by: Rob Weiss
The late science fiction author Douglas Adams may have stated the natural reaction to new technologies better than anyone in his book, The Salmon of Doubt, when he wrote:
Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're 35 is against the natural order of things.
As a person over the age of 35, I completely understand Adams’ statement. The technologies available when I was a kid seemed (to me) indispensable to the world’s very survival. The technologies that arrived in my early-adult years (DVDs, CDs, websites, and Internet chats, for instance) are, in my mind, logical developments that I easily grasped and learned to use. However, the technologies of the last few years occasionally freak me out. Virtual reality, for instance.: headset that immerses me in a digital universe that feels as real as the real world is, to me, simultaneously creepy and cool.
Either way, as a social worker I know that I’d better understand how VR looks and feels and what it’s used for, because sooner or later I’m going to encounter a client who’s having a VR-centric issue. And before I know it, I’m going to have a client who would rather conduct his or her sessions using VR headsets than in-person.
If you don’t believe me, consider a 2009 study finding that kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend 11.5 hours per day engaging with and/or through digital technology. And that was almost a decade ago, before the rise of smartphones. Moreover, the kids in that long-ago study (who were using digital devices approximately 70% of their waking hours) are now young adults. And young adults are consumers. Of everything. Including our services.
Are we ready for that?
When I was studying to become a social worker, I learned that an essential element of helping clients is understanding and feeling comfortable in their culture. I was told that if I was working with an African American client, I should have at least a basic understanding of African-American culture. The same was true with Latino clients, Jewish clients, LGBT clients, and every other ethnic and cultural group. If I don’t understand a client’s culture and belief system, I can’t adequately respond to his or her experience.
So why are so many of us ignoring this standard when it comes to technology?
In our practices today, the most commonly encountered “foreign culture” is the online world. As social workers, we need to accept this and adapt to it. We need to understand—in fact, we are obligated to understand—that many of our clients feel as much if not more at home in the digital universe as in the real world. We must further understand that the digital universe is comprised of hundreds of separate subcultures, each with a distinct purpose, code of conduct, and set of potential problems.
Of course, no therapist can or should expect to be conversant in all languages and cultures. That said, our work requires us to either become culturally competent or refer our clients to someone who is. And honestly, how many of us have even tried to fully understand the ways in which online life affects and guides our clients—especially our younger clients—in terms of romance, business, friendships, politics, socialization, entertainment, self-esteem, and other important aspects of life?
If you’re fighting the idea that it’s time to step into the digital age, think about what’s happened to the taxicab industry since Lyft and Uber showed up. Today, the idea of phoning for or hailing a cab has fallen off the proverbial cliff. And this has happened because it’s easier—and often more appealing, especially to people under a certain age—to catch a ride using an app.
Is this slow taxicab-style demise what you’d like to see in your practice? If not, then maybe it’s time to recognize that more and more people are shopping digitally these days. Countless millions are already buying groceries, watching movies, playing games, shopping for furniture, and visiting medical doctors online. If we, as social workers, hope to remain relevant, then we need to adapt to this fact.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S specializes in infidelity and addictions—most notably sex, porn, and love addiction. He has served as an expert on human sexuality for multiple media outlets including CNN, MSNBC, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and NPR, among others. His latest book is Prodependence: Moving beyond Codependency. He has also authored: Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating, Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, Sex Addiction 101: The Workbook, and Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men. Currently, he is CEO of Seeking Integrity, LLC, being developed as an online and real-world resource for recovery from infidelity and sexual addiction. For more information or to reach Mr. Weiss, please visit his website, robertweissmsw.com, or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.