Thanatechnology: Any kind of technology that can be used to deal with death, dying, grief, loss and illness.
Kelly (an alias), an eighth-grader, sits with her friends in the school auditorium as her principal calls out the names of each of her classmates who were killed in the recent shooting. To honor the lives of these young people, the school is hosting a remembrance ceremony. As tears run down her face, Kelly huddles close to her schoolmates and clicks away on her phone posting messages on several social network sites and a memorial site that she and her friends created. A text message pops up from a boy she met on one of the sites. He is a survivor of a school shooting that happened a couple of years ago — he understands.
Tony’s (alias) phone vibrates, rousing him from his slumber. He looks at the clock – it’s 2 a.m. He has to be up for school in just a few hours. He squints, trying to read the alert on his phone. Another teenager has died from drug overdose. He heaves a mournful sigh and turns on the bedside lamp. His phone begins to blow up with social media posts. The deceased didn’t attend his school but is related to his girlfriend’s best friend. Tony attempts to return to sleep, but he keeps thinking about the teenager [and] wondering why it happened.
Without a doubt, the youth of today are often exposed to significant and traumatic losses. Traditionally, we have marked death with rituals such as funerals and memorials and grieved with the support of counseling, faith communities and neighbors. In more recent years, technology has provided additional ways to remember and mourn, such as creating online memorials, seeking distant or virtual grief counseling and connecting with family, friends and even strangers without geographical limitations. It erases time and distance and allows for virtual experiences and expressions that promote a narrative that lives forever.
Digital Presence and Youth
In Dying, Death, and Grief in an Online Universe, researchers Kathleen R. Gilbert and Michael Massimi observe that digital technology can “bring people together for social support, provide information, and offer a venue for conducting grief work such as telling stories or building digital memorials.”
In another section of the book, researcher Carla Sofka writes that young people are even more likely to seek grief support online. Sofka explains that the internet, social media and other digital platforms are where younger generations are most comfortable because they provide opportunities for social interaction; a sense of independence and privacy; the ability to express and form their own identity; a sense of community that includes those that are marginalized; and instant alerts and communication. All of these elements allow youth to seek and find like-minded communities that can provide immediate support and strategies for coping with myriad life issues — including death and dying, and grief and loss.
Online bereavement forums and chat rooms provide a sense of social connection with users. Sites such as Caring Bridge allow multiple users to maintain a virtual journal offering information and capturing narratives that are accessible to members. Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram create spaces where youth can just “hang out.” Video calling technology such as FaceTime and Skype bridge the distance between users and promote interaction and communication. Additionally, grief counseling may be offered via video, phone, chat or email formats.
Independence and Sense of Privacy
Teens turn to technology to carve out a private space for self-expression. However, research indicates that internet use often provides the illusion of anonymity, which may encourage a false sense of privacy. The struggle for privacy is nothing new: The tension between privacy and personal expression has existed between teens and parents for decades. In It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, danah boyd*, principal researcher at Microsoft Research notes that social media introduced a new dimension to this age-old power struggle. Instead of worrying about what teens wear outside, parents are concerned about what pictures teens are posting about what they wear outside.
[*boyd prefers to spell her name with lowercase letters.]
“Although teens grapple with managing their identity and navigating youth-centric communities while simultaneously maintaining spaces for intimacy, they do so under the spotlight of a media ecosystem designed to publicize every teen fad, moral panic, and new hyped technology,” writes boyd.
Yet, online spaces allow for exploration of feelings and thoughts, examination of death anxiety, and expression of grief and loss. For example, a 14 year- old client crafted an entire mix of music and prose around the complicated emotions she experienced related to the death of her estranged father who had abused her as a little girl. Using an alias, she posted the eulogy online and watched as strangers connected with her, validating her feelings and experience.
Expression and Influence of Identity Formation
The internet provides creative space for expressing grief and honoring loved ones. Sites such as KIDSAID.com, offer children the opportunity to connect, interact and creatively express their grief. In addition to expressive sites and online memorial services such as Legacy, Remembered.com and Your Tribute provide an unfettered opportunity to honor loss, especially for those who are marginalized or disenfranchised. The use of letters, photos and sound provide rich and detailed memorials that allow users to express their grief, absorb their loss and ultimately move forward.
Sense of Community
Blogs provide a venue to capture experiences and to cultivate topic-based virtual communities. Boyd suggests that these constructed networks serve as a public place to interact with real and imagined communities, thus satisfying a desire to be part of a broader world.
Online communication is often in real time. Twitter, Snapchat and a variety of other digital sites offer instant notifications and ongoing engagement. Technology allows users to gather multiple streams of almost instantaneous information from afar. For example, recently I was at a social gathering where a young woman, glued to her phone, was continuously texting. At one point I interjected, “Is everything alright?” She looked up and shook her head. “No, I have a friend who was just in a car accident and the medics are transporting her to shock trauma. Her parents are on their way to the hospital — but no one thinks she’s going to make it.”
The accident occurred in another state, yet this young woman was experiencing the event minute by minute via her phone messaging.
There are numerous attractive features to thanatechnology. Information is persistent and endures. There is a sense of immortality and legacy when a person’s comments, photos and work is posted in cyberspace. It is visible to infinite numbers of individuals. It is spreadable, and with one repost or share, hundreds more are invited into our experience. It is searchable. Just yesterday someone emailed me after reading my article on pet loss and grief. She had been Googling information about pet loss and my article popped up. I was able to provide her with additional support resources.
While there are many helpful aspects of using technology for grief support, there are some serious causes for pause. Are the online interactions healthy? Who is actually participating in the network communities? Are youth oversharing personal information while in a vulnerable state? How pervasive are social divisions and are they perpetuated in the participating forums?
Clinicians, parents and educators must be digitally literate and provide opportunities for genuine face to face connection while acknowledging the cyberworld of teens. Using technology during this very vulnerable time can provide tremendous support and healing, but it may pose risks. Counselors have the responsibility to help youth develop the skills to navigate technology in a way that creates a safe environment for their grief experience and promotes bereavement support.
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy: and geek therapy. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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