Five Upcoming Mental Health Crises 1/5
This week I’m going to post a series of five pieces about the connection between online life – and social media in particular – and poor mental health. In recent years the public perception of the damage social media is doing to our mental health, and to that of young people in particular, has become clear. My pieces explore some possible consequences of the way giant, unaccountable corporations are exploiting human foibles for their own gain. I’m far from being the only person to think that this sustained, relentless psychological attack is going to cause mental health crises in the not-too-distant future, but perhaps my thoughts on the issue come from a slightly different perspective.
It is obvious to most that the world in 2018 is politically polarised. This social change became even clearer following the election of Donald Trump, but it had been happening for at least a decade before that. It was not only present in the West; many Eastern countries, some far more technologically connected than Britain or America, also exhibited this polarisation. A few commentators have observed that the rise of the internet and social media in particular might be responsible for political polarisation, but it is only in recent years that a definite link has been made between social media and poor mental health. Such warnings have become numerous in the last couple of years. And yet, almost no research has been done in this area.
The mental health issues surrounding polarisation are a consequence of what some have called the internalisation of social media norms. Interaction on social media differs from face-to-face interaction in one crucial way. We communicate with family, friends, and even opponents face-to-face, as human individuals, but on the internet such interaction is far more immediate, swifter, and offers no opportunity for reflection and therefore for the use of reason. The consequence of this dynamic is known to all who use Facebook, where too many discussions degenerate into arguments, which lead to entrenched positions.
It is this psychological dynamic which has fuelled recent changes in human interaction. Over the last decade or so young people, active online from an incredibly early age, have become vulnerable to the psychological abuse meted out by tech corporations. Recent American research by Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and Professor Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia explained: “… the damage might start in users as young as two… After just one hour of screen time, children and adolescents may have less curiosity, lower self-control and lower emotional stability, which can lead to an increased risk of anxiety and depression.” They point out that half of mental health problems develop by adolescence. So it is the young who are particularly at risk, and that is not just because they are vulnerable through the inexperience of youth. It is because until the age of twenty five the human brain is still growing, changing, its multitude of connections expanding.
In other words: social media and internet interaction in general is altering the wiring of the human brain, which, in turn, is changing us as a species.
This is the main danger then. International tech corporations, fostering online life and using brutal psychological techniques to grab our attention (the currency of social media), are preparing the way for a future of strife between extremes. Internalising the habits of online interaction makes us irrational, impulsive, and acts with shocking precision against the reason we usually follow in normal human communication, i.e face-to-face.
Two other cyber effects worsen this situation. One is the anonymity effect, where internet users falsely imagine themselves to be anonymous actors. But digital traces are almost impossible to erase, and the internet is by no means a safe place. Second is the disinhibition effect, which is a consequence of the particulars of the internet, including the perceived lack of authority and the sense of distance, or remoteness which it cultivates.
We need however to focus not only on the symptoms of the internet problem, we need to deal with their cause. We need to deal with their cause above all else. Clarion calls to fight against fascism are all very well, but the recent rise of the extreme right comes from a different underlying source than that of the early twentieth century. Comparisons between the far right in 2018 and the far right of the 1930s serve only to obscure the new cause of fascism’s recent rise and political success.
Polarisation also leads to a learned loss of empathy. Consciousness itself – the quality that allowed us to spread across the world, make beautiful art and see with extraordinary telescopes to the limits of the universe – is rooted in empathy. Consciousness relies for its effect on the fact that we use ourselves as exemplars when understanding the behaviour of others, whom we experience empathetically. If we lose empathy, we lose a fundamental part of ourselves; if not the most fundamental part.
Another way of looking at this is to say that social media style interactions increase narcissism. I use narcissism here in the sense I’ve used elsewhere – “human narcissism is the experience of consciousness by the inauthentic, undeveloped self, one not complete, one with a less than whole understanding of itself. Narcissism is therefore an inevitable and unavoidable precursor to psychological development.” Because narcissism acts through self-deception, the slow sophistication of ourselves via the viewpoints of all the people we meet throughout our lives does not happen via internet interaction. There is no time during such interactions for reason, for the viewpoints of others to manifest themselves. Commonly this is described as ‘internet bubbles’ or ‘echo chambers,’ but the effect is far more profound than merely pushing people away from one another. Narcissism is tough. Narcissism acts with brutal strength to protect itself. Human beings only overcome it because we are a profoundly social species. Social media therefore, with ultimate irony, is in fact the exact opposite. It is anti-social media. Slowly, it is fracturing and infantilising humanity. I say this because it seems to me that narcissism can act with far greater reach and depth through the internet. The internet may be the invention which kills us as a social, cultural entity.
Is that too pessimistic? I don’t think so; not in the long run, anyway. That empathetic part of us could be learned again, if ever it was lost, given lots of time. But facing an ecological catastrophe and polarised into two halves, perhaps such lessons would never be learned.