Electronic Communication: Pros and Cons for People in Recovery

man on laptop looking sadThere’s no question that social media have transformed the way people communicate. I remember a time, back in the day, when I watched the cartoon The Jetsons and admired the computer screen that popped out of this space-age family’s living room wall, allowing them to talk with family members in a neighboring galaxy. In the 1970s, that image was a dream; in the year 2013, electronic communication is the norm. Whether via FaceTime, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, or any number of other portals, we are instantaneously transported to lightning-fast communication with friends, family, and colleagues.

As a therapist, I feel conflicted about social media and the use of electronic communications to improve mental health. On the bright side, computers have allowed people to connect with therapists from afar. In addition, support groups/forums are available online, some involving webcams, to help link people who need treatment in a group format, with geography being the primary obstacle. I personally provide telephone sessions to people who live too far away or who, for health-related reasons, cannot travel to my office. The use of “telemedicine” in psychotherapy can be a convenient, beneficial mode of providing mental health support when in-person therapy is not possible.

Furthermore, many people find information on the web to be helpful in understanding their particular circumstances; for example, a person with fertility challenges may find a holistic website to be informative regarding specific lifestyle changes which can enhance fertility. Psycho-education certainly has merit; I often refer perinatal clients to specific websites which support new motherhood/parenthood, provide online support forums, and offer evidence-based information in healing depression or anxiety during the perinatal period. And new moms who are not able to travel long distances to in-person support groups can now connect with qualified, skilled therapists and other new moms in online groups.

My concern with electronic communication lies mainly with how social media impact mental well-being. Often, individuals will present for therapy and mention feeling upset about how one of their friends or family members insulted them on Facebook. People sometimes feel inadequate if they compare themselves to friends’ or neighbors’ posts boasting their latest acquisition or vacation. Others are saddened if they aren’t included in an exclusive gathering with friends, as they gawk at photos of what they missed. Teenagers reinforce cliques and brag about who made the basketball team by posting the roster on Instagram. Whatever their age, people are good at “marketing” themselves to present a facade to the world of their ideal image of themselves.

I recommend a “social media diet” when I hear these stories. What was designed to connect people seems to create or increase competition, depression, feelings of low self-worth, and narcissism. Recent studies show a direct correlation between time spent on Facebook and feelings of depression and inadequacy (University of Michigan, Kross, 2013).

Even more concerning are recent, high-profile cyber-bullying cases which have resulted in teen suicides. So-called “sexting” and sending provocative photos between students has become a major source of contention. Parents need to observe, supervise, and limit the amount of time their teens are on social media and be prepared to scan their child’s electronic media. Limits on what is shared and boundaries about acceptable posts, texts, and photos are essential. We must teach our children Internet safety.

Although social media can help people connect with friends and family they wouldn’t normally see regularly due to geography, they can have a negative impact on people who are working hard to move through depression or anxiety. I encourage people to be selective as to what information they expose themselves to online during their vulnerable period of recovery. Often, that also means taking a break from news, television, or movies which may trigger anxiety or feelings of loss. Online support forums facilitated by skilled, trained therapists can be the exception. Specific empowering, informational websites can also assist in healing during a psychological crisis. The web can be a powerful, healing tool if we are selective about what we choose to expose ourselves to and what we allow our children to have access to.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea Schneider, LCSW, therapist in Pleasant Hill, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Shay

    Shay

    December 3rd, 2013 at 4:04 PM

    In some ways I see the benefits but I think that overall it is only devaluing the emphasis and importance that we place on being able to communicate with each other in person. There is still something to be said for being able to have a real live conversation with someone but all of our reliance on computers and electronics is kind of taking away those types of skills.

  • daniel

    daniel

    December 4th, 2013 at 4:44 AM

    Think about the number of people who now have access to some sort of support group or therapy via the internet that they would not have onve had any access to.

    Isn’t this a good thing? Computers and technology make things more accessible, more affordable, and likely more available for those who wouldn’t have otherwise had very many options or choices.

    I am not sure how you can see anything bad about that at all. The actual law of the land is now that healthcare, all care should be more affordable and accessible for all. Isn’t this doing just that?

  • Sebrina M

    Sebrina M

    December 4th, 2013 at 12:39 PM

    I guess it goes both ways, but one of the most dangerous things that I have seen is the tendency to diagnose oneself or someone else based upon what you read online. I think that there is this notion out there among many that if they see it online it is true. Not so!! if you are a loved one needs help I think that the internet is a fine place to start but I by no means think that it is the place to end. I would look for someone in my area to help out, and if you use what you find online as supplemental research and information then I think that’s fine.

  • payton

    payton

    December 5th, 2013 at 4:50 AM

    For many of us this has become our lifeline… without these tools many of us would have never found the help that we needed and we have to remember that

  • Collin Sams

    Collin Sams

    December 5th, 2013 at 3:55 PM

    Payton- I understand where you are coming from but my gut keeps telling me to step away from social media if you are on the recovery train. I mean there is just too much out there that could get you sucked right back into the lifestyle that you are trying to leave behind and if you aren’t strong enough to work against that yet, then it could be very easy to slip right back into that life again.
    When you are recovering, as you will always be, sometimes there are certain people and certain situations that have to be left behind. That can sometimes involve cutting out a large portion of the people in your past because they may have been intimate players and even enablers in your addiction. That’s something that you cannot have in your life anymore if you are honestly wanting to break those habits and break completely free from your addictions.
    Yes for some it could be a lifeline but for others it could have a very strong pull in the worng dircetion and if you are still vulnerable and fragile I don’t think that this is a risk that you should take.

  • Reagan

    Reagan

    December 7th, 2013 at 9:25 AM

    Personally, I don’t think that there is anything any better than to be able to reach out and ask for help right from your own home computer. There are bound to be way more people willing to bare their souls and ask for help anonymously than they ever would face to face. This might not be the end all but it is a start for many who may have otherwise ignored the fact that they needed to reach out and receive some help. It might not be the ultimate answer but I do think that it is headed in the right direction.

  • kim

    kim

    December 9th, 2013 at 4:47 AM

    If you don’t have thick skin then maybe social media sites aren’t for you

  • Timothy

    Timothy

    December 11th, 2013 at 3:51 AM

    Thick skin? I guess I just don’t let the random musings of others affect me in quite the same way that others do. It doesn’t bother me when good things happen to other people any more than it bothers me to see when good people do really stupid things and then brag about it on these social medi sites. They can live their own lives and I will live mine, checking in on it every now and then but then basically not caring unless it is someone who is also important to me beyond online.

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