Is technology exacerbating depression, anti-social tendencies?

Columnist Doug Thomson’s take on narcissists

I spent a lot of years studying a lot of psychology, but I have to tell you the world of human behaviour is still darned confusing and outright strange.

Right now, at least according to some pundits, we have an epidemic of narcissism and, in apparent counterpoint, depression. Actually, in some cases, especially with youth, depression can be confused with narcissism and that is a problem because the former is a mood disorder and the latter is a personality disorder.

They are fundamentally different animals albeit with many apparent overlapping behaviours. This is why it isn’t a good idea for the unwashed to read a passage from The American Psychiatric Association’s, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) V and immediately begin diagnosing our friends and enemies. It’s not that easy and do try to give the exercise a pass.

However, the question lurking in the dark is why we might have increases in these disorders, especially in the Western World, a geopolitical construct that is blessed with incredible wealth and luxury?

We have so much, yet all the 60-inch TVs, computers, quads, Teslas or other ‘things’ don’t seem to make us happy, nor do they make us more inclusive, compassionate or understanding. So, what the heck is happening?

Well, the whole thing becomes a lot more difficult when you consider that language undoubtedly has a major role to play in the topic. Narcissism and depression don’t have common definitions among all people, even professionals.

What you and I as the unwashed think of as narcissistic or depressive probably isn’t close to what professionals think of the same issues. In fact, Narcissistic Personality Disorder just about didn’t make it into the latest issue of the DSM.

Professional psychologists like Jean Twenge and Jeffrey Jensen Arnett argue quite vociferously about the rise of narcissism among recent generations – the former says it is a big problem while the latter proclaims that the data doesn’t support Twenge’s proposition at all. My reading of the research has left me leaning a little towards Arnett’s position.

Joseph M. Pierre, M.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) mediates the debate by suggesting: “Regardless of where one stands on the debate over whether narcissism is on the rise, most would likely agree that narcissism can be problematic in excess. It’s therefore worth thinking about what we can do to curb problem narcissism, while promoting healthy self-esteem.”

In short, one can have narcissistic traits, and those traits may even be essential to appropriate levels of self-esteem, but in excess they go beyond the pale and give birth to the narcissist.

In the same way, clinical depression may well be something quite different than intense sadness.

The latter can be the result of any number of life events that may be extremely difficult yet are part of the natural course of life.

Intense sadness wanes with time as we adapt to whatever loss we suffered, yet when in full bloom can share many of the traits of clinical depression – the difference is that clinical depression is enduring.

So, sadness or depression, narcissism or self-absorption aside, these are very serious issues that generally boil down to matters of degree. How sad am I / how self-possessed are you?

Allan Horwitz, professor of sociology at Rutgers University and Jerome Wakefield, professor of social work at New York University note that: “Therapy aside, sadness is a complex emotional / cognitive state that indicates that something has gone wrong with some of the aspects of life the individual most cares about.”

Part of the apparent increase in depression and narcissism may simply be due to the fact that we are much more willing to discuss mental health issues openly and seek treatment than we were previously.

The behaviours and traits associated with these conditions are more familiar and education about mental health conditions may indeed be having its desired effect.

Certainly, awareness and education lead to significant changes in reporting as the stigma surrounding these conditions is less oppressive.

It’s revealing that when I began researching this topic, I was pretty much sure that we were in dire straits, that current generations were turning into narcissistic and depressive nightmares. Now I’m much less pessimistic.

Sure, the incessant selfies, the preoccupation with likes and dislikes on social media, and smartphone addiction are all matters of concern and study, but perhaps they are just about a society struggling to adapt to technologies that are evolving much faster than the social framework they serve (or command, your choice).

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