Experts Have Called Into Question Technology And Social Media’s Impact On Our Mental Health, Which In Turn Has Impacted Civility.

By Wayne Lonstein

When the electoral college voted to certify President Biden, it marked the end of the 2020 election. While a new administration has dawned, the pathway to its success was anything but smooth. Riots, insurrection, deaths and censorship are a few of the by-products of a process that has been peaceful and harmonious in most times.

In a time reminiscent of the 1860s, America is profoundly divided; its citizens have taken to open conflict in the streets. Some have attacked public facilities and officials ranging from police and courthouses in Portland to an insurrection on the United States Congress during the Electoral College meeting on January 6.

Amid a global pandemic, racial tensions and a Presidential election, the United States has become a nation more and more divided. Family members, friends and even strangers can no longer civilly discuss the day’s issues without personalizing, generalizing or ostracizing. How did it happen? There are no simple answers; but in my opinion, there is one constant: the loss of personal communication, which leads to a lack of understanding and empathy. We are no longer a face-to-face society; instead, we are increasingly becoming depersonalized and isolated. A situation only exacerbated by Covid-19.

Even the voting process itself has become depersonalized. A few years ago, many of us voted by way of paper ballots placed in a box in front of our eyes, a machine designed to count votes by pressing levers, or physical machines that tabulated votes on location. Modern electronic voting devices tabulate votes from electronically scanned ballots and touch screens (via direct-recording voting machines) and can electronically transmit voting data.

If left unresolved and without a full, transparent and bipartisan examination of election software, this distrust could only fester. I believe this distrust is worsened by de-platforming and censorship. There is a real risk that the incoming administration and future administrations could be hampered by mistrust of the system. For the Biden administration to succeed, as we all hope it does, it needs to remove the virtual asterisk from election 2020. Secondarily, we should require any system purchased to be auditable or any vendor providing electronic voting services to waive any claim to proprietary protection for any part or function of the system.

But the problems caused by depersonalization associated with technology are by no means limited to the grand scale of elections. Experts Have Called Into Question Technology And Social Media’s Impact On Our Mental Health, Which In Turn Has Impacted Civility In Other Aspects Of Society. Screentime naturally has increased during the pandemic with the shift to remote work and distance learning. Experts have found social media impacts various aspects of our well-being, from acutely increased stress to depression.

Over-dependence on technology can also lead to problematic internet use (PIU), which can lead to aggression, depression, substance abuse and impulsivity. According to experts, PIU “has become a global social issue” and can be described as “an inability to control one’s use of the Internet, which leads to negative consequences in daily life.” According to Psychiatric Times, it can also be considered an impulse control disorder.

Depersonalization and disinhibition can lead to what I call crossing the barrier between the virtual and real world. The 2019 massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, comes to mind as an example of how technology can be weaponized; the perpetrator of the mass shooting live-streamed the attack and posted a manifesto to Twitter and Facebook. Most of us have an over-reliance on and blind trust in technology without consideration of risks and consequences. The inherent lack of transparency in most technology is the fertile soil in which distrust, conspiracy theories and radicalization breeds.

There needs to be neutral and transparent oversight of the operations of social media platforms. When social media platforms identify or are advised of dangerous content on their platforms, they simply remove the content. That is sweeping the problem under the rug and can often hamstring authorities in proactive police work. Unlike the brick and mortar world informants, public space monitoring and “sting” operations are disfavored and the Department of Homeland Security has enacted rules restricting such practices online. It doesn’t make sense that authorities would have fewer tools in an online public square than in any physical counterpart in any small downtown USA.

The fix? Government, social media and big tech must realize the obvious: They have immense and growing power. The public, more and more, feels powerless, devalued and isolated. We are at a critical point; the path forward is, at best, uncertain. In order to navigate these waters, all sides need to prioritize transparency, corporate and personal responsibility.

In a 2018 article in the Atlantic, Yuval Noah Harai distilled the tension between technology, transparency and humanity by saying “…the common person feels increasingly irrelevant. Lots of mysterious terms are bandied about excitedly in Ted Talks, at government think tanks, and high-tech conferences — globalization, blockchain, genetic engineering, AI, machine learning — and common people, both men and women, may well suspect that none of these terms is about them.”

If we do not rapidly strike healthy technology balances, we stand to lose what little civility we still possess. We need to reconsider the ways in which we interact not only with each other, but current and emerging technologies. As the old slogan of the United Negro College Fund goes: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Those words may be more important than ever.

This news was originally published at Forbes.