The Internet and the Social Self

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I feel bad for kids today. With all their electronic gadgets, they’ll never know the simple joy of throwing rocks at each other.

The statement above might sound funny on it’s surface, but according to research conducted over the past 10 years or so, there’s actually something to this whole business of social isolation when it comes to the internet.

Smartphones have made a significant change to the way we live our lives, giving us access to information on the go and keeping us in touch wherever we are.

But the benefits they offer are only part of the story. An alarming new study from non-profit research organization Sapien Labs suggests that a decline in the mental health of younger generations has occurred alongside smartphone use and an increase in social isolation.

Understanding the Social Self

Social functioning is correlated with various aspects of mental and physical health (e.g., Cruwys et al., 2014; Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010; Kawachi & Berkman, 2001; Maher et al., 2017; Perkins et al., 2015; Segrin, 2019). More importantly, the ability to relate to and interact with others effectively has been crucial for human cooperation and the building of our modern world. The breakdown of this capability such that it is seriously impaired in over half of young adults across the world therefore has serious consequences for the future of society.

Social interaction involves a complex set of functions: reading facial expressions and body language to assess intent, learning to respond appropriately within social norms, regulating one’s emotions and more.

While the capacity for social behavior may be an innate human trait, as is the capacity for language, it requires practice to get to a place where we are confident in our ability to handle social situations of all kinds. It is also only through repeated interactions with others that we build the friendships and other relationships that establish our place in the social fabric. From feeling detached from reality to avoidance and withdrawal and suicidal thoughts, these symptoms represent the extreme of disconnection from or a failure to integrate into the social fabric.

The Internet and the Social Self

Why would the Social Self be in such decline? A big part of the answer is likely the Internet, which has seen a meteoric rise along with smart phones since 2010. Data now shows that around the world people spend 7 to 10 hours a day on the Internet.

This leaves little time for in-person social interaction with friends and family. Where once children spent several hours a day engaged in in-person social interaction, adding up to, in our estimation, 10,000 to 25,000 hours by the time they reached adulthood, for generations growing up in the Internet world that number is likely closer to 5,000 and for some, even as low as 1,500. The lack of sufficient social engagement may even have neurobiological consequences.

In rhesus macaque monkeys for instance, the size of specific brain structures increases with more direct affiliative social connections (Testard et al., 2022). There is also the distortion of social perceptions by the Internet where adolescents compare themselves to a virtual reality that does not match our physical reality. Furthermore, the virtual medium may not effectively engage the neurobiological systems designed for pro-social behavior. The human mirror neuron system, thought to support the learning and development of social behavior by enabling brain-brain dyads of observational learning and imitation may not function effectively, if at all, in the virtual environment (Dickerson et al., 2017). For example, adults demonstrate poor emotional fluency while using video-based communication systems compared to in-person behavior.

Several studies with adolescents and young adults have shown the amount of time spent on a digital device (i.e., screen time) is correlated with poorer social skills (e.g., Kelly et al., 2018; Twenge et al.,2018).

It might be important to not underestimate the magnitude and nature of the challenges of social isolation and digital interaction at the expense of in-person social interaction in the modern age of today’s electronic devices.

You can read the full report here: https://sapienlabs.org/publications/

The report shows this decline is consistent across 34 countries where data was acquired, and that over the pandemic, the mental well being of each younger age group of adults fell much more dramatically.

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