Social Security number.
However, children and teenagers are particularly at risk for cyberbullying, says ACA member Janet Froeschle Hicks, an associate professor of counselor education at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. “I think the anonymity of the Internet has opened an environment where kids who might not otherwise have bullied someone feel safe to do so,” she says. “Covert bullying has always been around, but the Internet offers a place to express this bullying behavior without a need for face-to-face interaction. This depersonalization and anonymity lead to the perception that there will be no consequences for hurtful actions.”
Whether cyberbullying represents an actual increase in bullying behavior is unclear, Hicks notes. However, she believes that the effects of cyberbullying can be even more devastating than traditional bullying because of cyberbullying’s 24/7 nature.
With traditional “offline” bullying, the abuse typically takes place on school grounds, and leaving school at the end of the day provides the victim with some type of respite, Hicks explains. In other words, going home might provide at least temporary sanctuary. When bullying takes place online, however, whatever is posted or said is there around the clock and always accessible for everyone to see.
“Years ago, when a kid was bullied, [he or she] might be taunted for a few weeks and eventually be able to forget about it because it became old news,” Hicks says. “Today, this same bullying incident is posted online, and the victim is forced to relive the incident every day for years.”
There are many ways to humiliate someone online, she notes. Examples include:
- Creating websites that contain stories, cartoons, pictures, rumors and jokes about a person or group of people
- Posting pictures of classmates online and asking students to rate them, with questions such as “Who is the biggest (derogatory term)?”
- Hacking into someone’s email or social media account and sending vicious or embarrassing material to others
- Engaging someone in an instant messaging conversation, tricking them into revealing sensitive personal information and then forwarding that information to others
- Taking a picture of someone in the locker room and sending that picture to others
- Posting malicious and cruel gossip about someone on social media or other public forums
The Internet also provides bullies with a much larger audience in front of whom they can demean others, Hicks notes. As a result, moving across town, to a new city or even to a new state doesn’t automatically stop the humiliation to which the victim is subjected. She believes that this might create more devastating and longer lasting emotional damage than offline bullying does.
Many parents think that the key to avoiding cyberbullying is to have their children stop going online, but that tactic is unrealistic, according to Hicks. Although it may be a good idea for adolescents to temporarily stay away from sites where they are being bullied, cutting the online cord entirely is impractical for this generation of children, she says. The Internet has become a “hangout” for today’s children and teenagers; it is where they socialize and interact with friends. And from a purely practical standpoint, many of today’s youth also require access to the Internet to complete homework, she notes. Rather than ban all online activity, Hicks advises parents to become familiar with social media sites and online safety strategies so they can help guide their children and provide them with emotional support when instances of cyberbullying do occur.
Despite the prevalence of cyberbullying, Hicks thinks that social media and the Internet offer many more positive effects than negative ones. For example, she says, social media platforms can be used to build supportive networks, and the global reach of the Internet brings opportunities to chat with people from all over the world.
“Never in history have we had the opportunities we now have to learn about culture,” she says, adding that learning about and building relationships with diverse groups of people can also help foster greater acceptance of others.
A way to stay connected
It’s easy for people who grew up in the age before personal computers and smartphones to focus on the negative aspects of life online, notes Windham, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Washington, D.C., who is also a reporter and newscaster for NPR. But for younger people, it’s just one more way to interact, he notes.
“I think most young people see social media as an extension of their face-to-face friendships, another way to stay connected and communicate with them,” Windham says. “[But] they still much prefer hanging out in person with friends.”
However, today’s teenagers often have less freedom to wander out on their own, Windham points out, so texting and posting from their smartphones and other mobile devices enable them to “hang out” with their friends as previous generations used to do at the mall or other public spaces.
From Windham’s perspective, the online disinhibition that can motivate adolescents to post questionable pictures and intemperate interactions can also have significant positive benefits. For example, online interaction can encourage children and teenagers to move beyond surface pleasantries and into more substantive sharing, he explains.
“Teenagers will often share things about themselves online — say on a Facebook chat or on Tumblr — that they might be reluctant to reveal in person, and by doing so, open themselves up to getting help,” Windham says.
In fact, the teenagers in the church youth group with which Windham works helped prevent a possible suicide thanks to open sharing on social media. “One of these teens noticed on his Facebook newsfeed that a student at his high school had posted a message that indicated he might be suicidal,” Windham recounts. “Even though the teen barely knew this student — only his first name — he went out of his way to track down where he lived and call his parents to warn them.”
Fortunately, another student had already warned the boy’s parents, who confirmed that their son had indeed intended to take his life.
Windham points out that younger people are usually early adopters of any new technology, and he thinks the rest of us can learn something from their attitude about it — namely, not focusing so much on what’s negative or scary, but finding out how it can be useful to you.
“The technology that puts constant connectivity in the palm of our hands has upsides and downsides,” he says. “It’s how we use that technology that matters most, and that is strongly influenced by the personal traits we bring to it.”
The Counseling and Technology Interest Network
The Counseling and Technology Interest Network (CTIN) is a newly formed official interest network of the American Counseling Association that was approved by the ACA Governing Council in March. The mission of CTIN is to provide useful support to ACA members who are seeking to responsibly apply technology across the spectrum of counseling research, education, policy and practice. For more information, join the discussion at ACA Connect by going to community.counseling.org/home, choosing the “Communities” menu and then selecting “Interest Groups.” CTIN can also be found on Twitter: @counselingtech.
To contact the individuals interviewed for this article, email:
- Michelle Bruno at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Janet Froeschle Hicks at email@example.com
- Marlene Maheu through telehealth.org
- Everett Painter at Everett.Painter@ws.edu
- Renee Sherrell at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Craig Windham at email@example.com
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com