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November 7, 2012

#Twitteropathy – noun: a condition of the central nervous system characterized by anxiety disorders resulting from social media overwhelm. 

In Eastern medicine the activation of inner space and calm has always ranked as a priority in the quest for balance and wellbeing. Every day I treat people in my clinic for technology related issues. These invariably include stress and pain. Stress and pain, I should mention, are very simple words that indicate a very complex neural and biochemical shift in the body that can potentially influence any medical condition.

Humans have always used technology and media – methods of expression and group communication – as far back as drumming and painting. The essential difference we are now experiencing is clearly the exponential rate of change. We are sitting for much greater periods of time, working at night as well as in the day, and consuming vastly more information than ever before. Recent studies in both The UK and US have estimated that the average teenager now spends approx. 40hrs + per week watching digital media (phone, computer, TV) and I doubt that many adults are far behind.

There are now big questions emerging about the impact of technology on health, creativity and production. Clearly we have a choice to act wisely or not. This always involves a process of self awareness and enquiry. Do you know when and how your body starts to feel uncomfortable? What are the triggers? What are your thoughts and emotions? What are your practical structures and coping strategies? These questions inevitably require time, introspection, and ultimately the practice of mindful change.

Twitter, for example, has genuine value as a communication tool. However, many people now want to use this platform to tell there entire life story as it happens. Yes, I’m pleased you have new socks but no, I doubt this is worth broadcasting to the planet. Even more substantial issues such as The US presidential elections can quickly become a frenzied online behemoth.

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other“(pub. 2011) is the result of MIT Professor Sherry Turkle’s 15 year exploration of modern life and digital technology. Prof. Turkle, clinical psychologist and the founder of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self , interviewed hundreds of children and adults to describe changes in relationships with friends, lovers, parents, children and ourselves as a result of the digital age.

Turkle’s theory is that it is possible to be in constant digital communication and yet still feel very much alone. In her research she found that people of all ages now stay close to their phones at all times for a similar reason: “What is so seductive about texting, about keeping that phone on, about that little red light on the BlackBerry, is you want to know who wants you,” Turkle says.

“Children are getting these phones earlier and earlier. These are years when children need to develop the capacity for solitude, this capacity to feel complete playing alone. If you don’t have a capacity for solitude, you will always be lonely, and my concern is that the tethered child never really feels that sense that they are sort of OK unto themselves.”

Turkle also has much to say about other social media: “I think that this sense of the Facebook identity as something that follows you all your life is something that many adolescents feel is a burden….And I think that many adolescents used to play with identity, play with multiple identities in adolescence, and that used to kind of be their fun, and now there’s one identity that counts — it’s the Facebook identity. And I think many adolescents are also feeling the pressure of that.”

Turkle continues: “this is what I think is so ironic about Facebook being called Facebook, because we are not face to face on Facebook … when we are face to face, we are inhibited by the presence of the other. We are inhibited from aggression by the presence of another face, another person. We’re aware that we’re with a human being. On the Internet, we are disinhibited from taking into full account that we are in the presence of another human being.”

There is also an increasing body of neuroscientific research that highlights many of the problems in modern adult interaction related to digital technology. In an interview last year with The Harvard Business Review (2011) Turkle noted that:

“As soon as I start talking about this (Facebook), people almost attack me and say, oh, but what about Egypt? Look at how Facebook helped in Egypt. And I say, just because Facebook is good for overthrowing dictators– you know, thumbs up– that doesn’t mean that Facebook and social networking and constant communication in the workplace isn’t really hurting your organization’s ability to create, think, deliberate, and really connect about the things that matter…..The research is starting to show that, in some ways, we’re too busy communicating to think. We’re too busy communicating to connect, paradoxically. And in many cases, we’re too busy communicating to really create in the ways that matter. I think we’re going to have to step back and really reassess what the values in our personal and in our institutional and organizational lives are…..That doesn’t mean that, in many, more local ways, we haven’t been able to use connectivity in many positive ways. If you need to time shift, if you need to hold a meeting and bring people together, if you need to organize a meeting, if you need to be getting together with people from all over the world and getting things to happen, of course it (technology) has made us more productive in these very, in a sense, limited ways. But we can’t look to connectivity for everything, and I think that’s been the problem.”

Other leading thinkers such as Paul Hammerness MD (assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School) and Margaret Moore (co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital) have noted in their book “Organize Your Life, Organize Your Mind” that multitasking may help us check off more things on our to-do lists but it also makes us “more prone to making mistakes, more likely to miss important information and cues, and less likely to retain information in working memory, which impairs problem solving and creativity.”

According to significant recent neuroscientific research, every time we do a new task or add on a new task, our performance in every task slightly degrades. Our brains reward us with a dopamine injection when we add another new task but our performance drops. It’s a false reward.

I hope this gets you thinking about your relationship with digital media and its impact on your health and creativity. We need space as well as focus to be really wise and creative in this world.


Spencer Joseph


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