Boundaries & Technology: I miss the days of having pager-duty!
As a psychotherapist, I have worked throughout my career to explore, shift, develop and support healthy boundary setting with my clients and their relationships in life. One of the reasons I was always drawn to working specifically with teenagers and their families is out of my appreciation of working with boundary issues – after all, it’s the age when they get the most challenged and need to be able to adapt and change to keep healthy personal and relational growth on track. Being able to set clear boundaries between ourselves and others is key to feeling empowered, fulfilled, stable and safe in our lives. Healthy boundary setting allows us to be separate and yet connected to others in our lives. However, with the emergence of the use of technology, this seemingly “simple” task of learning to have a sense of self as separate from yet connected to others has become an elusive, overwhelming and confusing challenge to both understand and accomplish. What once seemed to be fairly straightforward ways of setting boundaries for ourselves has turned into a blurry and complicated mess – yikes!
When I first started my training, the staff in the clinic that I worked in had to rotate being “on
call” overnight, on weekends and holidays. This meant being given the clinic pager (yes, it was that long ago!). I remember whenever it was my turn to take that pager I’d feel my anxiety rise because I never knew when or if it may “buzz” and then I’d be required to respond. Really, it was about when my work life might unexpectedly invade my personal life – the boundaries became blurred and unpredictable. And, of course, it also meant having to deal with a potential crisis. But once my shift was done, the pager would be passed back so the next person could take it home – and I could breathe a sigh of relief. My boundaries between my work and personal life could go back in place. It was time-limited and planned. But, that was then…
My oldest daughter is 12 ½ years old. One recent morning she told me that a friend of hers
texted her at 3:30am. In our house, all screens are put away (out of bedrooms) by 10:00pm. So, she didn’t see the text until the next day. She asked with a confused and somewhat worried tone, “Why would she be texting at 3:30 in the morning, mom?” And, therein lies the challenge of not only raising kids in today’s technology-saturated world, but for all of us of any age who use technology, must face. How do we set boundaries between ourselves and the worlds that technology – especially through social media – bring into our lives and why is it so important to consider? How do I help my daughter understand her friend texting at that time? And, how do I continue to teach the importance of health boundary-setting for my daughters as they continue to live in and be challenged by a world without limits?
We no longer live in worlds where boundaries are clear or socially enforced.
Over the past two decades of working in the mental health field and of gradually adopting its use into my own life, how technology has impacted how we set boundaries for ourselves and in our relationships has been one of the most curious and fascinating changes that I continue to seek to understand and attend to in my life. How the use of technology is affecting our personal and relational boundaries often creates heightened tension, conflict, chaos and confusion. It has also been creating a heightened sense of isolation and loneliness. There is often a false sense of connectedness to others created by technology – particularly via the design of the social media sites that promote collecting “followers” or “friends”. These terms have taken on distorted meaning in these contexts that make it confusing to be able to distinguish what are genuine connections to others. This is particularly relevant to the iGen generation growing up with having technology as the main facilitator of relational connection. They depend on it for their connection to others. As a result, they can struggle with experiencing friendships that seem to be so “alive” online either via texting and/or or social media activity that don’t translate into any meaningful time spent together in real life (“IRL”). Below I have included two brief YouTube clips that speak to this specific issue of feeling isolated despite connectedness through technology. Take a moment to watch them – they are powerful!
Can We Auto-Correct Humanity?
Being a parent raising two daughters on the verge of entering their teenage years adds an extra craving for understanding as I have constant experiences with how strongly it infiltrates and shapes our lives as a family and their growth into adulthood.
But this challenge is certainly not limited to parenting and families.
I also see many of the young adults and adults I work with struggle to navigate their use of technology – especially their use of social media. It affects their sense of control over their friendships and intimate relationships. The stress they experience often shows up through increased feelings of anxiety and depression and feelings of powerlessness in their lives. Limit-setting can have different meanings for people. Sometimes a client may try to regulate their boundaries by closing their social media accounts to “take a break” only to decide a short time later to reactivate their accounts because it is the main link to their social lives. Sometimes clients don’t realize the power they have to set limits through the built-in controls not only via the social media programs, but even just through their physical devices – their smart phones, tablets, computers. It can be something as simple as just silencing their phone. Sometimes these controls are used to act out – to attempt to send a message of rejection or instill hurt. Sometimes limit-setting via technology isn’t meant to hurt or reject others but may inadvertently – such as joining then leaving group chats without explanation.
I believe how we conduct ourselves online draws from how aware, able and comfortable are we in asserting healthy boundaries with others in general. However, how does the digital context make the process different? What do healthy digital boundaries look like? How are they expressed? Is it different than “IRL”? These are key questions to answer to help empower our online experiences. Thankfully, my questions and ponderings are not unique to me or our current times that we live in. There has been and continues to be very relevant and informed research, books, articles, seminars and wide spread discussions being put forth for our consideration. However, I do believe the questions are growing more concerned as we continue to directly experience the changes that are happening to us in our daily lives and within today’s society as a whole. Additionally, beyond the cultural, psychosocial, emotional and relational implications, we now also understand that there are effects that are shifting and shaping our neurological brain development. This reality is alarming given the increasingly young ages that kids are being given access to the regular use of technology in their daily lives. Dan Siegel, MD has been one of the leading researchers exploring the influences on brain development and his books, seminars, videos are readily accessible to the general public. I highly encourage seeking out the wealth of knowledge he has to offer on the link between brain development and technology. Here is a great YouTube clip of Dan Siegel titled “How Tech Effects Your Brain and Relationships” that is worth watching!
Additionally, on the homepage of my website, I reference the research of Jean M. Twenge
(2017). Her book is entitled IGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less
Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us. It has been one of the most powerfully relevant books I have read on this topic and I highly recommend it as a resource for parents. It gives such an informed perspective on what is happening with the interface between technology and development.
One other excellent (and humorous) book on the complexities of how technology is changing how we form relationships with others is Modern Romance (2015) by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg. They conducted historical and international research that shows world-wide changes and trends in dating and mating. I used to assign this book for extra credit to my college students as a part of their study of the development of intimate/couple relationships. It always sparked very animated conversations about the current realities captured in this book of my students and their dating lives.
While I, too, embrace and try to use technology for the positive tools and opportunities it can afford our lives, at times I can’t help but miss those simpler, “pager” days. Days the younger generations do not know of and therefore cannot yearn for as a contrast to the world as it is now. I believe our basic core human needs don’t change with the times – just how they get met changes. So, underlying all of the changes that technology has brought to our lives is still the basic need for clear, safe, secure limits and boundaries between and healthy connection to others.
It is my deepest wish that we all continue to hold that core need as an essential ingredient for achieving happiness and fulfillment in our lives!
JoAnn Fitzpatrick, MA
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
Additional Resource Recommendations
8 th Grade: https://youtu.be/y8lFgF_IjPw