by Ellen M. Belluomini, LCSW
About six years ago, I was seeing a 13-year-old boy about the anger he had toward his father. The parents were divorced after the father had an affair. This son hated going to his father’s house. We were having family and individual sessions to address the issues. One of the ways I connected with the son was to talk about technology. I found out two significant issues about his technological habits. The first was that he planned to visit an Internet “friend” who was interested in starting a computer business with him. He had saved money and had a plan to visit him by bus. This male “friend” was in his forties, living in New York. My client lived in Illinois.
Once we worked through the dangers of this plan, another issue surfaced. Every time he went to his father’s house, pornographic images of women were left on the Internet browser for him to open and view. The viewing left him uncomfortable and angry. Addressing these two issues opened a therapeutic healing for the son as to his anger. This is only one type of case that led me to develop methods for technology assessments.
Assessments are a normal part of social work intervention. These assessments are developed to recognize issues by identifying mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual conditions present. Social workers use their critical analysis skills to evaluate how the systems of families interact to create dysfunction. Assessment considers the family’s problem solving skills, communication, and crisis reactions, leading to an understanding of family dynamics. A significant component often left out of these evaluations is the impact technology has on the family system.
Why do we need technology assessments? Never in our history has information and social connection been so available to teenagers. The Pew Institutes report on teens and technology (Madden, Lenhard, Duggan, Cortesi, & Gasser, 2013) says cell phone usage by teens is at 78%, with almost half of users using smartphones. Tablet use is growing, with 23% of teens and adults owning one. More than 93% of teenagers have access to the Internet at home on personal computers or laptops. These family members have 24/7 access to the Internet, their social circles, and the risks prevalent with these technologies.
Here are four general areas to address in assessments:
1. Technology Used
All family members identify what types of technology they use. Access to computers, types of games, frequently used apps, social media sites, and Internet favorites provide a picture of constructive and destructive technology outlets. A picture can be formed about how the family is engaged, disengaged, or enmeshed through technology.
2. Perception of Time Using Technology
Family members have different perceptions of technology use. Assessment of time evaluates the accuracy of perceptions among family members. Children can feel ignored by their parents’ texting or gaming. Parents may have different views of what addiction versus appropriate usage is for varying technologies. Parents and children may be escaping through social media or gaming. The issue is to open the discussion about time frames and understand the covert and overt family rules around technology.
3. Nature of Friendships
Teens today do not view a difference in virtual and in-person friendships (Ives, 2012). Practitioners may focus on the support networks existing through school, family, or activities. However, online connections are also important to address. Online relationships can be positive or negative influences, just as friendships in person. Identifying and exploring the function of online friendships provides a wealth of information. Social workers can increase understanding between generations and provide feedback about friendship behaviors.
4. Possible Risks
Predators, bullying, inappropriate communication, and violence are all areas in which parents need education if they are to safeguard their children from the negative aspects of technology (Ives, 2012). Parents have tried to protect their children without understanding the ramifications of technological ignorance. Parents think they have stopped their children from watching violent video games by banning their use. Do these parents understand their kids are watching YouTube “Let’s Plays,” giving a vivid account of the prohibited game? How many children have disrupted sleep patterns as a result of texting throughout the night, only to struggle in school the next day? What metadata are companies collecting from children and then using direct marketing to appeal to them? Assessing risks properly may help with an understanding for some of the reasons the family is seeking services or minefields that lay ahead.
The assessment’s function is to seek out a broader picture of patterns existing within the family system. The issues presented upon meeting with families motivate my use of technology assessments. I have not found one family, even from vulnerable or marginalized populations, in which technology does not play a part in the clinical issue. Children at risk, parents consumed by use of video/online games, bullying from online sources, inappropriate sexual behavior through technology, and a separation between parents and children because of technology are just some of the areas that can be revealed in a technology assessment.
Technology does not have to inhibit the connections within a family. Social workers need to include a technology assessment to broaden the systemic implications digital access brings to the presenting problem.
If you want a sample technology assessment form, I have posted an example of questions on my website at: http://ellenbelluomini.vpweb.com/Educational-Trainings.html (under technology section)
Ives, E. A. (2012, October 1). iGeneration: The social cognitive effects of digital technology on teenagers. Online Submission.
Madden, M., Lenhard, A., Duggan, M., Cortesi, S., & Gasser, U. (2013, March 13). Teens and technology 2013. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Teens-and-Tech/Summary-of-Findings.aspx.
Ellen M. Belluomini, LCSW, received her MSW from the University of Illinois, Jane Addams School of Social Work and is currently a doctoral student at Walden University. She is an educator at National Louis University and Harper College. She has developed online and blended curricula with an emphasis on integrating technology into human services practice. She writes a blog “Bridging the Digital Divide in Social Work Practice” to increase awareness about technology’s uses. She presents and consults on various issues related to social services. Her clinical work has been in private practice, management of nonprofit agencies, and programming for vulnerable populations.