Digital Pandemic

Hidden cyber age dangers

Is the Digital Culture Killing Us?

Texting, Internet, and computer games. Making us more vulnerable to depression?

Ross Douthat wrote in The New York Times, Sunday, May 19, 2013, about lonely people and the fact that the suicide rate for Americans 35 to 54 increased nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2010. He quotes a Virginia sociologist, Brad Wilcox, who connects suicide and weakened social ties.

Of course, other factors may also be working against these people. Unemployment in a marginal economy has taken a toll. This is especially true for those who depend on materialism as a philosophy of life. White males have also lost employment positions as women enter the workforce and minorities have increased their access to jobs.

Douthat quotes Judith Schulevitz who says that one in three Americans over 45 is chronically lonely, up from just one in five a decade ago. The Internet promises a virtual community to replace the real community, but I doubt that it can replace warm-blooded friends as a source of support in a time of need.

In fact, addiction to games and the Internet may be contributing to this trend.

Megan McBride Kelly, in The Wall Street Journal, Sunday, May 18, 2013, reports that the average Facebook user has 142 friends. She reviews Aristotle's definitions of friendship and the first one is the need for love. She questions whether tracking people on Facebook leads to love. She guesses that at least 90 percent of Facebook friendships are those of utility and self-promotion, where we always put our best face forward.

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Computer games, the Internet and social networks can keep some people on a narcissistic high, it seems to me. These contacts are based on pleasure, but it is pleasure for us and not for the other person.

It's also easy to neglect authentic friendships when we are so caught up in technological self-pleasure. Aristotle talks of the ultimate form of friendship, which is virtuous, meaning concern for our friends’ sake –– and not just for our own. Ms. Kelly reports that her father and grandfather told her that the number of such true friends can be counted on one hand over the course of a lifetime.

When the going gets tough, and jobs are scarce, do these depressed folks have real friends and authentic communities to fall back on? Simple logic tells us that time-consuming addiction to computer use and/or computer games limits time for human interactions.

Before we get carried away with blaming technology and the Internet, there are a number of factors to look at. In the first place, the Great Depression of the 1930s resulted in unemployment and significantly increased suicide rates. One can hardly accuse those people of being addicted to the radio or television (because TV did not exist and radio wasn’t interactive and thus less addictive than electronic games).

 We do know from research that suicide rates are lower among religious people. (Sean Trende, Real Clear Politics, May 28, 2013). (One might infer that religious people have more social contact through extended families and church socialization).

But there is no direct research that I am aware of that shows a correlation between people who are absorbed in electronic games and Internet friendships –– and those exhibiting loneliness or suicide. If there is a correlation, we would first need to rule out the usual problems with correlations. Trende gives a good example: There is a high correlation between a rooster crowing and sunrise, but the rooster doesn’t cause the sun to come up.

It’s possible that shy, inhibited, lonely, and even depressed individuals seek out electronic games and get habituated to artificial relationships on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Additional variables would include IQ, learning disabilities and other factors that would make one more vulnerable to economic pressures, resulting in unemployment.

If we take the population of people who exhibit the characteristics described above and find that more of them are suicidal, we would then need to see how many of these people are addicted to technology and Internet friendships. Perhaps we would find that those engaging in more technology have a lower level of loneliness and suicide because they are connecting –– however superficially –– to many other people, and perhaps they know very well the difference between true friendship and acquiescing to peer-pressure on Facebook.

But if we find that these people are on an artificial, narcissistic high because of use of electronic games and Internet relationships and are indeed lonelier than folks with identical biological, genetic and personality makeups, then it would be important to intervene in this downward-spiraling process. If digital interactions are helping people fend off loneliness and despair, we would need to encourage their use.

Either way, it’s something we need to be aware of and something we need to look at –– sooner rather than later.

Mack Hicks, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author of The Digital Pandemic: Reestablishing Face-to-Face Contact in the Electronic Age.

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