Five Upcoming Mental Health Crises 5/5
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.
In the previous four posts I’ve mentioned how social media and the internet is rewiring the brains of young people, and therefore changing their, and our minds too. Some might think that is too bold a claim.
Yet something similar has happened before – five thousand years ago. The inventions of reading and writing could only happen because of our forebears’ ability to make a myriad of new connections amongst already existing brain structures. Because we are conscious individuals, lacking animal instincts except those few required for us to survive as infants, our brains make a model of the world. That model does not exist when we are born. We have to learn. This is the great advantage of our extended childhood, those many years of vulnerability and weakness during which we learn so much about the world. Brain plasticity is at the heart of the brilliance and success of human beings.
This plasticity can be illustrated by studying how different cultures learn their own languages. For instance, at the level of brain neurons, those in China learning to speak, read and write Chinese use a different set of neuronal connections than those in Britain learning English. So, when a Chinese person learns English, they at first use Chinese-based neuronal pathways. They struggle. The process of learning to read Chinese characters has actually shaped their brains, so they are forced to use different processes when they encounter English. Similarly, if two people in 2018 live one with social media and the internet and one without, their fundamental brain connections will significantly differ.
Yet the brain’s plasticity is also a fundamental disadvantage in certain circumstances. A child who grows up in a cult knows nothing about the world except that which is promulgated by the cult. A child who grows up in a totalitarian state knows nothing of the world except that which their Great Leader tells them. Vulnerable and empty when we are born, we can so easily be shaped – by inhumane individuals, by cultures, by nationalist dogma. Similarly, if we allow ourselves to succumb to the addictive embrace of the internet, we fail to grasp reality. A failure to grasp reality is in my opinion tantamount to insanity.
So, when we read a book – especially fiction – we immerse ourselves in another world. This has parallels with how we can also immerse ourselves in the digital world, but there is a crucial difference. The act of reading allows us to grasp the viewpoints of others. Marcel Proust described this as a ‘sanctuary,’ in which readers gain access to many other realities – many other viewpoints. Via such differing viewpoints comes emotional and ethical growth. While reading we are enriched. We grow, we expand, we mentally sophisticate. We grasp something of the commonality and union of humanity.
If through our use of the virtual world, which is skewed towards visual, disconnected tropes, and which is fast-moving and anonymous, we lose our ability to put ourselves into the positions of other human beings, then we lose empathy; we effectively lose the very thing that allows us to become conscious. Consciousness depends for its effect on the ability of human beings to place themselves into the worlds of others – to see through their eyes. If through the agency of online life we find that we cannot do that, we effectively strip humanity from our own brains. We become the cold, isolated AGIs which at the moment we are so keen to build.
• Exposure to social media and the internet in general is rewiring human brains at the neuronal level, as, from infancy, they grow.
• This rewiring has profound negative implications for how the minds of young people are developing.
• The change in mental development of the young leads to mental health crises when they are older, including anxiety, depression, dependency and narcissism. These eventually become epidemics.
• Social change also comes about because of these mental effects, including the phenomenon of cyber-migration, in which extreme behaviour manifesting online transfers to the real world.
• All these effects lead to the polarisation of the world, the increase in narcissism and all the behaviours associated with it, the reduction in empathy, and, in the long term, damage to the fundamentals of consciousness itself, which relies for its effect on our ability to place ourselves into the positions of others.