Regulating Selves

What are we really doing when staring at our phones?

Posted Nov 06, 2019

Watching younger people seated together in public spaces, ignoring one another, staring at their phones, always makes me wonder, what are they seeking on those devices? No one seems to take offense because all are doing it; it is merely something one does frequently during the day. It is done openly when among peers. The quality of this blank staring at screens suggests that this is not primarily a case of returning texts or actively communicating with specific people. Rather, based on my experience as a clinical psychologist, this behavior has all the hallmarks of an absent-minded ritual of psychological self-regulation.  

The ability to regulate our emotional states develops early in childhood. A primitive sense of self originates in the non-verbal right brain hemisphere. As any parent observes, powerful emotions easily overwhelm the infant’s “implicit self,” interrupting the ability to regulate behavior. It is through healthy attachment experiences with parents and others that the child ideally internalizes a durable, cohesive self-concept capable of negotiating even powerful negative emotional states. A significant source of disruption is the emerging childhood susceptibility to the emotion of shame, felt as a wordless, deflating, acute sense of inadequacy or badness. Many of the psychological disorders that I see clinically seem to have originated in a vulnerability to periodic implosions of self-regard and sense of identity, or in development of rigid defenses against feeling or even acknowledging shame. People with optimal psychological adjustment tend to display self-compassion: a realistic, forgiving and positive view of the self that buttresses against the sometimes discouraging headwinds of life.

A consistent reminder of our vulnerability to the shame emotion can be found in the troubling, universal questions that loom in the background of our minds, mostly out of conscious awareness. As if giving voice to internalized ancient Greek philosophers, the self continually asks: “What have I done?”; “How am I doing?”; “Am I OK?”; “Who am I?”; “Am I good or bad?”; “Am I adequate or inadequate?”; “Am I special or ordinary?” Seen in this context of minds seeking reassurance amid built-in self-conscious insecurity, the popular addiction to social media makes a great deal of sense. People “checking out” by staring at screens may, in fact, be checking in to an online world that reminds them not only who they are, but that the “who” they are is somehow adequate or even desirable.

Throughout most of human evolution, inputs to self-regard were mainly limited to status or reputation derived and felt through direct physical encounters with other people. Compared to this former emotional currency, social media offers inflation on a scale never imagined. For many people, the phone is a portal to an online world that not only “connects” them with potential millions, but even provides a means for keeping score. Metrics such as “favorites,” “likes,” “follows," and “views” offer a jolt of self-conscious espresso. Messages or acknowledgments from others remind us that we exist. In this fractious time, people can obsessively check news sites to see whether their preferred political team or cause is “winning or losing.” On favorite websites, personalized sets of interests and proclivities are constantly featured and updated. For those with deficits in self-regulation, who otherwise feel fragmented and alienated, all of this may offer, at least fleetingly, a comforting sense of feeling whole, cohesive and worthy of love or care. 

A recent study found that teens who spent three or more hours per day on social media reported more of the “internalizing” problems such as social withdrawal, anxiety or depression. One interpretation of this data is to blame social media for contributing to psychological problems. No doubt, the constant influx of images, memes, information, videos, and myriad social network loops can contribute to a sense of chaos and fragmentation for the vulnerable. But I would suggest that the link is more complicated.  

Based on findings in developmental neuroscience, it is precisely those teens lacking sound self-regulating capacities in the first place who would be more apt to take refuge in extra screen time. Furthermore, teens being raised in settings allowing them three or more hours of daily social media consumption are more likely to be neglected in other important areas. According to the seminal ACE studies, emotional neglect is strongly correlated with later self-regulation deficits manifesting in depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. The question becomes whether social media is primarily a cause of these psychological difficulties or an understandable refuge for people deprived of adequate childhood nurturance?

People of my generation tend to lament the apparent chaos and tumult of social media culture. But social media is merely human nature writ large, scaled up and vastly magnified. To me, blaming social media for the problem is like blaming a mirror for revealing that we have put on a few pounds. What if this online mirror is essentially a sprawling manifestation of the marketing of the means for self-regulation to people lacking other tools to feel secure, virtuous and whole? After all, what we now call “virtue signaling” is just a trendy term for seeking approval and respect by proclaiming “correct” attitudes. This is hardly a new development in human social behavior. The growing preoccupation with moral outrage also makes sense from the perspective of self-regulation. As attention to the deplorable behavior of others is tuned up, self-doubts temporarily recede, stabilizing identity and self-regard. A sense of righteousness emerges as we are appalled at projected bad qualities from which we are briefly held exempt.

Whether cause or effect, time spent on social media does not appear to be benefiting collective mental health. Studies reveal a “mental health crisis” among college students as well as an increasing incidence of psychopathology more generally. One small hopeful sign is the popularity of websites such as Headspace or Calm that directly aim at improving self-regulation skills. But human nature will not be denied. In my opinion, the unconscious drive to shore up selves battered by a new and hectic online culture is here to stay.