We reflect about our work on World Mental Health Day, October 10, 2012. As trainers of counsellors, therapists and other mental health workers in the use of technology for treating mental health issues, we hear a range of experiences from our students about how new media and social networking impacts on the lives of their clients. We can equip these professionals in how to understand the different types of avenues of communication so that they can in turn equip their clients in dealing with the negative effects of, say, cyberbullying or the fallout from cyberinfidelity. We see stories in the media often about suicide as a result of the former or murder as a result of the latter, for example – but can we go further in helping clients enhance their mental health by offering a shift of perspective? Is it useful to treat technology in our day-to-day lives not as an add-on to how we exist in society, but rather as an entire culture in itself, where rules are different and niceties of human behaviour can be lost?
As we wrote in a recent article, “…while cyberpsychology offers us an understanding of how people behave in cyberspace, it does not address the more central issues assigned to culture such as shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices.” By this, we argue that Cyberspace needs to be treated as a culture within itself – and ask that if by doing so, we can prepare the mental health of the human race in the future to accept the different behaviours of people online rather than react to them badly because these issues are often – at least in terms of the extremes such as trolling or cyberabuse – less apparent in traditional (physical) society.
Perhaps a case vignette would help envision this possibility. Consider Rachel, a young teenager, who has a history of mild bullying at primary school where she was unsupported by teachers and mental health counsellors, who turned a blind eye. Rachel was very upset at the time, but as she grew older and moved to a senior school, found new friends and her place in the hierarchy that the classroom demands. There were the cccasional ribbing from mates, boys making negative comments about her appearance now and then. Nothing she couldn’t handle. Her mental health remained robust, taking into account all that being a teenager entails.
A new girl moved to the school, who seemed determined to carve her own niche in the hierarchy, and doing so not by directly abusing her schoolmate face-to-face, but by coercing Rachel’s other friends to gradually change online contact with her – starting with unfollowing on Twitter and the occasional thinly veiled comment on MySpace and anonymous BBMs about her to her social group. By the time the abuse included trolling her Facebook page publically, Rachel and her family were starting legal proceedings. Rachel herself became so anxious and depressed she refused school altogether and started seeing a mental health professional to stop self-harming.
But what if Rachel had grown up with clear knowledge about the culture of Cyberspace – how disinhibition and the (apparent) distance between communicators allows for so much more negative energy to be apparent? Would she have been able to shrug it off, protecting her mental health in the knowledge that it was the culture of Cyberspace at fault and not feel it was herself? If the shared attitudes, values, goals and practices of Cyberculture are indeed different to traditional cultures, would that address the mental health issues new technologies have brought into our lives?
We are not arguing that society is going to suffering as a result of technological communication. But maybe with a little more acceptance of the shift in culture in light of it, our mental health status may sit in a rather more comfortable space.
Kate Anthony & DeeAnna Nagel