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Attachment and digital communication

by Linda Cundy


When we feel secure and have a sense of belonging to a family or social group where we are known and valued we are better able to act with self-agency. This is especially important if we are separated from family and friends. Mobile phones, email, text, Skype and social network sites enable communication across geographical space and time zones, maintaining emotional connections with loved ones. Sometimes the technology is literally life saving. But does it increase felt security? Are there features of digital technology that may actually increase insecure attachment or alienation? And how can we work with this material in the counselling room?

After finishing my counselling training in the 1980s I bought a round-the-world air ticket and set off on my own to travel for a year. This was before the advent of the internet, Skype or social network sites. True, I saw a few ‘portable cell phones’ in Hong Kong, unwieldy pieces of equipment that required biceps to carry – surely they’d never catch on? My means of communication with family and friends were letters sent poste restante. I remember the hope and anticipation as I queued at post offices in Japan, India and Thailand, waiting to collect those precious words hand-written on flimsy blue airmail paper that had taken weeks to arrive from home. In those days we had to have patience. Occasionally I would join a different queue and wait my turn to make an international phone call, exchanging crackly news with disembodied voices from the other side of the globe.

Not so now. Young people away from home have numerous options for staying in touch. There is no need to feel alone, to face the anxiety of separation. Whether they are in another country or just a few hours’ travel away from home, geographical distance no longer creates a temporal gulf between them and the familiar environment of family and school friends. Relationships are mediated by technology, and access to our attachment figures is more or less immediate.

According to Bowlby’s theory, the need to reach out to our attachment figures persists throughout life.1 Knowing that we can connect with them in times of illness, fear or stress is reassuring and enables us to get on with exploring the world, confident of support if needed. Young people studying or working away from home can enjoy the education and social opportunities afforded them if they have people to whom they can turn when problems arise. This is the case where attachment has been secure: the individual can act autonomously but ask for help when necessary, without shame. 

The instinct to make attachment bonds evolved as a survival strategy, but beyond survival it is the quality of early relationships that shapes our personalities, resilience, resourcefulness, vulnerabilities and psychopathology. By ‘psychopathology’ I mean the desperate, distorted and dangerous states of mind and accompanying destructive behaviours that have their origins in a childhood spent with a frightening caregiver. By the time a young person enters further or higher education or launches into the world of work, typical methods of seeking attention, comfort and reassurance are well established, as are typical psychological defences. We understand these to be adaptations to the unique relational environment into which each individual is born and in which they grow up: as attempts to get needs met from specific attachment figures in specific circumstances. This is elegantly explained by Mitchell and Black: ‘The myriad potentialities of the child become slowly and inexorably honed down as he becomes the son of this particular mother, of this particular father. The outline of the child’s personality is sharply etched by the acid of the parents’ anxiety.’2

Attachment and communication
I suggest that an individual’s pattern of attachment and the cluster of defences that typify secure and insecure bonds with other people are also evident in his or her relationship with digital technology. Is it used to enjoy connection with other people, as a means of denying separateness and autonomy or as an avoidance of intimacy? 

Preoccupied attachment develops from experiencing inconsistent caregiving, perhaps due to a parent coping with depression, physical illness or multiple stressors, or to conflict between parents.3 There has been a taste of love and protection but it was not enough and could not be relied on. Preoccupied individuals grow up feeling unsafe in the world, unconvinced of their ability to stand on their own two feet. Without a secure base in the external world, they lack an internal sense of solidity and safety, and this makes separations acutely anxiety provoking. Gerhardt refers to these people as ‘high reactors’, with a high base level of the stress hormone cortisol.4 

To these people the world feels unsafe. Young people who are out in the world and away from home for the first time can struggle if they lack either reliable support from others or personal resilience. The attachment systems of preoccupied people are easily triggered so they urgently seek out others for a response to their needs. Their attachment-eliciting behaviours may be exaggerated as they have learned that this is the only way to gain attention. They often protest strongly against the perceived failures of other people, and this brooding and anger keeps the connection with others intense. Relationships may not be secure but they are enmeshed and fuelled with strong emotion in order to fill up the internal world – a defence against being alone.

Preoccupied people are likely to rely heavily on communication technology to reach out to others. Long phone calls, frequent messages and hours spent on social network sites are a defence against the reality of separateness. Their communications may be to family, friends or professionals and can often take the form of complaints against what is felt to be unfairness or expressions of distress. The focus is on relationships with others, rather than on learning or exploring a new environment that could strengthen the sense of self. The communication device is used as an umbilical cord that keeps them tied to their attachment figures.

Dismissing attachment has its origins in early relationships where precocious self-reliance is encouraged and reliance on parental figures is discouraged and even ridiculed. Dismissing individuals learn early on to hide their anxiety from other people and feel ashamed of what they perceive as weakness or vulnerability (‘the “v” word’, as one of my clients calls it). Attempting to hide distress in order to be acceptable to their attachment figures, they over-control their emotions. Gerhardt calls these individuals ‘low reactors’ – it requires an excessive amount of stress before they will ask for help.4 

I suggest that dismissing individuals will use technology in order to keep others at a comfortable distance. The instinct to attach persists but its expression is inhibited and distorted. They are likely to prefer modes of communicating that reduce intimacy. Texting and other forms of messaging that do not call for an immediate response are less threatening than phone calls or Skype and suit the more avoidant relational style. Contact can be kept at a factual level – to make practical arrangements or seek answers to specific questions – so there is less risk of exposing too much of oneself. Social network sites that enable them to communicate with a group of people may be a way of maintaining connection with others without the intensity of a real-time, two-person conversation.

Affect regulation
Schore proposes that a central function of caregiving in the first years of an infant’s life is affect regulation.5 If a child’s parental figures have been reliably sensitive and attuned to her emotional states, the capacity to manage her own states of arousal will develop, enabling her to calm herself when she is agitated and lift herself out of a low mood when needed. This is evident in people with a history of secure attachment: their higher self-esteem means they care for themselves in healthy ways. But where parents have been insensitive, punitive or unreliable, the child’s attempts to manage her own emotional highs and lows are likely to be problematic.

During adolescence and into the early 20s the brain is undergoing dramatic restructuring, putting under strain the capacity to manage levels of arousal and to control impulses, even for those with a history of secure attachment. According to Cozolino: ‘The changes in the brain’s reward circuitry required for new attachments during adolescence can also lead to confusion, disorientation and depression. These biological and behavioural shifts are no doubt connected to the many impending life transitions that lie ahead. Unfortunately these shifts are fraught with dangers related to risky behaviours and addiction coupled with poor judgment and lack of adequate impulse control.’6

Preoccupied individuals often struggle with their emotional states. On the one hand they continue to need other people to help them find equilibrium; on the other they tend to react strongly to any perceived lack of attunement and to brood on the historical failings of others. This escalates the stress reaction – hence the frequent, long, angry phone calls and distressed messages. The neurological restructuring and other developmental challenges associated with becoming adults can further intensify preoccupied young people’s highs and lows and, as impulse control is also affected by brain ‘rewiring’ during teenage years, their cries for help can escalate. It is unsurprising that psychiatrists are unwilling to diagnose borderline personality disorder (BPD) until early adulthood, as the labile emotions and sometimes dramatic attachment-seeking behaviours of preoccupied adolescents may closely resemble the features of BPD.

Meanwhile those with dismissing defences, whose equilibrium can be unsettled by the proximity (rather than the absence) of others, may manage their unease through over-involvement in work and study, leaving little time or space for close relationships. Use of alcohol or drugs is another method for regulating anxiety, uncomfortable emotions and associated thoughts and memories. Technology offers a means for self-soothing or for lifting a low mood. Computer games fulfil both these functions.

So can online pornography and other forms of cyber sex, by allowing sexual gratification without the demands of a relationship. And, just like alcohol, these can become addictive, dominating a person’s life to the exclusion of other concerns. They may lose all relationship to real-life others and to time. I think it is relevant that teen fiction is obsessed with vampires, werewolves, ghosts and other creatures of the night: so many young people themselves become nocturnal, inhabiting a liminal ‘as if’ world as they sit at their computer keyboards and games consoles.

In Japan hikikomori (social withdrawal) is seen as a particular expression of dismissing attachment. The young person, usually a teenager, retreats from the world into his or her bedroom, sometimes for years. The trigger for this reclusiveness is often study-related stress but the context is an underlying family dynamic where pressure to succeed, shame and difficulty in expressing emotions dominate. In self-imposed exile, the young person is reliant on parents for food and clean clothes, thereby tying his attachment figures to him while allowing no communication with them. But withdrawal from day-to-day life is not the only feature. Throughout the years spent thus, thehikikomori plays computer games, reads manga (Japanese comics) ordered online and communicates with others like himself in dedicated chat rooms. There are even therapists in avatar guises offering animated online counselling tailored to these recluses. It is possible that the rest of the world will become familiar with this phenomenon as a combination of dismissing attachment style and internet addiction makes some young people disappear from our own streets and lecture halls.

Implications for practice
Understanding the relationship between young clients and digital technology can give us an insight into their basic attachment style, the kinds of relationships they make with other people, the underlying anxieties with which they struggle (fear of being abandoned or fear of intimacy), and defences against these anxieties. It can also provide information about how they manage their emotional highs and lows and impulses. 

I have found it enormously helpful to ask about use of mobile phones, computer games, social network sites, apps and the internet as part of an assessment. Clients are often ashamed of some aspect of their use of computers or phones and find it a relief to be asked about it in a matter-of-fact way in the early stages of counselling or therapy. These dynamics may not be the presenting issue but they can enable deeper therapeutic work to begin.

Technology enters the counselling room in many ways. Clients talk about social networking and online dating and the feelings and fantasies aroused by these exchanges. Different styles, preferences and culture in communicating (‘netiquette’) can lead to misunderstandings, and even to rather paranoid perceptions. It is easy for imaginations to run riot when an expected message does not arrive or is terse and businesslike or when someone close habitually sends frequent texts and phone calls throughout the day and night. Clients may be subjected to insidious cyber bullying or may have been caught watching pornography or logging into sites promoting eating disorders, self-harm or suicide. The more we are open to hearing, the more material will be brought to us. As counsellors, we need to explicitly enquire into our clients’ online lives.

Digital media also influence the therapeutic relationship. Those with more avoidant defences are likely to defer counselling for as long as possible. They may look online for information about their symptoms of distress and to search for resources to deal with them, attempting as always to minimise their problems and manage alone. The anonymity offered by dedicated chat rooms or online counselling may enable them to open up and we are only likely to see them when these options are not available or self-containment is no longer possible. Sharing a physical space with a real-life counsellor may feel exposing to someone who is ashamed of having and expressing emotions but underneath the awkwardness a longing to attach and be accepted exists. Should such a client ever send a message out of session, this should be taken as a breakthrough, a relational achievement and an opportunity to change the pattern of attachment. This is likely to be a crisis and the client is at last reaching out for help.

Meanwhile preoccupied individuals struggle to contain themselves or hold their own boundaries. As well as frequent messages requesting contact between appointments, we may find that the content of counselling sessions is reported on Facebook or shared with friends and family in other ways. The counsellor may be copied into personal messages or the client may forward to them emails from family, friends or others. Clients may try to discover information about their counsellors online, and this too may be shared with others. The therapeutic work here is in strengthening the client’s sense of self and ability to contain his or her thoughts, feelings and impulses. Clear therapeutic boundaries are essential and the reasons for not responding to texts and other messages should be explained as important to providing a consistent, predictable relationship.

Exploring the defensive role of technology in clients’ lives (to avoid feeling alone or to avoid intimacy) and developing a narrative of how this may express each person’s specific attachment history can form the core of therapeutic work.

The future
When the adult attachment interviews were first conducted in the 1980s it was estimated that around 55 per cent of the general population of North America showed evidence of secure-autonomous attachment.7 The figure was lower among socially and economically deprived populations but it was generally held that around half of adults fell within the secure range, and this has been found in many other countries too. It has been suggested anecdotally since that this number is falling and a greater proportion of adults may be showing insecure attachment patterns.8 If so, what might be the reasons for this?

There have been a number of major social changes in the past years, many of them fuelled by digital technology. For instance, with so much of our working lives conducted through computers and the internet, the distinction between office hours and home life has become increasingly blurred. The need to work from home can either facilitate family life or, at times, take priority over attending to children’s needs and spending time together. There is also increasing pressure (and opportunity) to work away from home, and technology makes this feasible, but this can divide couples and families, putting particular strain on the parent left to manage children and other responsibilities at home. These social pressures will impact on both the adults and the next generation of children. The adult attachment interviews of the future may well pick up increased insecurity, despite the many more possibilities for enhanced communication afforded by the digital world.

Young people today are ‘digital natives’, acquainted with personal computers and mobile phones since early childhood.9 As Prensky has argued: ‘Today’s students have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor simply changed their slang, clothes, body adornments or styles, as has happened between generations previously. A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a “singularity” – an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. This so-called singularity is the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century.’9 There is a fundamental difference between young people today and their parents, whose own childhoods were lived in the predigital age. In some cases this can deepen the gulf between the generations, creating miscommunication, mistrust and insecure attachment. 

Within a few years, these young people will become parents to a new generation. How will their relationships with technology impact on their capacities as attachment figures? How sensitive will they be to an infant’s need for soothing or engagement? How available will they be to enjoy their children? And how secure will their children be when their turn comes to be students?

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