Preserving Connection in the Age of Polarization and Commodification By Keith Fadelici, LCSW on 10/23/20 - 12:32 PM

As a psychotherapist and social worker, I was often uncomfortable while watching The Social Dilemma, a new Netflix documentary (2020).

The film focuses on the challenge and threat of social media to individual mental health, family stability, and to the worldwide social fabric. Featuring interviews with technical experts, innovators, and ethicists from Facebook, Google, Instagram, and Twitter, the film takes a deep dive into the impact and repercussions of contemporary technology. These former employees speak directly to how the industry, which is perceived as serving users, is instead turning them (us) into product, and how the financial success of social media is built around manipulating us into feelings, thoughts, and actions that can be predicted and monetized.

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These Silicon Valley industries originally framed their work around missions of helping people to connect—with each other and the world. Many of their innovators were motivated by desires to increase positive interaction and to encourage networking, facilitate personal expression, and empower underserved and disenfranchised communities. All of which utilizes language virtually identical to the terminology I absorbed as a social work student 25 years ago.

The documentary’s interviews (sporadically interrupted with less effective dramatizations) congeal over the 93-minute running time into a message that reviewers have called “genuinely scary,” “bleak,” “dire,” and “essential.” It speaks to the relationship we have all developed with technology and pointedly distinguishes the current breed of technical innovations from prior technical tools; namely, it emphasizes that a tool is a passive object with which we may choose to engage or not. The current technologies pursue our attention, draw us in, and are motivated to manipulate our usage. The constant pursuit of increasing the user’s online time not only feeds the monetary needs of the industry, but it inevitably reshapes our responses, as patterns of usage evolve into habits, and habits become addictive patterns. They may even be reshaping our world view.

Unfortunately, these arguments are consistent with what we in the mental health field accept as fact, from Skinner’s behavioral principles all the way to contemporary understanding of neuroplasticity and mirror neurons. Our expertise offers no escape hatch, it only reinforces the concerns and leaves us with our own professional dilemma: how then, within our mental health practice, are we to respond?

It’s not my job to give advice. But it is my job to help clients access information and resources that have the potential to empower them in their own pursuits.

I can raise awareness about the power of phone notifications and how they are used to shape responses.

I can repeatedly encourage folks to reach beyond what their internet stream provides them as news, facts, and history, noting that these industries have a bias toward polarization and that the feed you are getting is designed to make you more extremely biased in whatever direction you are leaning.

I can inform parents that middle school suicides have increased over 100% since the availability of cell phones and internet service.

I can affirm my client’s need for connection and a sense of community. I can affirm the ways that Facebook or other social media might serve some of those ends, and I can balance that by raising concerns about how it falls short and has been shown to increase fear of missing out (FOMO), which can create fertile ground for depression to take root.

I can work to demonstrate what human connection looks like. Yes, even on telehealth!

For over six months I had been providing counseling to a couple, both of whom struggled with issues of trust and security stemming from difficult childhood experiences, triggering each other regularly at home and in most of their shared sessions. Progress, however, was being made, and it was evident in a decrease in the severity and duration of conflicts at home. In sessions, they were increasingly capable of tolerating vulnerability with one another, and each had begun to embrace the belief that their partner’s upset was a defensive response rather than an attempt to hurt or control. Each had begun to see the other in a new way: outside of the polarized, good vs. evil worldview generated by injury, betrayal, and rejection. They were learning to accept and consider the ambiguity.

I asked the couple to turn their chairs to face one another and, once I could see they had settled, I asked them both to close their eyes and to focus attention on breath. After guiding them through a simple grounding technique, I directed their attention to their love for each other and, with eyes still closed, encouraged them to feel this love both truly and intensely and to channel it all through their eyes to their partner. I then asked them to open their eyes, to pour their love into the eyes of the other and, simultaneously, to absorb the love being gifted to them as well. After thirty seconds they both laughed, as young children might when delighted. I encouraged them to stay with it, and with broad smiles they beamed at one another. After another thirty seconds I encouraged them to conclude with a hug. The embrace was a long, sustained, fully embodied and clearly emotional connection.

With individuals I have recently begun incorporating Diane Poole-Heller’s Kind-Eyes Exercise, in which the therapist asks a client to close their eyes and imagine the eyes of someone greeting them with warmth and kindness, indicating they are happy to see them and extending enthusiastic welcome. The client is encouraged to hold that gaze and to notice the changes in sensations in their body, including effects on their breathing and heart rate, and then to introduce and try to hold the notion that they are, in fact, deserving of the warmth and kindness seen in those eyes.

Learning to embrace the other or to allow one’s self to feel treasured is learning to accept the premise that love, connection, and joy are found in the ambiguity and nuance of this imperfect moment.

In contrast, The Social Dilemma is, in part, a portrait of the hostile environment in which we all live and work. This environment constantly objectifies us. The exercises I describe here and the way I provide therapy are my attempts to hold true to what we know to be the path to human connection, wellness, and possibility. To adequately offer these services, I need to hold an awareness that the very basics of what therapy has to offer are fundamentally antithetical to many cultural norms.

And if this film has it right—that polarity is intensifying. The type of connection I facilitated and witnessed with this couple may just be an interpersonal means to resist dystopian ends.

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