July 4, 2008

Facebook generation may be 'dangerous'

I caught this article on the BBC News site today ('Mental risk' of Facebook teens) and, although I understand the reasoning behind it, I'm not sure an entirely accurate picture is painted of teenagers.

Children growing up alongside the rise of social networking websites may have a "potentially dangerous" view of the world, says a leading psychiatrist.

Dr Himanshu Tyagi said sites such as Facebook and MySpace may be harmful.

He told the Royal College of Psychiatrists annual meeting people with active online identities might place less value on their real lives. And the West London Mental Health NHS Trust expert added this could raise the risk of impulsive acts or even suicide.

I read a story a while back about a boy who committed suicide after his girlfriend dumped him by email. You gotta wonder about the effect of reading cold words like that in equally cold black-and-white print and the emotional effects thereof, completely bereft of the 'personal touch' of face-to-face interactions in discussing a matter that is, in all respects, rather delicate. It is very easy to dismiss such people as being weak-minded for committing suicide in general, but such statements don't reflect the gravity of the situation or correctly identify/explain the depth of the mental processes involved.

So I can appreciate the point about how sites such as Facebook and Myspace (a significant advancement from plain email) could cause people to attribute a lot of importance to interactions taking place in a virtual world, but it is important to distinguish between people who correctly use such platforms as an extension of their lives rather than as a substitute, and people who tend to be emotionally vulnerable or sensitive and are likely to be profoundly affected by virtual interactions. Cyber-bullying and cyber-stalking are also huge problems in this respect.

Dr Tyagi said that people born after 1990 did not know a world without the widespread use of the internet. He warned that the current crop of psychiatrists were perhaps not fully prepared to help young people with internet-related problems. While social networking sites offered great benefits, he said, there were potential pitfalls.

This much is true; I first started using the Net around 1997 and it is rather disturbing to think about kids 7 or older using it, especially in those days when the Net really was all about freedom and lack of censorship, when a single typo in the URL downloaded the most horrific porn for you or took you to racist "White Power" sites, etc. Well, things are slightly better these days but not all that different. If we use porn as an example, several studies have been carried out that support the theory that occasional or regular viewing of porn can contribute to a variety of disturbing behaviours such as decreased respect for females, disturbing trends in sexual behaviour, and other negative symptoms. Unless some good 'nanny' software is installed, it is pretty easy for kids these days to download all this stuff and view them with a click of a mouse.

And it's not just porn that's a problem, it's just about everything. The sheer accessibility of the Net allows it to be viewed by almost everyone without so much as an age-check that has no real verification ability. Not that I am a fan of censorship but I can see how it can have an effect on young minds and quite probably be the cause of some serious warping.

It is also an open issue that internet issues have not been adequately studied. A few low-level studies have been done but not nearly enough to give psychologists any real guidance for issues that may arise in therapy and counselling sessions. Applying real-life strategies for bullying, for example, may not work in quite the same way for the phenomenon of cyber-bullying as the environment and methods by which it takes place may be similar but the differences are significant. So yes, it is definitely true that psychiatrists and psychologists alike are not adequately equipped to deal with patients with internet-related problems.

"It's a world where everything moves fast and changes all the time, where relationships are quickly disposed at the click of a mouse, where you can delete your profile if you don't like it, and swap an unacceptable identity in the blink of an eye for one that is more acceptable." He said: "People used to the quick pace of online social networking may soon find the real world boring and unstimulating. It may be possible that young people who have no experience of a world without online societies put less value on their real world identities and can therefore be at risk in their real lives, perhaps more vulnerable to impulsive behaviour or even suicide." He called for more investigation and research into the issue.

However, Graham Jones, a psychologist with an interest in the impact of the internet, said that while over-use of social networking sites could lead to problems, the risks posed by them had been overplayed. He said: "For every new generation, the experience they have of the world is a different one. "When the printing press was first invented, I am sure there were crowds of people saying it was a bad thing. In my experience, the people who tend to be most active on sites such as Facebook or Bebo are those who are most socially active anyway - it is just an extension of what they are already doing."

I can agree with this much. As tragic and heartbreaking was the suicide mentioned earlier, such cases are ultimately exceptions and isolated examples. But these issues are definitely ones to think about.

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