Over the past few months, an increasing number of studies have emerged about the self-destructive nature of Americans over the past two decades. One of those studies, Pain in the Nation Update, indicated that the number of “deaths of despair” recorded from drug, alcohol, and suicide reached an all-time high in 2016. One American every four minutes died in 2016 from one of these causes; it was more than the total number of U.S. citizens who were killed in all U.S. Wars combined since 1950.
A closer analysis indicated that drug and suicide deaths showed a substantial increase (11 percent) between 2015 and 2016, with deaths from synthetic opioids doubling in a single year and having increased 718% over the past decade. More people died from drug-related deaths in 2016 than from the Vietnam War. Life expectancy again fell in 2016 after previously doing so in 2015. Alcohol-related deaths have increased around 40% over the past decade. Suicide deaths in 2016 accounted for more fatalities than traffic accidents and have increased 21 percent over the past decade, with a 231% increase in young girls (ages 10-14) over the last ten years. Suicide rates for 15-19-year-old females reached an all-time high in 2015 for the past 40 years.
All of this provides a somber picture about where we are as people, especially considering the tremendous resources available to the masses. It demands answers regarding causal factors for these self-destructive trends. Recently, Jean Twenge described a trend that a number of researchers have been noticing for years in her article Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? It tells an ominous tale in regards to the significant social-emotional decline that has occurred since mobile devices, especially smartphones, were introduced to the masses. In using the year 2007 when the iPhone was introduced (which is the same date used for the comparisons above), she notes the dramatic drop-off for youth & young adults in areas of face-to-face socialization, acquisition of driver’s licenses, dating and significant increases in loneliness, suicidality, depression, and sleep among other issues. Although critics may note the correlational nature of some of this research, signs (scientific and otherwise) increasingly indicate that our technologically-immersive culture is doing anything but making us healthier and happier.
Yet beyond the argument of “cause”, there is another discussion that is worth having. It is the question about the actual psychological shifts that appear to be occurring within our population that increase the risk of self-destructive behaviors. If you want to create a population that is increasingly self-destructive, there are a few key areas where you would start. One is the attentional capacity of a person, and just how long he or she can sustain focus on not just a specific task, but also larger projects, roles, and missions. As attention wanes and an individual becomes more scattered, he or she will not only become less efficient, but will also need increasingly stimulating material to remain engaged; if this does not occur, then it is likely the person will seek out activities (e.g., online gaming) that satisfy his or her shifting attention and forego those that require extended engagement in the absence of repeated, immediate rewards.
In 2015, a study was published regarding the waning attention of human beings. It was found that in comparison to the year 2000, attention had dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds—1 second slower than a goldfish. The authors suggested that the digitalized culture was largely at play. “Heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli — they’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media,” was noted in the report. The irony was that the study was conducted by the Microsoft Corporation, which would be somewhat analogous to Anheuser-Busch organizing a study which found that beer drinking was associated with increased obesity and poor lung capacity.
Connected with the idea of waning attention is the characteristic related to increased need for stimulation through novelty and excitement. Years ago, I found myself watching the movie “Chariots of Fire”, which is based on a true story of two runners in the 1924 Olympics. Among many other accolades, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1982. Yet as I was watching the movie, I found myself somewhat underwhelmed. It was a moving storyline with memorable performances, but there was something about the flick that just seemed to move, well, rather slow. It took me awhile to figure out what was going on until finally it clicked—the scene shots lasted what felt like forever. Unconsciously, it was apparent that I had become used to the rapid, shifting editing of newer productions that when presented with a story that moved more like real life, I found myself somewhat bored and under-stimulated.
Although not necessarily a huge issue when confined to intermittent media experiences, it is easy to see how this increased drive for novelty, excitement, and stimulation creates a real potential for self-destructive behaviors highlighted in the first paragraph. The more a person needs immediate, gratifying thrills and rewards, the more they are at risk for all sorts of harmful habits that satisfy these desires. It also can have a serious impact on relationships. As renowned psychologist Philip Zimbardo once said, “Boys’ brains are being digitally rewired in a totally new way, for change, novelty, excitement and constant arousal,” Zimbardo says. “…they’re totally out of sync in their personal relationships, which naturally build more gradually and subtly. This is creating a generation of young men who do not connect well in teaching situations and who lack social skills, especially with women.”
Beyond the issues of increased distractibility and drive for novelty and excitement, though, looms a third issue, that of reassurance seeking. Statistics indicate that Americans send and receive 5 times as many texts as they do phone calls. Texts are sent for many reasons, but one of the increasing reasons texting is used is to seek reassurance for uncertainties a person may feel no matter where they are. Although we all (should) seek out advice at times, research indicates that “intolerance of uncertainty” actually underlies many psychological conditions. Unfortunately, it appears that the more a person seeks reassurance by texting friends and family, the more anxious he or she may actually become because every decision potentially is a moment of crisis. In the process, individuals increasingly struggle to make the simplest of decisions without seeking out consultation and/or reassurance, and thus become increasingly immobilized and dependent. Coupled with heightened distractibility and an increased need for constant stimulation, a person is at great risk for self-destructive behaviors because his or her need for entertainment, assurance, and novelty magnifies to a point where many naturally reinforcing activities, such as hiking, having a conversation, or just reading a book, simply don’t satisfy the intensity and immediacy of the person’s needs and desires. This is when drugs, alcohol, and suicide often enter the equation because few other activities provide such an intense, immediate option for euphoria and avoidance.
Yet it appears that at least one more core factor is at play when it comes to self-destructive behavior. Over the past 50 years or so, research has increasingly indicated that youth and young adults are more focused on extrinsic pursuits, such as wealth, status, and power instead of intrinsic endeavors related to civic-mindedness, community, and transcendence. In essence, it could be argued that generations of today are more self-focused than ever before, and unfortunately the self-focus does not seem to be equated with improved health. Instead, it seems to be associated with a multitude of psychological and physical problems that sprout from self-absorption rather than self-actualization. If this is true (and inverse research on the positive effects of volunteering seem to provide another source of support for this idea), then a final key of self-destructiveness may have to do with an inability to step outside of oneself for the betterment of others.
Ultimately, I believe that if you were going to create a human being that was readily self-destructible, you would increase their self-absorption and need for stimulation, and reduce their attentional capacity and ability to tolerate uncertainty. I worry that this is exactly what is happening to our population right now, especially with digital natives. The U.S. spends twice as much of its GDP on health care (3.2 trillion in 2015) when compared to countries of similar wealth, and yet is one of the unhealthiest of rich nations in the world. As the average U.S. citizen consumes more and more of our community’s resources, and gives back less and less in terms of human capital, the collective “societal footprint” is only getting larger. There is a real possibility that our self-destructiveness will not only bankrupt our lives and that of our families, but also the country as a whole, all in the name of “progress.”