Over the past several years, teenage suicide rates have spiked horrifically. Depression rates are surging, and mental health overall is deteriorating. What’s going on?
My answer starts with technology but is really about the sort of consciousness online life induces.
When communication styles change, so do people. In 1982, scholar Walter Ong described the way, centuries ago, a shift from an oral to a printed culture transformed human consciousness. Once, storytelling was a shared experience, with emphasis on proverb, parable and myth. With the onset of the printing press it become a more private experience, the content of that storytelling more realistic and linear.
As L.M. Sacasas argues in the latest issue of The New Atlantis, the shift from printed to electronic communication is similarly consequential. I would say the big difference is this: Attention and affection have gone from being private bonds to being publicly traded goods.
That is, up until recently most of the attention a person received came from family and friends and was pretty stable. But now most of the attention a person receives can come from far and wide and is tremendously volatile.
Sometimes your online post can go viral and get massively admired or ridiculed, while other times your post can leave you alone and completely ignored. Communication itself, once mostly collaborative, is now often competitive, with bids for affection and attention. It is also more manipulative — gestures designed to generate a response.
People ensconced in social media are more likely to be on perpetual alert: How are my ratings this moment? They are also more likely to feel that the amount of attention they are receiving is inadequate.
Low on affective empathy
As David Foster Wallace put it in that famous Kenyon commencement address, if you orient your life around money, you will never feel you have enough. Similarly, if you orient your life around attention, you will always feel slighted. You will always feel emotionally unsafe.
New social types emerge in such a communications regime. The most prominent new type is the troll.
Trolls bid for attention by trying to make others feel bad. Studies of people who troll find that they score high on measures of psychopathy, sadism and narcissism. Online media hasn’t made them vicious; they’re just vicious. Online has given them a platform to use viciousness to full effect.
Trolls also score high on cognitive empathy. Intellectually, they understand other people’s emotions and how to make them suffer. But they score low on affective empathy. They don’t feel others’ pain, so when they hurt you, they don’t care.
Trolling is a very effective way to generate attention in a competitive, volatile attention economy. It’s a way to feel righteous and important, especially if you claim to be trolling on behalf of some marginalised group.
Another prominent personality type in this economy is the crybully. This is the person who takes his or her own pain and victimisation and uses it to make sure every conversation revolves around himself or herself. “This is the age of the Cry-Bully, a hideous hybrid of victim and victor, weeper and walloper,” Julie Burchill wrote in The Spectator a few years ago.
The crybully starts with a genuine trauma. The terrible thing that happened naturally makes the crybully feel unsafe, self-protective and self-conscious to the point of self-absorption. The trauma makes that person intensely concerned about self-image.
The problem comes from the subsequent need to control any situation, the failure to see the big picture, the tendency to lash out in fear and anger as a way to fixate attention on oneself and obliterate others. Crybullying is at the heart of many of our campus de-platforming and censorship outrages.
Trolling, crybullying and other attention-grabbing tactics emerge out of a feeling of weakness and create a climate that causes more pain, in which it is not safe to lead with vulnerability, not safe to test out ideas or do the things that create genuine companionship.
The internet has become a place where people communicate out of their competitive ego: I’m more fabulous than you (a lot of Instagram). You’re dumber than me (much of Twitter). It’s not a place where people share from their hearts and souls.
Of course, people enmeshed in such a climate are more likely to feel depressed, to suffer from mental health problems. Of course, they are more likely to see human relationship through the abuser/victim frame and to be acutely sensitive to any power imbalance. Imagine you’re 17 and people you barely know are saying nice or nasty things about your unformed self. It creates existential anxiety and hence fanaticism.
Two words loom large in this moment: trauma and equity. Trauma is living with the aftershocks of a bad event — or, more important, it is having no place to go where the aftershocks can be healed because the public conversation is unsafe. Equity is the dream of a world in which all are given equal attention and dignity. The dream is still out there, but it’s receding with every vicious attack done in its name.
David Brooks is a noted columnist. He is also a commentator on PBS NewsHour.