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.
One of the early effects of communications technology usage was the phenomenon of text-speak. This effect first came to prominence when text messaging on pre-smartphones became popular, but it was massively amplified by social media and the arrival of smartphones.
Most people with smartphones check them 200+ times a day. In the last couple of years this has been recognised as a major problem. But smartphones are deliberately designed and marketed by the international technology corporations to be addictive. Yet they are not just addictive – they are massively addictive. This intense psychological addiction has been designed into the system so that the technology companies can do whatever they like, unencumbered by such things as morals or ethics – previously moderated by religion – or by laws, moderated by governments. It’s literally insanity. As the clinical psychologist Nicholas Seto said: “We are currently experiencing the largest unregulated social experiment in the history of humanity.”
And we are. We are sleepwalking into a future where the pace of technological change outstrips our mental ability to adapt to it. This has never before happened. All previous changes – the Agricultural Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution – took place on time scales that human beings could psychologically deal with, even though, on the scale of a single lifetime, there was huge change. So, for example, although British industrialisation changed the working conditions of individuals in their own lifetimes, they were able to mentally cope with that, however much they loathed it. But this is not the case with change now. It is increasingly being said that the feature most noticeable about technological change today is its rate. That is why its prime quality is that of appearing to be out of control.
This relentless drive is fuelled by capitalist, male-dominated social values, originating mostly in 20th century America, though it was recently taken up by Pacific Rim nations, especially China, which has brazenly declared that it wishes to be the dominant force in AI research in the 21st century. But you only have to watch adverts for computer games which “bring the family together” to see the kind of illusion these corporations want to promote. There is no coming together. It’s all vacuous, illusory. What was obvious in the texting explosion is more obvious now.
Communication mediated by the internet is divorced from all the subtle, complex, emotional factors that we take for granted because we are so exceptional at social communication. The great majority of communication between individuals is gestural, takes place through facial expression, through body language, or is conveyed by tone of voice or other ‘musical’ qualities. All these factors are stripped away by social media and general internet use. Even in situations such as skyping, where facial expression and voice tone are added, there remains a considerable reduction in non-verbal communication.
What is the result of this stripping away of human communicative subtlety? The result is depression.
As Dorothy Rowe observed in her trailblazing books, the main metaphor of depression is isolation, however that might be experienced by the sufferer. “Isolation is the number one precursor for depression and suicide,” Wataru Nishida, psychologist at Tokyo’s Temple University, observed recently. Depression is a condition of so-called ‘developed’ nations – the West most obviously, but elsewhere too. No indigenous society knows depression. That is because all the human factors of life, most especially in social communication, are present in such societies. Added to that is a profound sense of belonging and of environment experienced by members of indigenous societies. But communication via social media or the internet militates against these two things. The sense of belonging is shattered by the profound sense of remoteness created by internet interaction. Even if ameliorated by special-interest groups brought together over long distances, the interaction has the same base: technological. It is not human interaction. As for a sense of environment, that never had a chance on the global frontier of the internet.
Deliberate addictive design has now migrated into the field of television. A recent tv phenomenon is the rise of multi-episode drama series, which we are encouraged by production companies and by friends and family to ‘binge-watch.’ These series (cosily named box-sets) have been designed in the same way computer games are designed, with what are known as compulsion loops. This a method of using psychological conditioning which optimises gratification – exactly as gambling does – by the use of positive reinforcement and intermittent rewards. Such dramas, utilising our love of stories and our basic psychological make up, are deliberately addicting watchers to television. (Soap operas use vaguely similar techniques, but are founded on emotional voyeurism.)
The conspicuous increase in reported levels of loneliness is related to isolation. The more we live life online, without our usual supports of non-verbal and emotional communication, the more lonely we feel. Loneliness is not cured by internet contact – that only deals with the symptom. The cause is dealt with by human interaction in all its full complexity, and that can only be done in the real world.
Japan is a textbook example. The Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori, a kind of acute social withdrawal, used to be limited to that country, but now it is spreading elsewhere, including to Europe and America. The victims are usually male, emotionally isolated, and more prone to suicide than any other age group. That is the most extreme form of what is now an extraordinary and profoundly dangerous lack of direct face-to-face socialising amongst the young, but there are other worrying symptoms. A survey of attitudes to sex amongst the Japanese found 20% of young men had little or no interest in having a sexual relationship. Lacking experience of real life, these young men are almost unable to express human emotions, except anger. They have forgotten reality: touch, warmth, empathy. And when such young people do find themselves isolated and depressed, they have few places to turn to – especially in Japan, where speaking about mental health is taboo.
Our planet looks as though it is doomed in many ways. As a species we may be too isolated and too depressed to do anything about its despoliation, and about the damage online life is causing to ourselves.
We will believe ourselves to be connected, but belief is not reality.