Digital Disembodiment: Part 2

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.


Cyberbullying and Suicidality

Why should cyberbullying be more strongly associated with suicidality than traditional bullying?

As a psychologist, it’s my observation that youth who are heavy digital users have a more flippant attitude toward suicide than those who spend less time online. This is painful for me to witness, having lost people I care about to suicide.

I don’t have hard evidence for why digital natives are more blasé about suicide, but I have my pet theory. I believe that it is due to heavy internet user being disembodied from their physical selves and being more embodied within their digital selves. And this shift in identity has two main effects.

Firstly, it means that this group of young people are more sensitive to symbolic harms than physical harms.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

This used to be a common saying when I was a kid. My generation were amongst the last to be trained to care more about harm to our bodies than to our identities. In truth, words did hurt me, but me and others like me developed an ability to shake off insults, whilst remaining on the lookout for physical harms.

Words are violence. Silence is violence.

It’s more common now for younger people to classify words, or the absence of words, as violence. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this has occurred in tandem with the rise of the internet and online selves. When we are free from a physical body, words are the only thing that can harm. And words can be lethal to a digital identity.

Just like the experimenter’s hammer smashing down on the fake hand (see last blog), the words of a cyberbully crush identities. A severe reputational loss may as well be death for your digital life. And if the digital life is all you’ve got… Well, you can understand what’s at stake.

The second effect of digital embodiment is a weakening connection to one’s physical form. The living, heart-beating, lung-breathing reality of their existence does seem to be weaker for digital natives that I’ve worked with. Their physical form is often a source of mystery, alienation, shame and revulsion.

The mortality of our physical self is a hard reality. Once we’re gone, we’re gone. Unlike a digital persona that can be infinitely reinvented, reset and remade. This hard reality about the finality of death is essential for one’s safety. Without that knowledge, we are liable to rage-quit life.

So, digital natives have an increased affinity to their resettable digital avatar combined with a diminished affinity to their mortal physical body. This state of affairs presents a suicide risk to minds that are not fully developed.

To be continued

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