January 13, 2011

Physically Isolated, Electronically Connected:

By Elizabeth Murray, MD

My family has recently been dealing with the terminal illness of my father-in-law. Unlike me, he has never been a TV watcher or a strong computer user. Therefore, it was quite an adjustment when he was placed in isolation in the ICU, effectively cutting him off from his friends, and most importantly, his grandchildren. It was then that he was introduced to Skype. Being able to reconnect to his family was the highlight of his day.

My father-in-law's experience is not unique. Work being done at the University of Rochester has shown that teens with cancer suffer not only the side effects of the cancer but significant social isolation due to missing out on the normal activities of teenage life. The effects of this social isolation can linger even after they have beaten the disease. Yet, studies now show that the use of new media and social networking sites are allowing teens to remain connected to their peers and teenage life even when physically separated. Studies like these have the potential to impact how patients are treated in the hospital regarding cell phones and computer usage. These forms of connection to the outside world may be more than merely ways to pass the time, but rather, ways to reduce some of the emotional effects hospitalization has on an individual. As pediatricians, we need to remain open to the fact that, although we often regard increased screen time as something to avoid, allowing a child or teen, in the appropriate setting, to have increased access to computers and cell phones may be beneficial.

As I watch my 15-month-old daughter figure out how to play movies on my iPhone all by herself, I am struck at how intertwined our lives have become with new media and technology. I realize how different my daughter's and father-in-law's lives will be because of the flood of technological advances and new media that has entered our lives. But as she smiles at videos of herself with her great-grandfather, I am thankful for video conferencing and cell phones that can record memories at the push of a button. New technology and increased screen time are here to stay. Yet, if used appropriately, they may actually have positive impacts on our patients and their families.