Media and Mental Health

Feb 26, 2015
Erin Howe


To Bruce Ballon, the Internet is like an ocean of information, communication and simulation. To help people navigate these potentially dangerous waters, he is throwing out a life ring.

Jean-Luc Picard as Borg by Gryffindor via Creative CommonsJean-Luc Picard as Borg by Gryffindor via Creative Commons

While smart phones, social media and online gaming become more integrated into our lives, Ballon says it is important for people to reflect on their own reliance on devices and apps. To help with that process, Ballon wrote the free e-book SWIMMING IN CYBER: Learning to live HEALTHILY in the intersections of the virtual and real worlds.

Ballon is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Head of Advanced Clinical and Educational Services for Problem Gambling, Gaming and Internet Addiction at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Many of the people he sees in his clinical practice, which supports young people and people with addictions, have co-occurring issues like depression, anxiety or Autism Spectrum Disorders. They use technology to try to deal with their condition just like some people self-medicate with drugs.

“For example, if someone has social anxiety, they may feel more comfortable online than they do in real life. They may say, ‘I can feel very powerful here in this virtual world. In the real world, I feel very disempowered. Which one is more valuable to me? Well, I like the virtual one, even though it’s causing me problems in the long run, it serves a purpose,’” Ballon says. “And so, even though we’re dealing with the underlying or concurrent mental health issue, we still have to deal with the video game or the Internet or else it will just keep on going.”

Computers are everywhere — in schools, at work and in many people’s homes — so simply ignoring them is not an option. Ballon is helping patients find strategies for using technology while protecting themselves from allowing it to drain all of their time or money.

“Technology is now pretty much totally overlapped with our reality,” says Ballon, who is also the Director of Education at the Simulation Ontario Network of Excellence (SIM-one). “Everyone walks around with cell phones, looking like creatures from Star Trek called The Borg, which are cyborgs that are networked together. In my clinical practice, I see people with addictive behaviors like over-using social media connections, online pornography, gambling or video games. I wrote the book to start a conversation about how to use technology in a healthy way.”

Technology and media can also influence us in other ways, says Ballon, who also points to people’s use of brand names as verbs, such as Googling. He explains most people wouldn’t say they “internet search” to find information. Instead, they Google.

“We often don’t even realize it is happening,” says Ballon. “Sometimes when I teach, I ask people what they imagine when I say the word, ‘addict’. Usually, it’s somebody shooting up in an alleyway with needles. As an addiction doctor, I know that is a very small percentage of the addiction field. So why do we think that? Because of what’s portrayed in the media. We need to be more self-reflective to understand the messages coming in and what they mean for us.”

Ballon’s book can be downloaded from Amazon, iBooks, Smashwords and Barnes & Noble.

Click here to read more about Ballon’s work.

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