‘Digitally-defined’ vulnerable clients: a consideration of the possible effects of the digital age on vulnerable clients
I have been interested in the issue of the influence of the digital age on some clients for some time now and would like to share my thoughts with psychotherapy colleagues who might have had similar experiences. The discussion, as well as examples, is based on my thoughts, my client work and conversations with colleagues. I focus on my work with two clients in particular, in terms of the direct influence of the digital world on ‘their world’. They both gave me their permission to use examples that came up in our work, and I have anonymised these and made sure that my clients are not identifiable.
I would like to focus primarily on these two people because they showed traits not commonly found with my other clients. I wondered what made them so different and searched for possible explanations. One of the causes of their specific kind of behaviour and cognition I felt could be attributed to the extensive use of the internet, and I will restrict all the references to my work with them to this aspect only.
My work with these clients made me wonder how much the digital era in general influences cognitive skills. To quote Harari (2017, p.410): “Seventy thousand years ago the Cognitive Revolution transformed the Sapiens mind… As far as we know, this earth-shattering revolution resulted from a few small changes in the Sapiens DNA and a slight rewiring of the Sapiens brain. If so, says techno-humanism, maybe a few additional changes to our genome and another rewiring of our brain will suffice to launch a second cognitive revolution”. So the question is, how far are we from a possible new cognitive revolution?
There is no doubt in my mind that the digital world offers a plethora of benefits: from easy access, to the ability to find a vast array of information and its sources at one’s fingertips (often literally). However, the digital world can, in some circumstances, be detrimental too. Research on this subject, which I refer to in this article, has shown there are various ways in which these detrimental effects may manifest. “For instance, long-term concurrent use of multiple forms of technology appears to reduce performance on a number of measures of attentional performance”, according to Blumberg and Bloom (2017, p.32). Groff (2010, p.9), meanwhile, notes that “neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have long been interested in trying to understand how the technologies we are shaping are actually shaping us. While this research is slowly developing – with many more questions than we have answers – initial studies have shown that interacting with new digital technologies such as Internet and video games does affect the processing patterns of our brains.” According to Mills (2011, p.10): “The results of the study suggest that being part of highly connected networks can help individuals solve problems by facilitating the propagation of correct information, but that these networks do not propagate the cognitive strategies needed to obtain correct information on one’s own.”
In this article, I address several aspects of the possible detrimental effects of the digital world on a percentage of the population (benefits not being of interest here). As I mentioned above, my experience with two clients in particular led me to explore their specific reactions and behaviour. In supervision, it transpired that both my supervisor and I have had few clients with those specific presentations.* My impression is that the relatively newly established ‘digital environment’ may particularly affect vulnerable, asocial and lonely people, and crucially those not prone to critical thinking, who also lack an adequate supportive network, which is a view my supervisor shares. Yamamoto and Ananou (2015, p.2) comment that, “while some perceive technology as the cause of the problem, others believe that technology only shows the problematic dispositions that people already possess.” I tend to agree with the latter.
Reflections on my experience with 'digitally-defined' clients
The two clients I am referring to are both in their late 20s, both struggling with their cultural identity, and both of mixed cultural backgrounds. Both Arthur and Michael (not their real names) were born in the UK to naturalised parents of foreign origin. Both sets of parents have limited education and have struggled with the English language. The two clients have been exposed to their parental cultures in relation to various customs, value systems and the significance of family ties, while at the same time living among the ‘indigenous’ population, which is often perceived by them as superior. While for them, the ‘outside’ culture in the UK may be viewed as aspirational and they might be striving to join in, their parents do not necessarily have the same outlook on the matter. As a result, they both experience confusion and a degree of vulnerability in the process of discovering and defining their own identity. They rely heavily on digital media to aid them in this process, including in defining their sexual identity (mostly through pornography in these cases).
Both of my clients fit, at least partly, into the category described by Yamamoto and Ananou (2015, p.2) as of “the problematic disposition”. I would suggest that people showing vulnerability, asocial and lonely behaviour, and most significantly not prone to critical thinking, and also lacking an adequate supportive network, are of that kind of “problematic disposition”. So I wonder how detrimental the influence of the internet has been on their reactions. They both reported relying heavily on internet sources for ‘life guidance’ and appear to have developed the habit of seeking answers online for everyday dilemmas and questions, as well as for more intricate ones, without the necessary critical engagement.
I would argue that my two clients (as well as a few more mentioned by some of my colleagues) belong to the group referred to in the title: they are “digitally-defined” vulnerable people who visit the internet very frequently, for all sorts of reasons. They might search for instructions for healthy living, various diets and general health issues, for example. Instead of going to their GP surgery, they might check their blood pressure, their heart rate and many other physical symptoms on their smart phones or watches. They then google the results and use “Dr Google” to interpret them and even sometimes prescribe the therapy. Michael, for instance, tells me that he believes he cannot eat “heavy foods” such as bread, carbohydrates, sugars, etc. (as defined by an internet source). “Heavy foods”, he feels, exacerbate his depression, affect his entire wellbeing, some even cause IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and also an itchy skull, none of which has been confirmed by a doctor.
Being insecure and fragile, with little or no adequate guidance or instructions around critical thinking, these clients search various more or less reliable sites to find out their personality traits, their psychological state, and to check their mental health, often by means of questionable quizzes, questionnaires or YouTube presentations, which they seem to believe in religiously. It seems to me that they rely heavily on YouTube’s psychological snippets, they replace reality with virtual reality, and often remain alienated from real life. It appears to me that they have very little grounding, no “home”, which consequently can make them feel lost, insignificant and even worthless in this vast and confusing world. Having ultimately failed to find adequate support online, my two clients reported feeling lost and, as Arthur said “desperate”, and they felt their “last resort” was face-to-face therapy. Hence they eventually came to me.
Their social competence has been affected too (Mills, 2016). Arthur, for instance, admits his inability to read social signals with people at work. He realises that he could not tell whether people like him, and whether they laugh with or at him. He is not sure how to tell the difference between flirting and just being friendly. Since the internet has taken over a significant part of his life from young age, it is hard to say which aspects of his social struggles may be attributed to his internet (over-)use and which may pre-date it, but his internet use does not seem to have contributed to developing his social awareness.
Even the notion of friendships has changed for these two young men: Facebook, Instagram and the like have mostly replaced face-to-face encounters and hence their relationships with friends have changed. They often acknowledge that there is a difference between a Facebook friend and a “real friend”; that they would say certain things to one type of friend and not to the other. Not to mention the fact that a huge number of virtual friends points to a different, perhaps an evolving, meaning of the notion of friendship (Levinger-Goy, 2012).
It is worth noting that the digital age also tends to affect sexual identity in vulnerable young people (Lemma, 2017). The digital world plays a significant part in affecting both sexual identity and sexual performance and, in some cases, gender identity. Much has already been written about this, and it is not of primary interest here.
However, I feel that there is a serious need to explore other aspects of identity, for instance, cultural and social identity. So I have decided to pose some questions and suggestions here in the hope of starting a discussion and inviting colleagues to contribute their thoughts and experiences. Most of my suggestions come from my work with the clients I mentioned. These two clients have been using the internet from an early age, so it would be difficult to separate that influence from other influences. But they are among the few clients in my practice who have used the internet excessively and indiscriminately, and who have reported their great dependence on internet support.
Instead of learning about themselves by turning to their peer groups or by being guided by their parents, as is usually the case (or maybe was the case?), for them, the internet has become a primary source of guidance, offering information and determining criteria for many aspects of life, something Lemma (2018) has also mentioned. A big part of their life is ‘virtual living’.
According to research, some of which I refer to below, as well as the experience of colleagues and my own experiences with the two clients discussed above, it appears that cognitive skills or perhaps cognitive performance may have been altered in ‘digitally-defined' vulnerable clients. Their thinking seems limited, uncritical, superficial rather than deep, their understanding is literal, one dimensional, and lacking in metaphorical interpretations. Answers have to be straight, clear and immediate; their existence is often reduced to here and now. “Modern humanity is sick with FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – and though we have more choices than before, we have lost the ability to really pay attention to whatever we choose” (Harari, 2017, p.421). This group places their trust mostly unquestioningly in the internet contributions of their choice, be it a YouTube video or any other internet ‘source of wisdom’, because it is the ‘source of wisdom’ they are searching for. They find it difficult to trust their own judgement. They borrow opinions or straightforwardly adopt them. “We are left to wonder whether the instant nature of virtual interaction actually involved deep thinking or a simple reaction to the alert of the device. …Technology, however, when not always well orchestrated can distract the process of strengthening humanity, even sometimes diminishing our inquisitive abilities” (Yamamoto and Ananou, 2015, p.3).
Digital dependence through the lens of a human development theory
I suggest Wilber’s theory of Integral Psychology (2000) can be a useful lens through which to consider the possible impact of the digital age on human development. Wilber describes personal development as the sum and interaction of “The Four Quadrants”, namely the interaction of the:
- “I”: “Subjective”, consisting of elements such as thoughts, emotions, memories, immediate sensations [spacer height="10px"]
- “It”: “Objective”, consisting of elements such as the material body and anything you can see and touch in time and space [spacer height="10px"]
- “We”: “Intersubjective”: shared values, relationships, language, cultural background, etc. [spacer height="10px"]
- “Its”: “Interobjective”: natural environment, technology, government, etc. [spacer height="10px"]
(Wilber, 2000, pp.112-114).
In the case of my two clients, I would say that all four quadrants are strongly influenced by digital input. In terms of the “Subjective”, they do not trust their thoughts, find it difficult to get in touch with their emotions, and question their memories. The “Objective” for them is reflected in the so-called “black mirror” of the internet: the material world is effectively being experienced through a screen. The “Intersubjective”, as I mentioned before, is confusing for them, because their family environment is often seen as a contrast to, or even in conflict with, the wider environment. The “Interobjective”, meanwhile, is for them based predominantly on digital sources.
Taking this theory further, Forman (2010) discusses the basics of Integral Philosophy and claims that a “person’s perspective depends on five central things”:
- The way the person gains knowledge
- The person’s level of identity development
- The person’s development in other key domains
- The person’s particular state in any given time
- The person’s personality style or “type” (including cultural and gender style)
(Forman, 2010, p.11)
Here, again, we are faced with the fact that the kinds of people highly susceptible to digital influence tend to gain much of their knowledge online, defining their identity via the internet. They search for acceptable or familiar personality styles or ‘types’ online, and they check and dread discovering mental health issues in themselves. So it seems that the digital sources that are most readily accessible end up being the most influential. Michael has difficulties in determining his identity. His heavy reliance on digital sources in attempting to define who he is, often through identifying or comparing with other people’s YouTube reports, seems inadequate in offering answers to his specific quest as well as in helping him to find a sense of belonging. His way of resolving the ‘clash’ of the two cultures in which he exists has been by joining his host culture and denying some aspects of culture of origin. As a result, he is not sure what is ‘his’ and what isn’t; he feels guilty about abandoning his ‘home’ culture, but also about accepting the ‘outside’ one. Either way, he feels he has betrayed one or the other, perhaps not realising that the feeling of betrayal may be more about his own sense of authenticity.
In thinking about the influence of the digital age upon these particularly vulnerable individuals, I noticed a possible parallel between a totalitarian society** and the ‘digital world’, or to be precise the phenomenon I call the ‘digital village of choice'.*** The parallel refers to the generally accepted characteristics of totalitarianism and seemingly apparent characteristics of “digitalism”. Totalitarian societies are mostly closed societies that create and encourage closed minds, prescribed views and way of living. The 'digital village of choice' is, in certain respects, with certain ‘inhabitants’, ‘a closed world’. Like totalitarian societies, it discourages free thinking, favours ready acceptance and unquestioning minds, favours uniformity over individuality. In both cases, such thinking is adhered to by some, but not all. The difference, admittedly, is in the scope and width of the digital world’s space for each individual (a chosen space), as opposed to the space of a specific ‘totalitarian world’ (widely imposed on the population). Hence the label 'digital village of choice' of each individual.
However, although the two may seem different at first glance, and although they use different means to influence people, it seems to me that the consequences of their influence strangely resemble each other. They both limit the scope of interest of those being influenced, offering unambiguous interpretations. They both leave very little space for questioning or challenging, which ultimately closes the mind of ‘recipients’.
The other similarity is isolation. Totalitarian societies tend to be isolated, focused on ‘self-righteousness’ and dictated world views, in a similar way to how the individuals who partake in digital activities may be isolated in their own rooms and exposed to single-minded points of view. Although the ‘digital world’ may be wide and varied, the 'digital village of choice' inhabited by vulnerable people is not; their immediate environment is limited, lonely and isolated. And generally there is very little exchanging of experience, comparing of impressions, or sharing of thoughts, except maybe with like-minded internet interlocutors. It is a self-contained world that may insidiously influence the willing recipient. And again, just like totalitarianism, digital 'tools' do not affect the entire population the same way. Those in danger of being detrimentally influenced both by totalitarianism and 'digitalism' are the most vulnerable.
These are my thoughts and suggestions, which I offer for psychotherapists and counsellors to consider. I believe this topic is worth thinking about, because the influence of the digital world is likely to be increasingly relevant in the therapy room.
Dr Jasna Levinger-Goy, PhD, MBACP, has an HE Diploma in Integral Therapeutic Counselling from Anglia Ruskin University and a PhD in Sociolinguistics from Zagreb University. She worked as a university lecturer for most of her professional life. Having qualified as a psychotherapist, she volunteered in several agencies (Centre33, Cambridge University Counselling Service, and Cogwheel Trust). She now works in private practice in Cambridge.
* My supervisor has given his consent to be referenced in this article.
** Totalitarianism: a form of government that theoretically permits no individual freedom and that seeks to subordinate all aspects of individual life to the authority of the state. (Online at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/totalitarianism, 2018)
*** The notion of choice is used conditionally here, i.e. to reflect the fact that algorithms, by means of search history, calculate individuals’ affinities and often bring up internet content expressing similar views and biases.
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