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Emotionally Fragile Online Self

Last Updated on May 18, 2021

At the first sign of a feeling teenagers reach for the phone. Boredom is the most frequent emotion, but there are others: anger, sadness, fear. When uncomfortable feelings arise, they take an easy way out:

  • The feeling is expelled out of the system into a social media post, or
  • The feeling is drowned in distraction of another YouTube video or gaming session.

The emotion itself is not addressed. By taking the path of least resistance, young people who never learned to deal with their feelings fall apart at the first sign of adversity. They are not prepared for the real world.

Enter tech-induced emotional fragility.

Comfort Zone

I am not comfortable with that”. “This does not work for me”. “Comfortable” is the buzzword in the Western culture. But life IS uncomfortable – always has been! One cannot expect to accomplish anything while always feeling “comfortable”. According to leadership expert Jocko Willink, “there is no growth in the comfort zone, and there is no comfort in the growth zone.”

Who said we are supposed to be comfortable all the time?!

There are “safe spaces” on campuses for the emotionally fragile youth to retreat to (with their phones) if they encounter opinions that make them “uncomfortable”. This coddling of young minds amounts to child abuse: “safe spaces” are unlikely to prepare them for a negative performance review in their future workplace, or an argument with a spouse.

Glowing screen of a smartphone is the ultimate comfort zone. A small and cozy “safe space”. It becomes a default escape option from any uncomfortable situation, relationship, or feeling. On the screen, social media provides a way to instantly opt out from any discomfort in the real world. The problem is – escape comes at a price.

The Price of Escape

When teenage girls externalize their feelings on social media instead of processing them inside their own mind, they throw them “out there” and wait for the reaction. The feedback they receive – positive or negative – defines the feeling. No self-examination is required on the part of the girl. Clinical psychologist Lisa Damour advises parents to “hold off on giving your daughter access to social media for as long as you can. The longer she goes without knowing the drug-like buzz of connecting to peers digitally, the more mental resources she’ll build up for managing hard feelings and solving problems.” Girls who never develop this inner strength end up in her office with anxiety issues. 

According to another child psychologist, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, “digital overstimulation compromises the brain’s ability to pay attention and focus, feel empathy, and discern reality.” He blames excessive screen time for “an explosion of developmental and psychiatric disorders”  among young people today.  

 Somehow around the clock connectivity leads to disruption of emotional self-regulation.

Toxic Stress

Young people experience a thousand daily traumas online from exposure to negative news, violence, porn, cyberbullying, trolling, insufficient “Likes” to their posts, and the sheer inability to control it all. A “safe space” of a smartphone turns out to be quite toxic.

Inner turmoil results from such loss of control. Agency and wellbeing are closely connected, and feeling in control of one’s life is a defining characteristic of happiness. The opposite of control is helplessness, which is a synonym of unhappiness.

For a healthy sense of self, children need to have space for original thoughts of their own, not just reflections of the media content they consume. Without such space, the mirror neurons in the brain pick up on anxiety, anger, fear, or sadness on the screen and turn on the same feelings. And what’s normally going on in the realm of teenage social media? That’s right, DRAMA.

If chronic stress persists, the emotional brain, already immature, unravels completely.

Social validation feedback loop, coupled with tech-induced sleep deprivation from the hours devoted to collecting enough “Likes” to feel good about oneself, all happening at the time of critical brain development – and you have a recipe for disaster. The coping skills of a young person just cannot carry such a load.

Psychology 101

There are 4 main systems in the brain that make us human:

  • Rational brain
  • Emotional brain
  • Motivational brain
  • Default Mode Network (DMN)

The first three are well known. The last one has only recently been discovered – the term was defined in 2001. Default mode network is the resting state of the brain, activated when we are not focused on any task. When we are doing nothing.

IT’S A STATE OF NO INPUT.

DMN is essential for normal human development. It helps us process our past and plan for our future. It helps us analyze what we are feeling and why. It’s the daydreaming that leads to insights and breakthroughs. It’s where we answer the fundamental questions of life: Who am I? What am I here for?

It’s a system for self-reflection. It is where a sense of identity is formed.

William Stixrud and Ned Johnson, authors of the book Self-Driven Child, refer to a healthy default mode network as a way for the brain to rejuvenate, store information, gain perspective, process complicated ideas, and be creative.

Self-reflection is something our kids never learn how to do, living their lives in a state of continuous digital distraction, which prevents them from listening to their own thoughts. Inner voice can only be heard when one is not chatting on Snapchat.

All the inputs in the brain stay unprocessed, with new inputs coming in at breakneck speed. The brain gets overloaded. Self-regulation falls apart.

Always to Do, Never to Be

Being comfortable by themselves without a device in their hands is a lost skill. Solitude and reflection of unplugged time serves as a detox for the mind, a clean-up operation from the accumulated mental junk. Without it, stuff just keeps piling up.

Young people don’t know HOW TO JUST BE. In the frenzy of digital “doing”, there is no time for simply being. Without self-reflection, the emotional brain becomes overwhelmed and shifts into panic mode. Anxiety is an epidemic, and therapists have plenty of work.

Screen-free downtime activates the default mode network and gives the brain a chance to clean up the mess. In extreme cases of digitally overwhelmed teens, clinical psychologists like Catherine Steiner-Adair recommend several weeks of tech detox to reset the brain. For children, a few unplugged hours a day is a must – to make sure they do not become extreme cases.

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone“, wrote philosopher Blaise Pascal in the 17th century. This is especially true in our age of distraction. Simply being bored is enormously beneficial to counter the toxic stress of digital media overload.

Boredom is Healthy

What happened to free play? Children have been able to do it for thousands of years. Now all of a sudden, the only choices are either iPad or parents’ entertaining the kid 24/7. Parents are frustrated with the way things are, but see no alternative. It’s either addictive screens or parents putting their own life on hold.

There is a third option: leave kids alone to entertain themselves. Let them be frustrated! Boredom is healthy for a child, it’s where imagination and creativity are born. Only by being bored can children develop their internal resources to deal with discomfort.

Tolerating discomfort is a superpower. They will need it to become a successful adult.

Resilience: Deleted

Taking control and solving problems independently develops resilience, which fortifies children against future stressful situations.

In her book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, Catherine Steiner-Adair talks about developmental disruption that results from spending time on screens as opposed to engaging in a real world. Devices erode the essential skills of coping, delayed gratification, self-regulation, imagination and creativity. When the iPad is doing all the imagining and instantly serves the result, no internal work is required on the part of a child.

Instant gratification and “gamification” of screen tasks make all motivation external – by design. Screen rewards keep children “engaged”. What happens to internal motivation? The ability to persevere and stay on task even when they do not feel like it? Working through the problem despite the frustration?

The essential human metric of resilience is not being built in front of a screen.

Inhibition: Deleted

On social media, teens are constantly in the state of performance review. When adults get a peer performance review at work, we can reasonably expect the feedback to be fair. Not so with teenagers – they are moody, impulsive, jealous, vindictive, and tribal. Which is developmentally normal.

Digital media allows teens to act on these base impulses without a second to stop and think – is it a good idea? Would what I am about to post upset somebody? Would it hurt someone – or damage my own reputation?

Inhibition is still under construction in a young brain, so there is no pause. The feeling arises – and they immediately act on it. They will text a friend: “You are fat and stupid” – and ruin the relationship. They will send a nude picture to their crush – which ends up all over the Internet and lends them with a sex offender record. They retaliate to an insult – and get expelled from school for cyberbullying.

Young brain develops according to how it’s used. In adolescence, the emotional brain is in overdrive. Prefrontal cortex, responsible for inhibiting destructive emotions, only matures by age 25. The rational brain and the emotional brain need to learn how to communicate. If rationality is never given a chance to talk to the feelings, because both are perpetually distracted, these essential connections are not being built. Emotions continue out of control without the guardrails of rational analysis.

Giving the rational part of the brain time to sort through the confusing emotions of emerging adulthood cannot be accomplished in a few seconds between texts.

Self As an Object

Hundreds of studies of the relationship between social media and mental health focus on social comparison. When self is an object for others to evaluate, a person becomes an “it”. Self-worth is dependent on appearance, leading to body shame and air-brushed selfies. Academic and professional achievements are invisible unless they are quantified with online rankings.

Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, points out that young people’s identity is not their own. “A prime challenge of emerging adulthood is to become the author of your own life”. Instead, the sense of self is formed by the social mirror forced onto them by social media. The industry hijacked adolescent psychology of group conformity and weaponized it against the most vulnerable.

Social media presence became “the proof of life”.

Since the fusion of self with social media, popularity among peers is no longer formed naturally. It is an artificial construct in the service of the attention economy. “All the genius and money is devoted to keeping young users plastered to the social mirror like bugs on a windshield”, writes Shoshana Zuboff.

When your entire life is happening on the screens, you are a hostage. Refuse to participate, fall off the map – and you are cancelled, no one sees you. The extinction of self is forcing young people into compulsive use driven by the instinct of survival: “if I am not online, I do not exist”.

What’s at stake for young people today is nothing less than preserving their very humanity.

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