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Suffering In Front of a Screen
How long must we ignore the effects of the Internet on a generation's mental health?
Everyone agrees that mental health among Western people is remarkably poor. But comparatively few people seem to be willing to say that this is because of the Internet. I guess one reason is that blaming the Internet sounds crotchety and cliche; the people who lived the same time as Edison probably blamed their generation’s problems on incandescent light, right? Another reason is that blaming the Internet doesn’t actually do anything. Nicholas Carr wrote The Shallows, a paradigm-shifting book about the very real intellectual and emotional harms of prolonged exposure to online communication. It was impeccably researched, compellingly written, and widely hailed…in 2010. A decade later, nothing about the tech landscape or American culture suggests these warnings made a lick of difference, and our elites’ indifference to the costs of indefinite social lockdown just drives the point home.
But I think another reason most try to avoid implicating the most immersive technological reality of the 21st century is that we really have no idea what we would do even if we were convinced of it. Trade in our smartphones? Downgrade back to dial-up? Maybe the problem really is as simple as social media, and scuttling Instagram and Twitter and Facebook instantly results in a cleaner, more hopeful lease on life. I often suspect this is the case, but then again I wonder if the logic of what the Internet is leads unavoidably to these social media platforms. If an alternate channel in which to live life is there, personalizing it and turning it into currency is as natural as building a cabin on your newly settled land.
It’s impossible to talk critically about the Internet online without getting eye-rolled. “Internet is bad, says man on the internet.” The better way to make this point is to remind people like me that without the Internet this newsletter would not exist, so logically I am contemplating the evils of my own existence. Point taken! But then again, if this online newsletter were not a thing, who can say what else I would be doing? Our assumption that the Internet’s main function is to materialize good things that would otherwise not materialize is little more than the religion of what Neil Postman and others called “technopoly,” in which technology, over time, always creates the need for itself simply by virtue of existing. In other words, many of the solutions that we turn to digital technology for are to problems we only became aware of because of the solutions.
For Millennials and GenZ, the emerging mental health crisis—rising suicide rates, inexplicable contagion of anxiety and gender dysphoria, etc.—correlates closely with the digitalization of the modern world. Most millennials experienced puberty about the same time they experienced the first stages of constant connectivity and an omnipresent peer feedback. Everyone who signed up for Facebook in the mid 2000s felt like a problem was being solved: the problem of keeping up with your friends, seeing what they’re up to, sharing info, etc. But what if the lack of intense, screen-mediated relational omniscience wasn’t a problem at all? What if the idea that you could really, meaningfully, experience interpersonal satisfaction through a website did not solve an emotional longing, but created more of them—which now have to be met through the technology?
Here’s where I’m going with this.
If you read social media land somewhat carefully, you pick up something very important: namely, there are a lot of people who seem to be living online. I don’t mean that in a slang sense of “he spends all day on the Internet.” I mean “living” quite existentially. Living online means using the Internet to mediate your encounter with the world, capture your emotional and psychological rhythms, shape your knowledge of truth and beliefs about what’s real, and give form and content to your relationships. Some people do this in remarkably explicit ways, and others seem to do it more subtly. But in either case, the online-life seems to have a way of making people into mediated selves: individuals who don’t seem to be really living at all unless that living is captured, appreciated, responded to, or discovered online.
The scariest way this trend appears is in the truly astonishing number of people who talk very nakedly about their emotional or mental distress online. You’ve seen the kind of post I’m talking about. Stuff like:
“Oh hello depression, my old friend.”
“Welp, another day where all I want is to not live anymore.”
“Can’t take this anymore.”
I’m sure some might think I’m making fun of these posts. I’m absolutely not. The reason these kinds of (increasingly everywhere) posts disturb me is the same reason I would be disturbed to be in a store and start hearing multiple shoppers speaking despair to no one in particular, but out loud and with conviction. These are statements of severe anguish of the heart. Assuming they’re not pure fabrications, they are meant to go somewhere. But “where” is the digital ether into which these sentiments are put? The answer is nowhere. The Internet is not a place to be heard, it’s a place to disappear. And yet the caverns of the Web are thought about as legitimately healthy spaces to spiritually wither. A generation of children know the place to go to suffer is in front of a screen.
The mental health of millions of people is buckling in large part because our mental lives have stagnated inside the pixels that create illusion of love, illusion of self, but no sense of meaning. I’m not saying that every instance of depression in someone under the age of 35 is because of the Internet. I am saying that it is not normal for millions of people under the age of 35 to be paralyzingly anxious and chronically depressed, and that there are no political or economic conditions that are so utterly unique to the wealthiest nations in the world that would create such an epidemic. The Internet’s effect on mental health is real and it is not taken seriously for the same reason the fish born in a toxic pond never learns what clean water is.