I just read this article on WebMD which discusses the endemic compulsive use of smartphones in modern society, its possible reasons, consequences, and how to deal with it. Here is a summary sentence: “the smartphone, more than any other gadget, steals from us the opportunity to maintain our attention, to engage in contemplation and reflection, or even to be alone with our thoughts.

I believe this is true and it is a matter about which we should be concerned. Yet the question of why this compulsion arises is not satisfactorily answered in the article, though it gives a few clues. Therefore I would like to put forward an alternative explanation. Moreover, the extent to which we anyway engaged in useful (i.e. gratifying) contemplation and reflection prior to the development of this technology should not be overestimated. The technology which the internet has most displaced is surely the television.

It is common ground that our species is built for operating on a tribal basis. As I have written previously, tribal cohesion is imposed by shame. Ostracization by the group, if maintained, generates a reaction which has been termed social apoptosis. Just like bonobos, tribal human societies do not display the social stratification of macaques – they are much more egalitarian (an important reason why reading across the results of Tung and Gilad’s study, as The Economist does, is inappropropriate). It is not ones place in the group, therefore, that is of fundamental importance, but rather harmony in the group itself. For humans and bonobos, ostracization is the worst that can befall an individual. Ostracism is a common strategy used by school bullies, and a major mental health problem. As Professor Kipling Williams points out, “being excluded is painful because it threatens fundamental human needs, such as belonging and self-esteem”.

The problem is that, in modern societies, we are all excluded. Yes, certainly there remain to us a few relationships, to which we cling with ever-increasing desperation. Even looking only at single households, their average size has fallen by nearly half in the last century as this US study reports. It is highly likely that the effect on extended families has been even more devastating. Coupled with this, community institutions such as the church (with its institution of excommunication, the bearer of the threat of ostracism par excellence) also hold much less sway. I would not wish to paint a rosy picture of life in the modern industrial era either. The social drive may then have been better accommodated, but the sexual drive remained widely repressed, which has been more than adequate to engender a range of endemic destructive neuroses. Nonetheless, it is clear that we are reaching a degree of social atomization which is unparalleled in human history and very likely to bring with it severe psychological and ultimately severe physical consequences.

Onto this tapestry of social desolation with all its psychological ticking time bombs, has exploded the mobile internet.

Now, we are all aware that the killer application which drove uptake of the internet has been porn; first still images and, as bandwidth has grown, video. Well, indications are that, measured in minutes of use, in recent years, social network sites have even outstripped porn. That should really give us pause for thought.

The neural networks in our minds which are engaging with social networks on our smartphones were built for maintaining tribal units in a state of harmony so that they could collectively confront external risks. The strong innate drive to build community, which has long been circumscribed in its expression, is now all of a sudden offered an outlet, as it is channeled into a drive to create and maintain virtual communities on the web. This activity is of course fundamentally different, but given how our brains work, one effectively masquerades for the other, especially as long as it is the only game in town which provides any outlet for the drive at all.

The compulsive use of smartphones – which means of social applications on smartphones – may therefore be viewed, in Freud’s sense, as a sort of conversion of the basic drive. Unlike the sexual drive, the direct expression of the social drive is not repressed due to any unacceptability of it to the conscious mind as mediated by the ego. Nonetheless, its expression is just as thwarted. Psychodynamically it seeks alternative, feasible outlets.

It seems to me that it is an open question whether the outlet which is compulsive use of social media is better or worse for mental health than other outlets which this drive found previously. It is at least interesting that social media offer, for the first time in history, the possibility to pursue some meaningful social connections as adults outside ones immediate peer group other than in combination with the sexual drive. Prevously, the strength of the sexual drive seems to me to have been predominant in allowing for the social drive to be expressed; in a sense, the latter piggy-backed on the former. But now, I can make reasonably meaningful contacts with people on a number of bases, which may lead to actual face-to-face connections which would otherwise have totally eluded me. This seems a net contribution to mental health.

Yet the problem remains that social media offer instant gratification, not of the primary drive but of a surrogate. Drive satisfaction yields endorphins and when it is easy, it may become an addiction. The endorphin supply is designed to reward realization of the primary drive and thus is a biochemical regulator of the drive. Smartphonitis therefore is to the social drive what masturbation is to the sexual drive: it takes the edge off it, but ultimately at the cost of the greatest degree of satisfaction which the drive is designed to procure. When the primary drive cannot be satisfied at reasonable cost, the surrogate starts to become the main focus.

I disagree therefore that people use the social functionality of their phones compulsively in order to “know what is going on”. Instead, they use it in an ultimately largely vain attempt to realize meaningful connections with other people.

But i am an optimist. Short of an epic global catastrophe, we will not get to turn the clock back to the conditions of pre-agricultural society (and anyway I would not espouse such a goal). The mobile internet did not create any of the problems we are experiencing, and smartphone addiction is merely a symptom, which would not arise if people did not sense that the technology has the potential to gratify a drive. Its intelligent use has to be learnt, but there is a hunger to realize real community and this demand will drive the supply of applications which come ever closer to facilitating what people actually want to do. Unrealized drives will always be expressed neurotically, and unless this expression is positively harmful, there is no reason to judge this generation’s neurosis (or, increasingly, the nevrose du jour) more harshly than the last’s.

The key is to express the drive in the way in which nature intends it to be expressed: through actual, diverse community. If technology offers new ways to move towards this ultimate goal, its contribution is likely to be ultimately beneficial. Opening our eyes to the real meaning of the behavior we observe will only hasten that day.

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