Five Upcoming Mental Health Crises 4/5

by stephenpalmersf

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.

The online world may not be a physical place – an environment – but it is perceived and experienced as a place by human beings. This is a crucial fact to take account of. For all the internet’s dazzling virtual tricks, we humans, who evolved in social environments on a rock hard planet, can only imagine and perceive it as something similar. Thus, though it is not, we interact with it as though it is a real place. We are fooled, and that leads to some dangerous mental consequences.

In particular, we are fooled into believing that the internet is a safer place than it actually is. This illusion, called disinhibition, is rather like the disinhibition created by smoking pot or getting drunk. But because so much of human emotional communication is stripped away by online interaction, all the cues we normally use to make sense of others – gesture, facial expression, body language and tone of voice – are missing. This means we lack much of the information that we need to make fully informed decisions. We fall back on simpler things: instinct, irrationality, guesswork. This effect is then amplified by the internet, in the same way it amplifies everything else.

This juxtaposition of feeling connected yet actually being disconnected is what has led to some mental health issues spreading across the world. For millennia, men have lived in, promoted and exaggerated their hierarchical, reduced-emotion, duty and honour founded societies, but that has been at great cost to themselves. People rightly dissect the immense damage done to women by patriarchy, but men are damaged just as much. The difference is, they don’t talk about it. The modern epidemic of loneliness, of increasing suicide rates and of mental health issues amongst the young can in my opinion be traced back to the pernicious effects of the internet and social media in particular. I don’t think this is the whole story – urbanisation has much to be blamed for – but it is a modern curse.

Online behaviour does not remain online however. Cyber-migration is a term given to instances of behaviour generated by the internet – extreme behaviour, mostly – seeping out of the online environment to affect real people. An example of behaviour that has cyber-migrated might be the recent case of individuals burning a replica of Grenfell Tower on November 5. While it can’t be proved that this act was facilitated by social media norms, when I first heard about it I was immediately struck by the grotesque extremity of the deed. Yes, young people do idiotic things and will continue to. But the burning of the tower effigy seemed to me reminiscent of the extremes of trolling, a behaviour – stalking offline – which has been hypertrophied via the internet into one of the great social distortions of our time. This is one of Dr Mary Aiken’s main points in her excellent book The Cyber Effect. Once extreme behaviour is normalised online, it then migrates back into the real world. This is a very worrying trend, especially for young people.

The brain development of children and young adults is being altered. Therefore their minds are being altered. It is no accident that the leading quote on the front cover of Mary Aiken’s book is the one from The Times: ‘If you have children, stop what you are doing and pick up a copy.’ As for the author, her opening quote is from JFK: ‘Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.’ But Aiken shows in her book how much damage is being wreaked upon the young by the world they are born into. This is why we will face a generation of deep mental illness – anxiety, depression, inability to interact with the real world owing to narcissism and retarded emotional growth – in years to come.

There is still a chance to stop this (please see my book review of The Cyber Effect on Sunday) but I don’t think that will happen. Too many vested interests operating as if loosed into a playground have humanity caught and enslaved.