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by Larry D. Rosen
Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
Review by Chris Vaughan on Oct 23rd 2012


During the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games, Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, was singled out for his achievement. The internet has brought great benefits to the world, and Mr Berners Lee deserves all the plaudits for his foresight.  But the Internet is still in its infancy and although it is not difficult to list its benefits, we are now beginning to become familiar with some of the drawbacks without quite knowing how to control them and at the same time preserve our freedom of access.

 In iDisorder, Dr Rosen and his colleagues have set out to index some of the psychological hazards which have started to emerge.  Tim Berners Lee's brilliance was in making a powerful but closed communication tool available to all. But beside empowering us, streamlining and amplifying our productivity, the Internet can also act as a new vehicle for some users to play out their psychological morbidities, to seek more things to be depressed or obsessed about or to corroborate their social isolation.

However, the claim being made in this book is not about the Internet as an extended arena for the expression of psychological difficulties but something more akin to a spider's web: a place, where unthinkingly we are becoming entangled and putting ourselves at risk of developing the symptoms of several well-known psychopathologies by prolonged exposure to its digital wonders, even if we come to it with a clean bill of psychological health,. 

What we are looking at, Rosen says, is a new disorder, which he terms iDisorder, one that combines elements of many psychiatric maladies and is centred on the way we all relate to technology and media. Rosen argues that if you already have symptoms of a psychological disorder, technology may make it worse. But he is also attempting to show how, in completely symptom-free adults, these same technologies can create an iDisorder that can be every bit as serious and how we are compelled to display these maladaptive, emotionally dangerous thoughts and actions to the world from the remote safety of our screens -- TV, PC or smart phone.

As Marshall McLuhan pointed out, the dominant technology of the age affects our self-consciousness and social relationships in profound ways and we are possibly going through one of those technology-determined changes now with not all at us at the same point in the transition. The author maps the effects the new technologies have on four generations. The iGeneration, teenagers and younger, checking their phones for text messages very often and social networks less often. They are not as compulsive as the college-aged students, the Net Generation. They're obsessed with text messages and Facebook , with keeping in touch. Gen Xers -- thirty and forty year olds -- are less crazed by technology but it is still significant in their lives and the Boomers are the least interested.

 Whilst on the one hand claiming that the Internet is a good thing and he is not anti-technology, the gloomy catalogue of miseries that the author includes in an iDisorder makes you wonder if he really believes it is. He lists communication disorders (including aspects of antisocial personality disorder, social phobia, autism and Asperger's syndrome), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, hypochondriasis, schizoaffective and schizotypical disorders, body dysmorphia, voyeurism and addiction.  He claims, we are all manifesting the symptoms of these serious disorders and he does disclose that he has to wonder whether all this technology is actually helping or hurting us.

When he is discussing the evidence, Rosen is more tentative in his claims about the connection between the new technologies and the creation of psychologically damaging symptoms. For instance, when it comes to depression and bipolar disorder, he says, he will show how technology plays an often prominent role in exacerbating an existing mood disorder or perhaps even encouraging its development. And when talking about schizo-disorder, he says our reliance on computers and other devices to "keep us connected" may also be doing psychological harm.

Tentative or not, Dr Rosen and his colleagues, from their own direct research and that of others, bring forward some alarming findings that should give us pause about the prolonged usage of the new technologies, social media and video gaming. The total daily use of media and technology, as well as hours spent on line and playing video games were all associated with schizoid disorders in both the iGeneration and the Net Generatiion, according to their research.   

Some of the deleterious effects, especially among our young, are now receiving common recognition. Prolonged use of the new technologies can make you more socially isolated and emotionally distant. Without the mutual support of face to face encounters, a chance remark in a chat room can certainly lower one's mood, cause self-doubt and possibly depression.  And the disruption to sleep patterns can make us even more befuddled and care-worn.

 Logan Pearsall Smith once said, tongue in cheek, "People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading." Perhaps this can now be extended to Internet use: where reading was once treated as a temporary escape from our colourless existence, so now the Internet as its more powerful replacement.  Most of us can tell the difference between the virtual and the real and using the Internet and new technologies wisely boils down to moderation, balance and a sense of proportion, as the author readily acknowledges and he gives some sensible stratagems to achieve this. Thus, having described the hazards, Dr Rosen is anxious to outline what he calls simple, effective, down-to-earth strategies to avoid falling into your personal iDisorder.

Where I think this book's main strength lies is it gives parents and those responsible for the education and development of children and young people the evidence and the arguments for curtailing their over-use of the powerful media tools now at their disposal.  Rosen also offers some tips simple and child-friendly to recruit our off-spring into collaboratively monitoring their use of the Iternet and any smart technology they are lucky enough to possess, rather than parents having to cajole or issue a counter productive "Thou Shalt Not" all the time.  In the upbringing of our children we need sensible rules of behaviour around this relatively new phenomenon to add to the other habits we have to instil such as eating sensibly, going to bed on time and having a consideration for others. Habits only appreciated, on reflection, later on into adulthood.


© 2012 Chris Vaughan


Chris Vaughan writes about himself: I live in Birmingham, England. I am now retired after a career in the pharma industry and am very much involved in community activities. I am a board member of the Birmingham Environmental Partnership and chair a local patient network. I have written a book on the British Health Service and I currently write for a health website. I am very interested in the mind-body.



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