Bettelheim, Suicide and Online Social Media
Depending on who you talk to, TwitBook, LinkFace and their ilk are responsible either for:
a. the death of attention, intimacy and civility; or
b. the coming of the Age of Collaboration.
We have seen this movie before, and it’s interesting to re-read the reviews from the past.
Does Living in a Highly Interactive Society Make You Neurotic?
In 1969, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, in Children of the Dream, wrote about children of the Israeli kibbutzim. As Wikipedia summarizes it:
[Bettelheim] concluded that a kibbutz upbringing led to individuals’ having greater difficulty in making strong emotional commitments thereafter, such as falling in love or forming a lasting friendship. On the other hand, they appear to find it easier to have a large number of less-involved friendships, and a more active social life.
Makes sense in a simple kind of way. More interactions makes you good at shallow relationships, worse at deep ones. Presenting psychological problems are largely neurotic. A society that mistakes familiarity for intimacy.
Does Living in Highly Isolated Society Make You Psychotic?
About the time I read Bettelheim, I also read Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, a disturbing book that combines 19th century photographs taken in Black River Falls, Wisconsin between 1890 and 1910, with archival frontier newspaper articles from the same era.
The result: old glass negative plates of a 6-year old in a tiny coffin, juxtaposed with news articles like:
"Mrs. Carter… was taken sick at the marsh last week and fell down, sustaining internal injuries which have dethroned her reason. She has been removed to her home here and a few nights since arose from her bed and ran through the woods… A night or two after she was found trying to strangle herself with a towel… It is hoped the trouble is only temporary and that she may soon recover her mind." And
"The 60 year old wife of a farmer in Jackson, Washington County, killed herself by cutting her throat with a sheep shears."
Lesy himself, according to a former student quoted in the Amazon book review, stated that in assembling the book, he was observing “an American holocaust.”
Makes sense in a simple kind of way. Fewer interactions may make you powerfully vested in a few relationships, but unable to interact easily on a casual level. Presenting psychological problems are largely psychotic. A society that mistakes intimacy for ease.
Must We Choose Between Social Media and Intimacy?
Is this a trade-off? If you’re a kibbutznik or you tweet, does that mean you’re bad marriage material (what about to other twitterers?). And if you’re capable of deep emotions living alone with a few people in closed quarters in the long frontier wintertime, does that mean you’re hopeless when it comes to simple social skills like having conversation?
I hear the arguments pro and con. I wish we could reframe the problem away from a zero-sum, either-or trade-off problem, to one that dares to be great: how can we harness both?
How can we get really good at getting along—and not only not lose the capacity for deep connection and intimacy, but make it grow stronger right alongside?
I will note this: Bettelheim predicted the kibbutzniks would be massively unsuccessful; but as the data showed, Bettelheim was massively wrong. They were exceptionally successful.
Methinks there is hope for us.