In the last millennium, one of my early psychology professors told me that he had just completed research suggesting that people who were in a “weaker” position in a negotiation opted for phone calls rather than for in-person meetings. The hypothesis was that a phone could conceal the non-verbal cues that might reveal their weaker bargaining position.
If a phone allows a person to hide important communication cues, what about ubiquitous texting? IMHO, a text message doesn’t reveal any of the intricacies of communication – LOL. The presence of emojis speaks to the fact that this non-verbal information is important but must be, and can be, fabricated. And is your emotional response to an emoji the same as an actual emotion actually expressed by someone standing in front of you?
What is the reality of virtual interaction?
And at the dawn of the Zoom era, how realistic is virtual communication? What is missing? Is critical social and emotional information accurately reflected when people are, for example, sitting in front of a green screen that shows them floating in space or talking to you from the top of the Himalayas?
These questions may be interesting to read but really have no consequences. After all, virtual meetings are not only here to stay, but will soon threaten to completely change “reality”.
However, evidence is mounting that such virtual communication is wreaking havoc on the development of the generation born in the internet age.
The mental state of the world
Sapien Labs is a non-profit organization that conducts mental health research around the world. Their recent report on the mental state of the world shows very concerning trends that mirror other data collected by various organizations over the past few years.
In previous similar studies, Stone et al (2010) reported data from 2008 that showed the 18-24 age group to be among the happiest and best-adjusted groups across the age spectrum. Along the same lines, Keyes et al. (2019) showed a decline in depression in this age group from 1991 to 2011, but by 2018 the trend had reversed. Twenge et al (2018) reported that depression and suicide rates increased between 2010 and 2015, particularly among women and another group: those who were most active on social media.
While there are likely many explanations for this declining mental health and rising suicide rates, many studies have focused on social media as a possible cause.
In a large national sample of 40,337 children and adolescents, Twenge et al. (2018) found that:
“Among 14 to 17 year olds, high screen users (more than 7 hrs/day vs low 1 hrs/day) were more than twice as likely to have ever been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, treated by a mental health professional, or taken medication for a psychological or behavioral problem) in the past 12 months.
In another study, Kelly et al (2018) reported: “Higher social media use is linked to online harassment, lack of sleep, low self-esteem and poor body image; in turn, these were linked to higher depressive symptom scores.
Sapien Labs uses its own Mental Health Quotient (MHQ) which measures a number of mental health variables on a continuous 300-point scale, where each of the 6 categories is divided into 50-point units: Distressed—Struggling—Enduring—Managing —Succeeding -Prosperous.
In their 2021 report based on more than 223,000 responses from 34 countries, Sapien Labs noted worrying trends.
The Heightened Challenges of Adolescence
The youngest group, 18-24 year olds, had the worst mental health scores. In fact, an astonishing 44% of this group were “distressed” or “struggling” with their mental health, a finding that was independent of region or country. This compares to only 19% of this age group who were ‘successful’ or ‘thriving’.
The areas with the lowest scores appeared in two categories: Social Self and Mood and Outlook. The most common complaints were feelings of sadness, hopelessness and helplessness.
One of the reasons that higher screen use is linked to depression and lower social self scores, such as low self-confidence and anxiety, is that such use has replaced interaction. which is essential to the development of a number of skills, such as understanding the emotional state of others. and interpret non-verbal behaviors. Tara Thiagarajan, founder and chief scientist of Sapien, estimates that heavy screen users are about half as exposed to critical real-life social interactions as pre-internet generations, potentially making an 18-year-old today at the social skill level of a 10-year-old pre-internet.
This could indicate that it’s not so much the massive amounts of screen time per se, but the loss of real-life interaction that impedes social development and elevates typical adolescent uncertainty to new levels of mental dysfunction. .
Further research will help unravel the dangers of high levels of virtual interaction, especially for those who grew up with technology constantly at their fingertips. In the meantime, anyone involved with children and adolescents must ensure that technology does not deprive this generation of natural and real social interactions, this is how we learn the basics of relating to others and with ourselves.