Facebook and the disintegration of the human

Is Facebook a boon or cause for concern for the mental health industry?

Facebook unveils graph search tool.
Facebook continues to develop new features and functionalities which further absorb the focus of its users [Reuters]

According to a New York Times article by Jan Hoffman referencing a study of the Facebook profiles of 200 university students in the United States, approximately 30 percent of the students “posted updates that met the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria for a symptom of depression, reporting feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, insomnia or sleeping too much, and difficulty concentrating”. These findings are said to “echo research that suggests depression is increasingly common among college students”.

Hoffman’s point is that Facebook can therefore serve as an “early warning system for timely intervention” by parents and therapists. The article ends with a quote from a mother in Ohio: “Facebook might be a pain in the neck to keep up with… But having that extra form of communication saves lives”.

No mention is made of the obvious exacerbating influence of social networking sites when it comes to phenomena such as insomnia and concentration difficulty. Rather than promote Facebook as a life-saving tool, one could easily argue that such forums and other technological distractions in fact contribute to depressive trends.

Alienation from reality

The “Facebook Newsroom” currently lists developments such as “Today we’re rolling out improvements to timeline that help you express what’s important to you” and “Today we’re announcing a new version of Facebook designed to… focus more on stories from the people you care about”.

The attempted injection of human emotion into what is ultimately a dehumanising experience is symbolic of a general estrangement from reality in which Facebook culture is both a cause and a symptom.

The detrimental effects of the conversion of emotion and empathy into a click on a computer or a mobile phone can be observed in the following anecdote from Hoffman’s article:

“Replying to questions posted on Facebook by The New York Times, Daylina Miller, a recent graduate of the University of South Florida, said that when she poured out her sadness online, some readers responded only with the Facebook ‘like’ symbol: a thumb’s up.

‘You feel the same way?’ said Ms. Miller, puzzled. ‘Or you like that I’m sad? You’re sadistic?’”

Similarly inauspicious examples of the constriction of empathy and warping of inter-human relations include the “liking” of death announcements.

On my own Facebook feed, I’ve witnessed friends post news of a parent’s death only to be bombarded with the thumb’s up and comments to the effect of: “Sorry man!”

In addition to a cheapening of sentiment, Facebook also encourages alienation from reality by displacing the space-time continuum: instead of experiencing events and thoughts as they occur in real-time, users are often distracted by how best to market these events and thoughts to their Facebook audiences.

The transfer of the self onto a computer screen is furthermore decentring given the attendant diffusion of identity. As for the conditioned need for personal validation in the form of little red notifications appearing at the top of one’s Facebook page, this is conducive to a state of perennial anticipation that is counterproductive to the functioning of the nervous system. Posts on bowel movements and the like are an extreme example of the need to reiterate, and obtain acknowledgement of, one’s fragmented existence.

Though the Internet may compound the schizophrenic nature of US society, there are clearly more established causes of dehumanisation and individual alienation. The national glorification of violence and militarism, for one, abrogates realities of human suffering worldwide; in this context of dedicated estrangement from humanity, it is not overly surprising when citizens devoid of empathy perpetrate acts such as the 2012 Connecticut school massacre.

Mass attention deficit disorder

The ostensible function of social networking sites is, of course, to bring people closer together. The same function is attributed to the process of neoliberal globalisation.

Despite obvious superficial increases in interconnectedness in both cases, however, the fundamental outcome is alienating. In the latter instance, ‘interconnectedness’ has been characterized by enhanced disparity in socioeconomic conditions and a crusade for profit at the expense of communal wellbeing. In the former, the face-to-face contact for which human beings are programmed is replaced with electronic exchanges incapable of satisfying innate communication needs.

Willful misinterpreters of contemporary history continue to argue that globalization constitutes the solution to the very global ills it creates. In vaguely similar fashion, Hoffman’s New York Times article portrays Facebook as a potentially useful aid in the quest to promote mental health when the two concepts appear to be inherently at odds.

The neoliberal experiment in the US has helped mold a society disconnected from the human condition, where oppression of the individual has aimed to thwart popular solidarity that might threaten the experiment. What should be a universal right to health care, for example, is instead wielded punitively against the population, and, as acclaimed journalist and radio host Doug Henwood points out, “Obamacare” will presumably result in a situation in which “scores of millions are thrown onto the private individual insurance market and forced to pay $1,000 a month for crappy coverage”. 

Henwood hopes that “this could vastly increase the constituency for a single-payer scheme, such as Medicare for All—assuming our rulers don’t destroy Medicare first”.

In the end, perhaps Facebook and similar phenomena have already contributed to solidarity on the health care front: in the very least, we’re united in mass attention deficit disorder.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blogThe BafflerAl Akhbar English and many other publications. 

Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez