Then and Now

I guess every generation looks back at the time in which they grew up and compares it to the generation of today and the challenges that their children face growing up in the here and now.  Many look back with nostalgia and see their time as a better time.  Each generation generally sees the one before it as more simple and a “better” time.  I don’t really look back on my generation as necessarily better or worse than any other generation.  I guess that is really an individual assessment.  Each generation has its challenges and wouldn’t it be nice if we could pull only the good things from every generation and the advancement in technologies that it brings and leave the bad behind?  That isn’t the reality, though; we take the good with the bad.

Having a child with an eating disorder and OCD I do wonder if the technology of this generation and the explosion of social media help fuel some of what I see around me and some of the challenges we faced with our son and face with our other children as well, just in different ways.

I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, the birth of the “hippie” generation.  This generation stressed peace, civil rights, care and concern for the Earth, anti-war, love, etc.  All of those things could be argued to be beneficial, but that generation also saw an explosion of drug use and addiction which has only increased to this day.  That (and I would argue the fashions of that time) was not a good thing.  I remember the turmoil of that time very well.  There were riots, protests, and a very great generational conflict between many teenagers and their parents.  What I don’t remember was the explosion of eating disorders, OCD, and other addictions (excluding drugs) that I see today.  I am not saying that they didn’t exist.  They did exist and many were unnoticed and untreated.  Certainly, the tragedy of Karen Carpenter comes to mind.

I am really targeting the increase in intensity, 24/7 mentality, the internet, and social media in this post.  I am not saying that they are the cause of eating disorders or anything else for that matter.  I do wonder if the increased pressure and pace of life that every succeeding generation seems to face and the availability of information, good and bad, that new technology brings is a curse as well as a blessing.  I also wonder if we are woefully negligent as a society in not teaching our children how to handle these stressors and proper use of the internet and social media, not just in terms of staying away from dangerous sites, but in proper time management and how to recognize and resist those sites and “cyber places” that are not necessarily harmful in general, but harmful or addicting for us in particular.  I don’t know about you, but my older kids and adult kids practically have their phones hermetically sealed to their bodies.

When I was in school there was not an internet or social media.  While there were certainly kids that had eating disorders I don’t remember the numbers being as high and I don’t remember as many life threatening crises as I see now.  I was talking to our ED therapist about this one day and she was lamenting that in her 35 years as a clinician, eating disorders and their severity have increased exponentially, particularly in the past 10 years.  She has had the benefit of working in several large states and big cities.  Increased awareness accounts for some of it, but I don’t think that it explains the entire picture.  We have seen as large an increase in self-harm behaviors and suicidal behavior as well.

Before the internet and social media, someone who wanted to find out about low carb , no carb, ketogenic, vegan, raw food, no sugar, or any other fad or restricting diet would have to do some digging.  It would require a trip to the library or finding time to talk with someone who practiced those diets.  It took some work to find it.  If you wanted to find the latest and greatest tips for exercising all of that weight off of your body, you generally had to look in a magazine to find it.  Even there, unless it was a body building magazine or some similar magazine, you had to dig.  If you wanted pornography you had to go the “Adult Clubs” or the “Block”, or a movie theatre that showed x-rated movies.  It was available in the magazines, but those magazines were wrapped in brown paper and kept behind the store counter.  You had to ask for them and endure the hairy eyeball of the store clerk and the embarrassment that asking for that material might bring.   If you gambled, you had to get in the car and go to the casino or the race track.

In today’s world finding pornography is as available as a DVD, or a click of the mouse to a porn site or u-tube.  Gambling is available on-line, so you have the convenience of gambling right from the comfort of your sofa.  As far as diets and exercise are concerned, you have to do even less work.  You simply have to turn on your computer or your phone and click the Pinterest button, or Facebook, Twitter, or even just the news on the homepage you have selected and it is right there.  You didn’t even have waste time or expend energy typing into a search engine.  Addicted to exercise or dieting/restricting, or any other eating disorder behavior?……… will work harder taking a bath than you will have to work finding new and inventive ways to accomplish this.  Those same buttons on your phone will give you all you need.  With the ease of texting, face time, and all of the other constant and instantaneous ways to communicate, you can communicate easily with others that also engage in eating disorder behaviors and compare notes or learn from each other.  I have found this often to be the case with eating disorder inpatient units as well as PHP, and IOP.  Patients on those units form friendships and with the constant 24/7 nature of the internet and social media, information and conversations that are shared are not always positive and conducive to recovery.  This can happen, of course, even if the internet and social media didn’t exist, but it would have to be worked at and it wouldn’t be available at all hours of the day and night like a TV or radio constantly droning on in the background.

When I grew up I played softball.  We had teams, but we played in t-shirts, jeans, and tennis shoes.  It was fun and, with the exception of a few overzealous parents, it wasn’t too intense.  My kids have played sports and the intensity is incredible sometimes.  The uniforms are professional and elaborate.  There must be the right bat, the right shoes, and the right glove, etc.  Along with that comes the professional attitude and the intensity in training.  There are weight restrictions, coaches encourage the use of u-tube videos to increase performance, there is weight training and other exercise related training that takes place all year long just to keep “in shape”.  There are travel teams for the best players, tournament teams that travel around the country.  All of this is proudly posted on social media and the intensity increases as does the competition. For those with low self-esteem, an addiction to exercise, or an eating disorder, it highlights their irrational belief that they are not doing enough, are not working hard enough, do not look good enough, are failing, and they strive to keep up.  There is a tremendous pressure to continually increase performance.   Open your browser and you cannot miss a picture of the perfect body (and an article about how to obtain it).  You didn’t have to work to find it.

When I was in school there was bullying.  Students were picked on, differences were pointed out and exploited; embarrassing and unkind things were said and done during the school day.  Students got into fights and people took sides.  The difference was that at the end of the day we went home.  We went outside and played or watched some TV and did our homework until dinnertime.  There was downtime.  There was time for everyone to cool down and change the subject, so to speak, by engaging in some other activity after they got home from school.  The student that was bullied or treated unkindly could go home and also had the opportunity to do something different, talk with parents, cool off.  That time allowed for some distance and perspective to be gained.  It allowed for a time-out and parents had time to intervene, if necessary.

In today’s generation social media is available 24/7.  What happened in school continues without any interruption.  The bullying and threats can continue.  That embarrassing moment that would normally be forgotten, or at least diffused with time away, now has been posted all over social media for everyone inside and outside of the school to see.  That perceived difference or oddity continues to be exploited.  That fight that might have de-escalated with time away now has been posted on social media and everyone inside and outside of the school can choose sides.  Tempers are being continually stoked with every new post and that intensity of anger is kept alive and well because it can go on right through the night leaving everyone at a fever pitch and ready to take it on again the next day.  What might have started as a fairly mild conflict in school can now be blown completely out of proportion and made much more serious as more and more posts go up and more and more people become involved in the conflict.   That slight or unkind comment from Gym class can now be made bigger and given much more attention than it deserves all afternoon and evening on social media instead of just fading away, or better yet, being worked out the next day between the two parties involved after some time away and cooling off has taken place.  The availability of social media can have a “tunnel vision” effect, keeping everyone focused like a laser beam on one fight, embarrassing moment, or bullying and humiliating one particular person.  It can leave a child feeling that there is no way out or that they are not good enough.

It is hard to know what to do as a parent.   My mother and father had similar problems to contend with as my generation was different than theirs was.  Any child in any generation could have undesirable friends and find ways to get into trouble whether deliberate or not.  Mental health issues have existed throughout time.  I do think, though, that as parents of children with eating disorders (and there are other examples that fall into this category as well) the explosion of social media and the internet is a particular challenge to recovery.  My parents had only to pick up the extension of the phone to find out who I was talking with.  Yes, I could deceive them as all kids of any generation could.  The difference is that now there are people who have the ability to come into my kids lives that I would never allow through my front door at a rate much more alarming than my parents had to contend with.  There is access to information and an ease to that access that my kids have that I never had.  We are the first generation that has to deal with these particular difficulties.  I don’t know or pretend to know the answers as to how to best deal with it.  The cat is out of the bag and we are likely never going to go back, so it must be dealt with.  I don’t think that there is nearly enough guidance given to our children about how to deal with all of this.  Quite frankly, I would like to see a user’s manual for parents too.

One of the biggest headaches I had in dealing with my son’s illness was the internet and social media.  I am sure that many parents can relate.  It was used to find the latest exercise and diets and it was used to refute nearly everything that his father and I said to him.  With every argument could be found a counter argument just a click away.

When you have a child with an eating disorder, OCD, or frankly, just having children, this is scary.  I guess that I will have to continue to operate through the practice of common sense which I sometimes think is the best of all, but sadly a dying art.


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