Thoughts, languages and spaces of the web: how and why they influence the mind of adolescents
We all tend to diminish the importance of thoughts and, in particular, to minimize the role they play in determining behavior.
Our mind is bombarded and invaded daily by an infinite series of concepts, ideas and images that affect the functioning dynamics of our brain, generating continuous processes of adaptation and change. When we are dealing with negative suggestions, we are led to believe, erroneously, that passing through or lingering for a moment in thoughts of this type cannot cause any harm.
In reality, due to its plasticity, the brain is transformed according to the nature of the impulses and stimuli it receives or is the object of, consequently orienting the choices and lifestyle we adopt. This means that, even if we are not aware of it, we are at the center of a violent ‘competition’ between different mental contents that try, respectively, to win. Each of them, in fact, tries to prevail over the other with the purpose of grabbing control of actions and behaviors. It is evident that, in this boundless struggle between thoughts, we are sensitively influenced and conditioned by the use of language as ‘speaking subjects’ (Dennett, 2000).
In the same instant in which we give consent, starting to communicate with the suggestions that come from the outside, we allow them to creep into our mind. Furthermore, scientific evidence proves that the power of thoughts is such as to affect the body and physical health as well as mental health. Indeed, in some cases the moods induced by thoughts go all the way beyond the limits, also giving rise to physical illnesses and psychological suffering.
The mental mechanisms underlying the formation of thoughts have aroused the interest of the scientific community and, in particular, of neuroscience, which, by analyzing the contribution of genetic and environmental factors to individual cognitive differences, have produced very useful indications over time.
If you look at the world of the web, the process of forming thoughts becomes even more complex and delicate. In light of the profound changes that have taken place in recent decades, the network, in fact, is no longer to be understood as a mere tool, having now ‘incorporated’ the mind and language of the individual. According to the hypothesis of the ‘extended mind’ (Clark – Chalmers) the boundaries of the mind vary according to the causal links that the brain maintains with portions of the world outside itself. In this context, the external environment does not just play an input role for the cognitive and mental processes that take place in the head, but is incorporated into the processes themselves as an extended vehicle of thoughts (Clark & Chalmers, 1988). In this regard, it has been observed that the technological environment in which we are immersed, with which we have established a biotechnological symbiosis, it becomes every day more personalized, tailored to the needs of each user, more transparent, integrated into our lives and designed to help us carry out our projects so much that it becomes invisible. The more this intelligent world responds to the intimate needs of the individual, the more difficult it is to establish where the person ends and the technological environment with which he co-evolves begins (Piredda & Gola, 2016).
The effects that technological abuse and surfing the net generate in the minds of adolescents are obvious. Moreover, it has been noted that the isolation of young people in the virtual world, in addition to removing them from relations with the environment, can lead to different forms of psychopathology (hikikomori, ludopathy, internet addiction, etc). In some cases, cyberbullying can also cause discomfort or social isolation (Pirelli, 2018). There are also the types of deviance related to the use of the network which, depending on the case, see young people as perpetrators or victims of crime: sexting (sending sexually explicit texts or images via the internet); grooming (online solicitation of minors for sexual purposes with psychological manipulation techniques); revenge porn (illicit dissemination of sexually explicit images or videos, also for the purpose of extortion, without the consent of the interested party); happy slapping (assault with slaps of strangers on the street, shot and published on the web). It often happens that it is the culture of the herd that dominates, the logic of a pseudo-criminal group in the face of which the individualities of individuals retreat or even disappear. Then there are the so-called ‘death games’ induced and conveyed by the network, filmed and posted on various sites: blue whale (carrying out 50 self-injurious actions, in preparation for death, which culminate in suicide); balconing (throwing oneself into the pool from the hotel room balconies); ghost riding (abandoning the steering of the car at crazy speed, dancing on the hood or roof); car surfing (riding a racing car as if it were a surfboard); daredevil selfie (taking selfies in extreme conditions or situations). These are very strong emotional experiences in which there is no sense of the limit. To complete the picture there is the submerged web (deep web), that is the set of information resources not indexed by normal search engines which are accessed through a sophisticated telematic language or through apparently normal apps and institutional sites. A little of everything happens on the deep web: the sale of weapons or drugs, prostitution, child pornography, the sale of violent or macabre videos depicting episodes of bullying, rape, suicide. that is, the set of information resources not indexed by normal search engines which are accessed through a sophisticated telematic language or through apparently normal apps and institutional sites. A little bit of everything happens on the deep web: the sale of weapons or drugs, prostitution, child pornography, the sale of violent or macabre videos depicting episodes of bullying, rape, suicide. that is, the set of information resources not indexed by normal search engines which are accessed through a sophisticated telematic language or through apparently normal apps and institutional sites. A bit of everything happens on the deep web: the sale of weapons or drugs, prostitution, child pornography, the sale of violent or macabre videos depicting episodes of bullying, rape, suicide.
Regarding the automatic replication of thoughts, studies of memetics are important, which show how the brain is influenced by certain mechanisms. The birth of memetics is due to the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins who in the book The selfish gene used for the first time the term ‘meme’, a unit of cultural transmission or a unit of imitation (similar to the gene), learned and kept in the individual memory, which is transferred from individual to individual through replication.
Memes are ways of doing something or building something (not instincts), they are transmitted perceptually (not genetically) and have their own reproductive fitness, just like viruses. Mutual memes have now become the toolbox, the vocabulary of each person, and this is because ‘language evolved to adapt to the brain before the brain evolved to better adapt to language’ (Dennett, 2018). Recent studies confirm that the structure of language is not determined by the communicative function, but is the result of a biological project that has endowed humans with a system of recombination of symbols (Chomsky et al., 2019).
The explosion of the use of digital media and the advent of social media have led to the proliferation of scientific research based on the analysis of the impact of certain media contents. This is the case of internet memes (text files, links, images, songs or videos distributed online), whose lineages and modifications are studied. In this regard, it has been highlighted that memes change and evolve leaving a trace of data that can be studied with unprecedented methodological rigor (as in the case of one of the first researches on the dissemination of information via facebook or of the numerous studies on type of emotional reaction aroused by a content on twitter). Today analysts and scientists would be able to track the spread of ideas and behaviors in real time with appropriate algorithms (Liva, 2019).
There are those who warn about the complexity of networks and the viral spread of ideas and behaviors, asking questions about how ideas and social behaviors emerge, settle, disappear or spread. It was Susan Balckmore who coined the term technomemi a few years ago which, unlike memes, reproduce without needing to be housed in human brains; they can reproduce and evolve by jumping from one machine to another through independent technological networks. It is even assumed that we would have built, albeit unintentionally, an intertwined global network that has the characteristics of a ‘complex system’ from which unpredictable properties could emerge in the future. This scientific approach poses a disturbing question: ‘if ever a mind or an autonomous thought or a consciousness of a higher order than ours were born from this physical and computer structure that we have built, would we realize it?’ (Elected, online).
As for the new languages of the web and the dangers that threaten adolescents, the influence of the digital world is such that it can go beyond any boundary, leaving little room for maneuver to protect the individual. This means that, along this tortuous path, younger people inevitably run the risk of elaborating false images of themselves, failing to find the balance between personal identity, social identity and virtual identity. Indeed, the identity and structure of the self, especially in the adolescent phase, risk being completely deformed or altered by the psychological mechanisms of the network (in particular social networks).
One of the characteristics of adolescent development is to transform fragmented identities into an ‘integrated’ self. Considering that this process makes use of continuous experiments on the internet and self presentation strategies aimed at compensation and social facilitation (overcoming shyness, facilitating relationships), the result can be of two types. 1) The online exploration of new identities offers further opportunities, in addition to the family and school, to discover oneself and accept oneself, favoring the development of the unity of the self-concept. 2) Identity experiments on the net prove harmful as overexposure to different relationships and ideas increases doubts about the true self (Minelli, 2018).
How then to protect adolescents (and not only) from the perverse mechanism that makes them prisoners and slaves of the barrage of mental contents coming from the digital world?
Well, it is not so much or only to the objects of thoughts that we need to pay attention, but above all to their ‘representations’, not underestimating the fact that one of the most frequent activities is talking to oneself and that through memory and imagination thoughts they continue to survive even when the objects that produced them are no longer there.
On a similar and superimposable level, some useful suggestions derive from proxemics, the discipline that analyzes the management of the body and of distances during communication. A recent study has highlighted that in internet 2.0 communication, despite the mutual distance and physical isolation, we are in reality all crushed and trapped in the same ‘reduced space’ (however multidimensional and defined by one’s particular point of view). access) and inexorably exposed to the gaze and action of others. The dangers, therefore, do not decrease at all but, paradoxically, increase (Fadda, 2018).
At this point, we can understand how much the ‘habits of thought’ are binding and how they manage to condition the emotional state, modifying the perception of reality. It is no coincidence that the new ills of adolescents are often evoked (Muglia 2019). From this point of view it will be essential in the future to analyze the relationship between mind, language and behavior, deepening the link between the digital world and the plasticity of the brain in adolescence. For the purposes of a complete and more effective knowledge of the phenomenon, there is no doubt that the synergistic interaction between linguistics, humanities and cognitive neuroscience will be of fundamental importance.