You know what the leading cause of disability is in North America? Clinical depression. It’s also going to be the second-leading cause of disability around the world by the year 2020, says the World Health Organization. And it’s a condition on the rise in a big way.

Doesn’t that strike you as unsettling?

There’s a number of reasons why the number of depressed people has risen so dramatically in the past 50 years; as a society we’re evolving in our understanding of mental illness and thus reporting depression with greater accuracy and more frequently.

But while heredity and physiology play a role in risk factors associated with depressive behaviour, environment plays a big role too, if not the biggest one of all.

It’s easy to point out how our media ecology has such a huge role in triggering depressive tendencies in some people. Sensitive individuals, even those who consciously tell themselves and others how media images “don’t affect them” sublimate constructions of meaning into their unconscious selves. It’s hard to imagine anyone in this day and age not being affected in some way by media. Media is now the primary instrument of human interaction in the West, not an ancillary one, which begs a pressing point of discussion.

We’ve known for years how mass media constructs needs and wants. That’s not new. Cultural studies movements have since the days of Barthes shown how media creates artificial desire of physical properties, as well as how media has sometimes-toxic effects on people (everything from fast food to Transformers to eating disorders). But with the Internet, something’s changed. Have we reached the point now where the Internet is potentially screwing a lot of people up and isolating them to serious ill-effect? And if this is just the beginning of the Internet Age, could it conceivably get worse?

I know, this sounds like heresy coming from me. But it’s important to question the Internet not only as a medium but in its ideological default position.

To illustrate a point, I’m currently reading a new book by Benjamin Barber called Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole. Barber, for all you political studies peeps out there, wrote the eerily prescient Jihad vs. McWorld back in the mid 1990s.

The book’s thesis is straightforward and damning: in the ubiquity of mass media (read: the Web) spreading messages of economic freedom, individualism and branding, western liberalism is being torn apart. On top of this, the young of today, the savviest consumers of modern media, are being trained through media messages to be hyper-aggressive consumers.

There’s a global message at work of complete and total subservience to market ideology now, which is slowly but surely creating an infantilized culture that threatens the very fabric of democracy itself. He even dares to make the bold point that radical Islam, while equally wrong-headed in its total rejection of modernity, has to, like the West, change and evolve to survive.

Anyway, back on point. Never before in the history of the West has something like the Internet been able to capture our collective imagination under the guise of individual participation in the broader media culture. But really, how much time does the average person spend online now in a given day (at least, those under the age of 35)? Too much – 26 hours a week on average for teenagers in September 2006 and rising.

Is it possible, given how much time we spend on our own now with the Internet and the consumerist, everyone-for-themselves individualism of 2007, one of the keys to a healthy, non-depressive outlook on life – offline social interaction, whether it is community service, clubs, even watching TV or listening to music together – is being destroyed? This is doing grave, grave damage to our mental health.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense. I do know, however, that two nations in particular provide that vital canary-in-the-coalmine perspective on what the Internet is actually doing to people and what the future might look like: Japan and South Korea.

Japan’s got, like a lot of developed nations, some serious social problems, not all of which are powered by the Internet mind you, but has one very distressing symptom of a much larger problem: online suicide pacts. These pacts are rising in numbers in Japan, fuelled largely by the social anomie that seems part and parcel of Japan’s hyper-consumerist culture.

On the other hand lies South Korea. A kind of mob mentality has emerged online in S.K. – the phenomenon of cyberviolence, where groups of people attack individuals based on posts to blogs, discussion forums, et al. People have used death threats and other criminal activity against people they know of online. Is this a sign of a society that’s taken use of the Web too far?

All of these conditions have one thing in common: social isolation and isolating behaviours generated through the Internet. Isolation leads to increased anxiety, low self-esteem and other contributing factors to depression. Welcome to the 21st century.

Maybe it’s time to re-examine the Web’s social utility and to consider its effects on the human mind. Because something’s very, very wrong here.


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