Commentary on This Is Life with Lisa Ling, S5E4, “Screen Addiction”

I made a point of watching this particular episode of This Is Life because I strongly suspected that it would shed light on the thesis of my book, The Tao of the Wild.  The episode takes a close look at the case studies of two young people who fell victim to screen addiction.  The first led to a tragic suicide while the second led to attempted suicides and eventual therapy.  Both stories have a lot to say about the influence of social media on individuals with poor identity structures and conflicted Multiple Selves within their personality.

My central thesis is that all of us have personalities constructed of Multiple Selves, a perspective held by Hal and Sidra Stone in their book The Divided Self, and supported by a multitude of others in the psychological community along with the current Zen Buddhist community.  I have explained and expounded on this thesis extensively in my book.  These Multiple Selves can be in a state of anarchy, where they take turns steering the ship.  If there is a captain, then there is some order and coordination, but if there is not then there can be conflict and confusion within the personality.  Throughout it all, there is a striving for identity, whether it be one Self dominating the others, a “Captain Self” or Controller which can bring order and some unity, or even a higher, Aware Self which can reify identity and self control.

It goes without saying that a developing adolescent lives in a state of turmoil with regard to their inner life and the dominance of various Selves.  Not only is their state of development at an early stage, with the whole system being soft and malleable, but a teenager’s life is full of various roles that they have to navigate and which are often at odds.  This, of course, is true to varying degrees with some teens coping better than others.  However, all go through identity pangs and tribulations, risking depression, sometimes frantically looking for feedback or validation from external sources.

Enter Social Media.  Teens have always risked placing themselves in negative feedback loops through a poor choice of friends, gangs or even involvement in cults.  However with social media, this risk becomes magnified tremendously.  The case studies in this TV episode clearly show teens who had normal self doubts and teenage angst but who discovered negative and depressing social media sites where they could, in the first case of the suicide, indulge their own dark impulses and get regular, powerful validation from depressing sites and other like minded people.  This is all done in secret, with parents not really knowing what is happening, and even friends often being locked out of the social media loop.  It becomes a separate life because it hijacks separate Selves within the adolescent.  One Self finds validation and gains superiority over the others, especially if it is a teen with an already weak or confused identity structure.  Without a Controller/Captain there is little self awareness, observation or diagnostics.  The validated Self is one acting in a self reinforcing narrative of desperation.

In the second case study a strong academic and athletically successful boy became addicted to gaming, finding easy self validation on line in various video games.  He often spent consecutive, sleepless days online.  This, of course, can’t happen without sacrificing real, face to face, social interactions.  Isolation is inevitable, as is a disengagement from normal social activities like team sports.  It is a double dose of disconnection, relationships and activity, with real life consequences.  Those consequences can only complicate life, often driving the teen further into their gaming and isolation.

In this second case we see the same result on the Self and Personality structure of the screen addicted person.  What starts as a healthy personality, with diverse and engaged Selves, becomes seduced by the screen into a more and more narrow Self structure.  “Seduced” is an apt word, as the boy in question admitted that viewing pornography played a significant role in his screen time.  One Self, The Gamer, strongly supported by a Sexual Self, totally dominates his Personality to the exclusion of almost everything else, while barricaded in his bedroom.

The mother of the girl who committed suicide states emphatically that her daughter would still be alive if it were not for social media.  There is some truth to that, as it was the feedback loop from the depression web sites and chat rooms that undoubtedly fed Selves that are not abnormal in adolescents, but which become abnormal when fed regularly.  Teens often have to overcome depressing thoughts and complicated situations.  They do so by engaging with their environment, including family, friends and other help when necessary.  Reinforcement of only the negative along with isolation may make the teen think that they have a “real identity” in the long run, but it is really just feeding one of many Selves, -and not the healthy one.

So what can be done?  The first temptation is to blame Social Media, and there has been a lot of talk lately about how sites are contrived to addict or subliminally engage users, much like a gambling casino.  There should be steps taken to minimize that effect.  However I don’t think that will ever really happen.  The dark websites that the girl visited would not disappear in that scenario, nor would the porn sites or gaming sites that enticed the boy.

By understanding the mechanics of personality, we can see that a big part of the problem is shallow identity structure, -very much in synch with the idea of shallow values and connectivity that I have explained in my book.  Strengthening that identity structure is something that is completely ignored in our education system.  In fact it was completely ignored in the therapy that the boy eventually participated in.  I was stunned to see that there was no internal therapy as part of their program.  There was no meditation or mindfulness exercises, -the exact measures that would create self reflection and would strengthen the Captain of the ship, so that the adolescent would have a wider perspective than that coming from their various screen lives and Selves.  This, I believe, is the more practical answer.  Social media is a business model that is not going away, and which honestly has a lot of potential benefits for the people who can engage in it more objectively.  So, let’s start giving our teens, and people in general, the tools and wider perspective necessary to cope with their technological world.  Lets start educating people to have a stronger and deeper connection to their own personalities and identities.

That will not only help prevent screen addiction, but will have many other positive consequences.

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