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‘It’s not an easy conversation to have with a kid who thinks they’re invincible’

Carla Sofka, Ph.D.

Where did the word ‘thanatechnology’ come from?

Thanatechnology is a word that I invented back in 1996, because there was no way to describe how, at that point in time, it was just websites and maybe chat groups online, it was kind of the dinosaur version of what we have now, there was no way to describe how these new technologies were being used in death education and grief counselling. So that is a word I came up with to capture those mechanisms. And now of course, we have so much more with social media and social networking sites and apps on phones, and social robots that can capture mind files that preserve our consciousness and our ability to communicate with people we love forever – I mean who would have imagined back then that those things would be available now. So I can’t even begin to guess what kinds of technology will be available 20 years from now, because it’s changed so much.

So it’s any kind of technology that can be used to deal with death, dying, grief, loss, and illness.

Does the evidence suggest that teens have a preference for sharing bad news through ‘thanatechnology’?

I have to be really cautious because I’m not sure there is a whole lot of data, so part of it depends on how you’re defining evidence!

I’m not aware of other studies that have been done that have asked specifically ‘how do you share bad news?’ and ‘what’s your preferred way for doing this?’, I only have access to the information that was shared with me in the survey that’s described in the book chapter.So based on that limited evidence, some teenagers like what technology provides to them, they like the privacy of being able to get information and being able to have that reaction or response in private.

Other people expressed a strong preference for not using technology, they kind of wanted somebody to be in the room with them, sitting there and telling them face to face, and being able to support each other through the impact of that bad news.

And then you have other people who reported using a combination and that was okay. So it’s very hard to say if there’s a preference, I think what probably would be safe to say is that parents should probably have a conversation with their child when there isn’t a crisis going on, and just ask them what their thoughts are about this, because I’m not sure how often people have conversations about this before there’s an emergency, often people have to figure it out as it’s happening.

So I guess the response, and I know it’s probably not the one you want, is that I don’t know if there’s a solid answer to that question, but I suspect there are as many preferences as there are individual differences about coping with grief and loss. It’s a very individual decision and individual preference.

This article is part of an Q&A session with Carla Sofka. You can read the full interview on The Psychologist.

Carla J. Sofka, Ph.D., MSW, is a Professor of Social Work at Siena College, Loudonville, New York. She is the author of Chapter 8 of Supporting Bereaved Students at School.

Featured Image: Human observation by geralt, Creative Commons CC0 via Pixabay.