We can talk to each other from wherever we are in the world, obtain information about anything at the touch of a button, hold virtual meetings with colleagues, get in touch with friends and family whenever we like, conduct our business from home, even make dates and have sex on line. Life is faster, more efficient and, for some, much more fun than it ever used to be. So what is there not to like?
Nevertheless, many people are worried about what it might be doing to our society, our personal relationships, our sense of self, and even our health. There is as yet little evidence to justify these worries. This digital revolution has occurred so recently, so rapidly and is so pervasive that we cannot accurately discriminate its impact from other aspects of modern life or even determine whether people who spend a significant proportion of their daily life on-line are more ill. We can only ask the questions.
People get ill when things happen to them. It has been known since the birth of medicine that those caught up in disasters or wars, political prisoners and victims of oppression show an abnormally high prevalence of illness. And on a personal level, bereavement, divorce, the break-up of a relationship, loss of a job or home, can all result in symptoms. This may be explained by the effect of emotional tension on the body as mediated through the brain stem and autonomic nervous system, but may also be seen as a state of dissociation from intolerable reality into bodily reactions. People’s tolerance to trauma varies, depending on the severity, their previous experience, and the extent to which they are able to deal with it through communication and action.
People put such a lot of their private details on the internet. Financial data may be vulnerable to hacking. More personal details may leave us open to personal attack and exploitation. If we cannot keep our lives private, our fundamental sense of security is compromised and we may become ill. There can be nothing quite so devastating in our digital age than the loss of one’s financial assets or life’s work caused by cyber crime or computer failure.
Computer war games and internet pornography can encourage people to live life at a high level of excitement and may even become addictive. This can make real life seem boring and unsatisfactory.
Finally, the constant impingement of incoming messages, bleeping on our smart phones, iPads and personal computers is a distraction, diverting our attention, eroding concentration and limiting our ability to think. Research has shown that trying to do more than one thing at a time undermines efficiency and productivity .
We are social animals. Communication with others lets us live and work together in harmony. We can not only warn each other of danger and work together to confront it, we can also support and reassure each other, recover from the consequences of what happens and we can bring up our children to cope with the adversities of life.
As a psychotherapist, I listen to people with unexplained illness and try to help them understand and manage it. Communication is my stock in trade, but it is not just about the facts of what happened, it is also about context, perspective, background and experience and the way people lead their lives. And it requires emotional reassurance, support and the time and space to develop the trust and understanding to work together. It is not just about what is said; so much is conveyed in the silences between speech; in the way people carry their bodies: their posture, facial expression and unconscious movements. But you don’t have to be a therapist. Much of our day to day communication is involved in imparting or receiving reassurance or comfort, dealing with a crisis, working out the best solution to an emotional dilemma. By offering insight, advice and support, such communication binds us together as a society. How much better do we feel if we can talk to somebody who understands?
Can social media and digital technology provide the kind of communication to calm our bodily reactions and restore a sense of who we are? Some would say, ‘no’. Social media facilitate superficial connection but can discourage the intimacy and meaning that would lead to resolution of personal issues. Grievances and worries expressed on Facebook may elicit platitudes from ‘friends’, but there is little opportunity to reflect, consider or work through. Advice tends to be practical rather than insightful. ‘Yes, I’ve been there too and this is what I did.’ Twitter and text messaging allow a kind of conversation. While there is no space to explore a problem, a few carefully chosen words can occasionally get to the heart of it.
Digital technology provides advances in communication hat could only be dreamt of a few years ago. For most of us, it is a considerable advantage, sourcing information at the touch of a keyboard, facilitating communication and keeping track of our personal details. These benefits may outweigh the risks to personal security and integrity, as long as we can ‘make it our servant, not our master’.
The IBS Network has embraced the new technology. The IBS Self Care Plan provides detailed information on the nature, causes, diagnosis and treatment of IBS. Your Questions offers the opportunity to question an IBS health care professional, an on-line forum gives people the chance to talk to other patients, an on-line shop provides books and other products for IBS, and a newsletter and magazine keeps you up to date with developments. Can all this make a difference? Write to The IBS Network and tell them.