Digital Disembodiment: Part 1

A recent study of 10,000 young adolescents (average age 12) found that bullying increases the incidence of suicidal thoughts. Sadly, old news. This tragic effect of bullying has been known for years. However, the same study found that cyberbullying led to a significantly greater risk of suicidal thoughts than regular plain old in-person bullying.


Disembodied Life

There is a cute experiment that does the rounds of sciency-type shows. In this experiment, average people are fooled into reacting as if a fake hand is their real hand. The experimenter stimulates the fake hand (which is in view) and the real hand (which is hidden) at the same time and in the same way. This simultaneous stimulation establishes a brain-fake hand connection.

The climax of the experiment comes when the experimenter slams a hammer down on the fake hand, leading the participant to reflexively pull their real hand back in panic.

You can see the experiment here. It takes 3 minutes to watch, and the rest of this article will make more sense if you view it. Give it a watch!

The participants in this experiment have learnt to claim the artificial hand as part of their body. This trick works because the human mind/brain has the ability to embody; to take ownership of objects beyond our physical form.

Embodying helps us use tools. When we use a screwdriver, our mind extends to claim the tool as an extension of ourselves. A professional cricket player, or musician, quite literally becomes one with their bat/instrument as their human minds extends its proprietorship of the implement.

More recently, the digital world has led to many more opportunities for embodiment. Embodying is what makes video games so immersive and thus so much fun. Likewise, social media gives us a chance to curate our identity, and the resulting digital persona can feel so much cooler, more controllable and valid than the physical self.

There is a cost of this embodiment, however.

Most parents will have observed the resistance of their kids when it’s time to turn off their devices. The period after the device is turned off is followed by the general grumpiness of the digital hangover. Have some sympathy for these kids! They are undergoing a separation from their embodied selves: it’s like losing a limb!

And the flipside of this increased embodiment with the digital avatar is the disembodiment from our real human form.

Losing connection with your physical body might not be such a bad thing if you’ve grown up with a strong, unspoken connection to your physical form. This lifelong connection is an anchor to physical reality. But for digital natives, who’ve spent large chucks of their developmental years online, this physical connection can’t be assumed. Digital native may find their body to be an object of puzzlement at best, of alienation and disgust at worst.

When we seek to understand the harms of cyberbullying, we have to consider the effect of embodiment to the digital self and disembodiment to the physical self.

To be continued

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