Technovoidance: Managing Difficult Feelings with Devices

Because the hardest thing for anyone to do is nothing.

Posted Dec 02, 2018

We all do it. Sitting in the doctor’s office waiting for an appointment, halfway through a workplace meeting that is going on and on, during a conversation that is getting a little too intense—we pull out the smartphone. Check for the dopamine-inducing icons that say something else can use our attention. This is what I call “technovoidance” – the management and avoidance of unpleasant psychological and physiological states through media and devices. (Note, this is in contrast to “technoference,” which refers to the way devices interrupt our lives, see McDaniel & Radesky, 2018).

Let’s face it. This is not new. Many remember the days of Saturday morning cartoons, allowing mom and dad a few more hours of alone time. My favorite were afterschool reruns while my parents got dinner ready. Parents should not feel bad about using all resources at their disposal. Life is hard enough as it is. Many families are working extra hours to meet basic needs. How dare I say that they shouldn’t use a device to distract their kid for a bit so brother and sister don’t get into a shouting match that derails the entire evening?

That is not what I am saying. However, given the ubiquity of devices, I am saying that children are becoming increasingly reliant on smartphones and tablets to manage difficult emotions and feelings. This is problematic because learning how to deal with unpleasant feelings is a major part of growing up. I have heard myself say a few times “we are outsourcing the frontal lobe to the smartphone!” So where is the balance? After reviewing a few pillars of emotion theory, I argue that existing parenting strategies can help children who seem to need devices to self-regulate. Resources are provided.

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Children are becoming increasingly reliant on devices to manage difficult feelings
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1.      Unpleasant emotions are avoided: When we feel fearful about an upcoming job interview, we may dismiss our apprehensions by saying “don’t worry, you got this”, or “what’s the worst that can happen?” Maybe we pull out our device and look at social media as a distraction. It happens interpersonally, as well. When our child comes home from school and says he or she was called a loser, we say “no you’re not!” Of course, we don’t want our little ones to feel difficult emotions because we love them so much! Maybe we quickly redirect them to another activity on a tablet, smartphone, computer, or otherwise.

2.      Excessive avoidance of emotions is associated with mental illness: The paradox of emotions is that our efforts to minimize distress often leads to heightened distress in the long run. This is most clearly seen with anxiety – by avoiding things we fear, we reduce the emotion associated with the feared situation, but the truth of the fear is reinforced. We also see this with disruptive behavior in children. A child may be feeling fear, sadness or anger. Consequently, they may act out in a way that alleviates the emotion but may lead to other challenges for themselves or others.

3.      Distractions are used to modulate emotions: As a result of the emotion-avoidance-reinforcement cycle, we become increasingly dependent on the strategies used to alleviate emotions, for better or for worse. Perhaps the most heartbreaking example of “getting out of now” is seen with addictions, whether to a substance or behavior like sex or gambling. This is also seen with “dissociation” in PTSD, whereby people who have experienced traumatic events become increasingly cut-off from their own experience and bodies.  

4.     “Emotion Coaching” helps children learn healthy coping strategies: An old piece of wisdom states that “the way out is through.” Do we do away with all distractions? Of course not. It’s not realistic and probably will not be helpful without replacement strategies. I recommend “emotion coaching,” which is a two-step process: first name and validate what a child is feeling (“I see you are feeling… that makes sense because… because… because…), then provide support which can include redirection. At times, this may include the use of a device after a child is supported to understand what is happening inside their bodies. Informed by the seminal work of John Gottman, I recommend parents (and non-parents) check out “Emotion Coaching” by psychologists Adele LaFrance and Mirisse Foroughe (see mentalhealthfoundations.ca and emotionfocusedfamilytherapy.ca)

When I used to get anxious when training as a psychologist, one of my sage supervisors used to say “Don’t just do something. Sit there!” Now, when I feel difficult emotions in therapy, I identify what I am feeling, understand why it makes sense, and use that as information to inform my next move. The same applies to parents. Devices are not going away. So it is our job to empower children to work through their difficult feelings without them.

References

Foroughe, M. (Ed.). (2018). Emotion Focused Family Therapy with Children and Caregivers: A Trauma-Informed Approach. Routledge.

Lafrance Robinson, A., Dolhanty, J., Stillar, A., Henderson, K., & Mayman, S. (2016). Emotion‐focused family therapy for eating disorders across the lifespan: A pilot study of a 2‐day transdiagnostic intervention for parents. Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, 23(1), 14-23.

McDaniel, B. T., & Radesky, J. S. (2018). Technoference: Parent distraction with technology and associations with child behavior problems. Child development, 89(1), 100-109.