Sense of Self and Mental Health

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In the July/August 2008 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, Nicholas Carr wrote a controversial article entitled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” In his article, he suggested that we may actually be reading more than we did in the 70’s and 80’s when television was our medium of choice.  But, he suggested it was a different kind of reading that required a different kind of thinking and perhaps a “new sense of self.” I remember when I read the article my mind rephrased that to read…”a lost sense of self?”  

Today, just 11 years later, it is clear that we have largely lost our ‘sense of self’ to what has become a 24/7, non-stop, wired world where technology is largely controlling us instead of us controlling the technology. Consider what Ben Sasse, author and U.S. Senator, points out about our addiction to technology in his book, THEM – Why We Hate Each Other and How We Heal.  

“We should level with each other about the rafts of emerging data that suggest that we’re losing something important as we become more attached to our screens. We’re more anxious, more distracted, more depressed and more downright exhausted.”

Sasse goes on to say….

“We’re losing our ability to read closely and think carefully. We’re losing the ability to focus deeply on important work. We’re likelier to spend our time seeking validation from our digital “friends” than to spend time with flesh-and-blood friends. We insulate ourselves behind filtered Instagram photos. And all the time we become lonelier, parched for genuine community. We’ve become addicted to distraction.”     

Now, if Google is making us stupid, it is because we made the choice to let it make us stupid. We choose to use Google as much as we do because it is the simplest way to conduct research on virtually any topic. But clearly, our 24/7 obsession with our cell phones and screens has largely not been of our choosing. Instead, it has been willed upon us by major corporate entities, social media companies, high-tech start-up gaming companies and every business entity that wants to own part of our mindshare. And they all have one thing in mind as they develop a new app – in order for it to be truly worthwhile, the app must fuel behavioral addiction. Or, in question form, How can we get the end user to use our app as often and as many times as possible?    

You don’t agree? Consider this excerpt from Trevor Haynes’ blog entitled, “Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle for Your Time.”  

“I feel tremendous guilt,” admitted Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook, to an audience of Stanford students. He was responding to a question about his involvement in exploiting consumer behavior. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he explained. In Palihapitiya’s talk, he highlighted something most of us know but few really appreciate: smartphones and the social media platforms they support are turning us into bona fide addicts. While it’s easy to dismiss this claim as hyperbole, platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram leverage the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as much as possible.

Now, let’s look more closely at Sasse’s words in the sentence where he describes how all of this technology seems to be affecting us – we are more anxious, more distracted, more depressed and downright exhausted. Anxiety, being distracted, depression, physical and mental exhaustion…WOW!  These sound like mental health issues to me! And, here in Indiana where reportedly 1 in 5 (20%) high school students have contemplated suicide, one has to ask, why are we where we’re at today? Why are so many of our young people, including young and middle-aged adults, struggling in their lives with some of the above mental health issues?

As we abhor the gun violence in this country, it seems that much of it, especially the mass shootings, has been tied to people with mental health issues. As such, we clearly need to be addressing mental health in this country in a much more serious and proactive manner. But, if we are seeing increasing numbers of people with mental health issues amongst our population, don’t you think we need to be asking ourselves why that is?  And, maybe it’s time for us to realize that what we are dealing with in many cases could literally be “technology-driven” mental health issues?

I certainly don’t portend to have any or all of the answers to this problem. I’m not a clinical psychologist nor am I a psychiatrist. But, if the statistics bother us today, and they should (suicide is now the second leading cause of death for adolescents in the U.S.), I think we ALL need to wake up and seriously consider how young people (from toddlers to young adults) are using technology.

It may be bad that our addiction to technology is stripping us of our “sense of self”, but if it is at the root of the growing mental health issues in our country, that’s a much more serious problem. Somehow, we need to get to a point where we can comfortably control our use of the technology instead of letting it control us. I wish it was as simple as saying just put your cell phone and tablet down and scale back your usage, but it’s not that easy. It’s an addiction and we need to treat it as such.

As for me, this is how I choose to deal with the addiction.  I let my phone charge in another room and I make myself a cup of coffee. Then I find a quiet place on the deck or in the house and I read a book; a real book with a real binding and actual paper pages that turn. If it’s an old book from a friend, it just might have that musty, library smell to it. But, it’s a real book that has been read and consumed and handled by other human beings.  As I turn the pages and take in the content, I also contemplate who else might have read this same book. And in the process, maybe, just maybe, I find my “sense of self” all over again. That sure beats losing it.

Posted in addiction, life, media, technology and tagged , .

Harold “Bud” Boughton is a husband, father and grandfather who is often referred to as “the teaching coach.” A former senior executive, published author and professional speaker, Bud currently works for Shine.FM radio, a community-supported, not-for-profit Christian radio station affiliated with Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. He will continue to work for Shine.FM in conjunction with his responsibilities as Co-Director of Team Focus – Indiana. You can reach Bud Boughton by calling 317-258-6372 or click here to leave him a message