Ariel Axelrod, LMHC

Guest Lecture on Internet Addictions at Boston College

Last week I gave a guest lecture at Boston College on the topic of internet addictions and other concepts best described as technology use disorders. It’s not every day I get to talk shop with graduate students preparing to launch their own careers in this field. My colleague and MaMHCA president emeritus John Ciervo, who has heard me hold forth quite a bit at board meetings on the limits of technology in clinical work and professional development, asked me share my perspective with the students in his Addictions in Mental Health Counseling course. 

Though it looks good on paper, the concept of internet gaming addiction as a diagnosis does not do justice to the impact of personal technology on psychopathology. For such a discussion to be useful, addiction could only serve as a point of embarkation rather than a major focus. 

As an aside, when I speak of personal technology, I am talking about portable technology that can be kept on hand: smartphones, tablets, e-readers, laptops, smart watches. Ubiquitous televisions or gaming setups play an important role, but my focus is on technology that is meant to go wherever you go.

Most chatter about the attention economy focuses on how individuals engage with platforms and companies. There is less discussion of how physiological mechanisms and network effects combine to give the attention economy its teeth. The aggregate of these interactions with and over platforms creates a vicious feedback loop in which the macrocosm of society and the microcosm of individual experience influence one another to the detriment of both. 

I am fond of guiding principles to orient. Otherwise, we can end up just like the proverbial blind men feeling out different ends of an elephant. To that end, we considered philosophical and ethical approaches to technology adoption as a framework for decisionmaking. Even when people do not approach technology with a specific approach in mind, their assumptions and expectations about what technology can do and can signify indicate a certain framework, and all frameworks have their blind spots.

We also examined our own experiences: How does technology inform, interrupt, support, and sabotage our clinical work? When technology becomes a third point in a relationship triangle, or a mediating factor in an interaction, or someone has a conflict with a so-called inanimate object, how we can mindfully utilize such moments for the purpose of assessment and intervention? 

I find this topic both deeply interesting and stunningly under-researched, although that seems to have changed following the pandemic lockdowns. I hope to turn the research that underpinned this talk into a series of lectures for clinicians at all stages of their professional lifespan. More details to come.