My first reaction on reading a recent Op-Ed piece by David Brooks "When Trolls and Crybullies Rule the Earth
" was to say 'Yes!', and think I should immediately fire off some selected clips in a MindBlog post. I'm glad I waited a bit, because as I look at it again I feel he has erred on the side of being an alarmist drama queen to grab our attention. The article begins with:
Over the past several years, teenage suicide rates have spiked horrifically....What's going on?
Several sources show an increasing rate from 2010 to 2017, but a look at Centers for Disease Control data
shows higher rates for the late 1980's and early 1990's. He continues:
My answer starts with technology but is really about the sort of consciousness online life induces.
Brooks then describes transformations of human consciousness as if they have replaced, rather than adding to and enhancing, older forms of consciousness: the shift from an oral to a printed culture centuries ago and the current shift from printed to electronic communication.
Attention and affection have gone from being private bonds to being publicly traded goods...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...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.
But... were not the old fashioned kinds of attention exchanged personally or in crowds of people, rather than electronically, labile and competitive with constant bids for affection and attention? Electronics may have amplified what was happening, but it didn't fundamentally transform it. Vicious gossip can be exchanged in old fashioned personal or newer less personal electronic ways. Online platforms may be an amplifier of our traits, but they don't basically transform them. Trolls and crybullies have always been with us. Still, Brooks makes good points, even if a bit exaggerated:
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.