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Humans are un-made by social media

‘Technology has made life different, but not necessarily more stressful’, says a recent article in the New York Times, summarising the findings of a study by researchers at the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University. It is often thought that frequent internet and social media use increases stress. Digital unplugging, along with losing weight and quitting smoking, is seen as a healthy thing to do. But, said the article, we needn’t worry so much. Frequent internet and social media users don’t have higher stress levels than less frequent users, and indeed women who frequently use Twitter, email and photo-sharing apps (and who use these media for life-event sharing more than men – who tend to be less self-disclosing online) scored 21% lower on the stress scale than women who did not.

I suggest that, far from being reassuring, these results are very sinister indeed. They indicate that internet technology (or at least something that has happened to humans at the same time as internet technology has been happening to them) has effected a tectonic transformation in the human constitution. The outsourcing, digitalization and trivializing of our relationships should make us stressed. If it doesn’t, something seriously bad has happened. The stress response enables us to react appropriately to threats. Switch it off, and we’re in danger. Only a damaged immune response fails to kick off when there are bacteria around. A tiger confined in a tiny concrete pen has lost a lot of its tigerishness if it doesn’t pace frustratedly up and down, its cortisol levels through the roof.

Our relationships are so essentially constitutive of us as a species that if we distort them, either digitally or by heading to some actual or metaphorical hermitage, we damage ourselves profoundly. That’s trite, I hope. If we are physiologically incapable of recognizing that we are profoundly damaged, the damage is likely to be irreparable. Our intrinsic diagnostic and therapeutic capacity has been disabled. What the PRC/Rutgers study found was evidence of perhaps irretrievable dehumanization.

This gloomy conclusion is perhaps buttressed, and perhaps undermined, by another of the study’s findings. It found that there was one exception to the rule that internet relationality didn’t increase stress. Stress was increased where social media – and particularly Facebook – made people aware of trauma in the lives of close friends (stress was reduced by online notification of trauma in the lives of people who were not close friends – presumably out of some schadenfreudic relief). This might suggest that the results about stress in normal internet chat (that which doesn’t involve notification of trauma) are telling us something real about relationships in general – not just about the special case of internet relationships. That supports the gloom. Yet the fact that stress responses are not wholly disabled – that they fire with extreme stimuli – might suggest that the prognosis is not hopeless: that there’s a way back. But again, the fact that it requires an extreme stimulus to activate the response implies an irretrievable loss of at least some function. On the whole, I’m depressed. Humans are being unmade.

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6 Comment on this post

  1. What utter non-sense, but I’ve come to expect this from you Mr. Foster. The study says that we’re less stressed by our technology (a good thing) and yet that does not fit in with Mr. Foster’s anti-technology narrative so it has to be a bad thing. How is it a bad thing? It’s a bad thing because we’re actually damaged in some unspecified way that nobody knows about. We should be stressed by our online interactions with strangers, but we’re not, so that’s indicative of something gone wrong. Or, it could be evidence of what the social sciences have been telling us about inner group and outer group interactions, that in our social hierarchy we come first, family comes second, and strangers come third in our considerations. But no, everyone should be stressed out by stranger trauma, and the fact that they’re not is cause for concern. And what backs up this concern? Evidence? Data? Research? No… only conjecture, technophobia, and a chicken-little attitude that Mr. Foster likes to engage in on the bully-pulpit that this blog gives him.

  2. How we each interpret our own success at grafting digital mores on to our analogue beings may unwittingly help to fashion our response to Charles’ uncomfortable speculation. And our perception of how healthy our own digital rootstock is and the holistic benefit it encourages in our ‘human constitution’ need not, of course, be related. I found the post interesting, yet I interpret the comment above as even more interesting in a dislocated sense, the dislocation being founded on a knee-jerk complacency of mind that cannot imagine (data or no data) that it may be possible that even though we our own self-help/Christiaan Barnard digitalisation a success (data or no data), that it actually is a success at all (data or no data) and is in fact toxic (data or no data). Chutzpah and digital hubris is my speculation (definitely no data innit).

    1. Thank you, Dennis Analogue. Yes, Airin’s comment is far more interesting than my post.

  3. Thanks for your provocative post, Charles !
    For a classic example of the trivialisation of relationships you can’t beat “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”. (There are certainly other, earlier, examples, but my ignorance prevents me from listing them.) The fact that the correspondence in the novel took place before the birth of “social media” suggests that it is not modern technology that produces it.
    I put “social media” in quotes, because even old-fashioned letter-writing is a social medium. No doubt there were contemporary critics who argued that literacy and the printing press were pernicious provokers of tectonic transformations of the human constitution ….

    1. Anthony: many thanks. Indeed, social media are not new. But the nature, speed, prevalence and (hence, I’d say) psychological effects of the new variants are surely unprecedented.

  4. Come to think of it, I apologise. I’m guilty of a gross anachronism. Tectonics (in the sense you use it, at least) is yet another damaging modern invention. We were certainly better off being simple creationists …

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