Facebook does not make you mentally ill

Some experts now claim that social networking is turning us into a nation of nutters. It’s therapeutic drivel.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Books

Is Facebook turning us into a nation of nutters? Barely a day now seems to go by without claims being made in the media that social networking is damaging our health, ‘infantilising us’ and damaging our relationships with other people.

The case of the recent suicide of Simone Back in Brighton has been used to support such claims about Facebook. Before killing herself in January, Back posted a suicide note to over 1,000 ‘friends’ on Facebook, none of whom were reportedly concerned enough to do anything about it. Instead, many engaged in online banter about whether she was telling the truth, leading to

She is far from alone in contending that social media is diminishing us and damaging our relationships. Author and Facebook refusenik Zadie Smith argued in a recent article for the New York Review of Books that Facebook is ‘flattening’ us out and forcing us to conform to the whims of Facebook founder and ‘social autistic’ Mark Zuckerberg.

Critics of social media are not just worried that it is dumbing us down. Many, including Professor Turkle, now believe society’s widespread adoption of social media is actually making us mad.

Drawing upon extensive interviews with a cross-section of the public about their use of these new technologies, Turkle expresses deep concern about the behaviour we exhibit when we use our Blackberries, iPhones and social media websites. As she puts it, we use these technologies to ‘stay ahead of the game’ and ‘validate [our] existence’. ‘[B]ehaviour that has become typical’, she argues, ‘may still express the problems that once caused us to see it as pathological’.

Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has also expressed concerns that excessive use of computers is affecting the wiring in our brains and ‘infantilising’ us. She even goes so far as to suggest that it may lead to an increase in autism. ‘Of course’, she said, ‘we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can – if there is a true increase – be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. [But] surely it is a point worth considering.’

Meanwhile, Turkle has said her next work is likely to be more ‘prescriptive’. That is, it will actually tell people how to wean themselves off technology and restore their lost humanity. Turkle’s proposals are not as unusual as you might think. In fact, rehab clinics are now being established all over the world to help people deal with their ‘addictions’ to social media. It was reported in November that the Agostino Gemelli hospital in Rome has even established a special clinic to treat Facebook addiction. Following suit, the Capio Nightingale Hospital in London is running a course for those suffering from ‘E-ddiction’ – namely, mental health disorders and burnout due to their obsessive use of social media technologies.

There are even clinical-sounding terms for supposedly social media-related mental health problems, such as Obsessive Communications Disorder, manifested by sweating, headaches and depression. Elsewhere David Smallwood, from the Priory Clinic mental health group, has identified ‘friendship addiction’, arguing that at least 10 per cent of the population are vulnerable to this malaise. ‘Acquisition of friends is like any other fix’, he said, ‘but it’s competitive. You judge yourself by how many friends you have online… I see patients who are on Facebook and my response is “get yourself off it”.’

Admittedly, there are obvious reasons why social media appear to some, such as Turkle or Smallwood, as problematic. Many of us can get into bad habits constantly checking Facebook and Twitter and updating them with tedious, half-baked statuses and tweets. A casual scan of recent posters on Twitter shows how some people seem to spend half their life, if not more, spewing out banalities. One says: ‘Dear itch in my ear… You have been visiting me for 3 months now… it’s time for you to scram’; ‘Can’t stop yawning’, moans another. Others even tweet to complain that they are spending too much time on Twitter.

It is completely understandable that in a world where people are increasingly disconnected from each other in real life, there is a compulsion to go online in a desire to connect, share experiences and reach out to others. Of course, some of the consequences, especially as people explore these new forms of communicating for the first time, can be disturbing. The highly acclaimed documentary Catfish, for example, paints a sympathetic yet worrying portrait of a deeply lonely woman from Michigan. Having to spend most of her days indoors looking after her two handicapped sons, she invents a network of online personas so as to compensate for the absence in her life of genuine social interaction. Equally worrying are the reports of people who spend all day on Facebook. As Psychologist Elisa Caponetti explains: ‘they don’t go to school, they don’t play sport, they don’t even sleep’. No one would see that as healthy behaviour.

However, far more unhealthy is the attempt to pathologise this new social phenomenon by suggesting that new technology is making us at best dumber and at worst mentally ill. We are perfectly capable of using Facebook, Twitter and other social networks without becoming autistic. Moreover, there are good reasons why people may choose to use social media – and it’s not just to get a dopamine fix when someone ‘likes’ or ‘retweets’ a post. In fact, Facebook, Twitter and the rest can be extremely useful, too. They allow us to keep in contact with friends and family from around the world. And, although a lot of rubbish is posted, these tools also have the potential to allow us to share information and ideas.

While it’s true that those spending a bit too much of their day on Facebook and Twitter could probably do with getting out and engaging with people in the real world, they can do this perfectly well without an army of experts holding their hand and suggesting that they are suffering from a psychological disorder. Indeed, a far greater problem than our overuse of Facebook is the patronising claim that these new technologies are turning us into insane, social media-dependent junkies.

Patrick Hayes is a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum and one of the organisers of the Battle of Ideas festival.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today