Dr. Douglas MacLeod
State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology
Cobleskill, New York, U.S.A
Kardaras, Nicholas. (2022). Digital Madness: How Social Media is Driving Our Mental Health Crisis-and How to Restore Our Sanity. St. Martin’s Press. 273 pages, $23.99
The beginning of Nicholas Kardaras’s Digital Madness: How Social Media is Driving Our Mental Health Crisis-and How to Restore Our Sanity has Kardaras’s father dying of cancer and Kardaras waxing poetic about a bygone era that was once filled with hard work, a “purposeful pace,” and “genuine relationships” (p. 3). Mental health was hardly a topic of conversation when Kardaras’s father was a boy. Yes, there was Nazism, poverty, a lack of resources, among other issues; and yet, it was a simpler time when human beings were not psychologically marred by the newest technologies and the social media platforms that have become a scourge, even more dangerous than COVID-19. We “aren’t meant to be sedentary, screen-staring, atomized, and meaning-devoid being” (p. 4); but, according to Kardaras, that is what we are unfortunately becoming: addicted not only to all that is digital but also to stasis and disinformation. Not more than a decade ago, one would call Digital Madness a cautionary tale. Now, however, everything digital is our everyday and it is making all of us increasingly ill physically, mentally, and emotionally (p. 10); and, the cure is only “an ancient blueprint for healthy living” (p. 11), one of which is, at this point, difficult but necessary to get back to.
Before Kardaras speaks about the solution, he must adequately define the problem, and he does so with subjective passion and objective research that speaks to the addictive properties associated with the digital. He claims that we have a perceived need for devices that we truly do not need but are told we need by a manipulative marketing machine solely geared toward ensuring you buy, buy, buy. Kardaras calls this The New Technocracy, a “powerful beast” (p. 24) that has us in its jaws and is not willing to let go. Like all addictions, technologies have control over our dopamine levels and we are trapped, craving more and more information as it eats away our ability to differentiate between what is rational and what is chaos (29), to the point where the line between the two becomes blurred. Our brains are incapable of handling all that is being fed to them, and those that own the algorithm are capitalizing on this and depending on our submission to ensure their pockets are perpetually filled. These corporations do not care that people are becoming more depressed, obese, suicidal, anxious, uneducated, ignorant, and distracted. As with any drug dealer, as long as they continue to make money off of our highs, they will keep selling their opiates to the masses, no matter if we become insane or die from despair (p. 47) and/or disconnection (p. 53).
What makes Kardaras’s work so powerful is his use of interdisciplinary work as a tool to help readers gain a better understanding of how deep this social media sickness goes. An example of this is featured in his chapter “The Social Contagion Effect,” where he writes about how social scientists came up with the concept which speaks to “behaviors, emotions, or disorders spread by social networks or groups of people” (p. 59). Kardaras spends time speaking about social media influencers as the ones who primarily perpetuate these digitized disorders onto unsuspecting followers. Many of these fake celebrities are products of a generation gone by when Michael Jordan and other endorsers peddled just about everything from breakfast cereals to sneakers to underwear. What has changed, however, is that these new influencers do not even have to sell anything; nothing of value comes from what they do, and yet they still make millions and, in some cases, billions of dollars just by the number of “likes” they generate. What ends up happening to many their followers can be a series of dangerous and sometimes lethal issues: lower self-esteem; self-harm and/or suicidal ideation; less respect for self and others; Tik Tok Tourette’s Syndrome; and these are just a few. And, do the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world care about this-according to Kardaras, absolutely not.
It is not only self-harm that takes place. More violence pervades our respective cultures: this is called the “extremification” of digital media (p. 90). Kardaras speaks to the incel movement which has the formation of support groups in chat rooms that become “breeding grounds for the angry” (p. 92). Connected with this is the “school shooting contagion,” which takes “lost and empty young men” and gives them “a blueprint by which to express their rage” (p. 96). This emptiness they feel has been created by the digital age and those that allow the violence to continue day by day. These lost souls need to be understood, treated fairly, and provided with guidance; they also need a sense of empowerment, otherwise they lose control to the point of trying to create a dystopia filled with mayhem and murder. They are overwhelmed with both too much and not enough genuine information to handle their emotions in a healthy way (p. 117). This is called “the binary trap,” which creates a form of borderline personality disorder many human beings cannot escape. Here is where psychology and psychoanalysis come into play. Along with the disorder comes: self-damaging behavior; intense but unstable relationships; uncontrollable temper outbursts; all-around uncertainty; self-defeating behavior; and, chronic feelings of emptiness and boredom (p. 127). Thus, one’s identity is in constant flux, which obviously can be disheartening, confusing, and ultimately detrimental to the victim, the people in the victim’s direct line of sight, and those living, working and breathing in that victim’s space.
All of this has been created by The New Technocracy and the titans of industry that have built up this unsafe age – white men who seem innocuous and non-threatening, and yet will continue to make mad-money from your misery (p. 147). This is masked by the concept of the American Dream, which has become more akin to an American nightmare where we are always being watched and all that we do is constantly monitored to ensure the money, whether it be typical forms of currency or digital forms of currency (which has upended the stock market on multiple occasions), continues to flow in. We are now algorithmic zombies beholden to Big Tech; and we seem to have no issue with getting bitten by those God-like figures who have more hubris than they know what to do with. Yet, even if we did care, even if we were not indifferent, Big Tech and the government would continue to circumvent the system to ensure chaos and tech colonialism (p. 172) still reign supreme.
Kardaras finishes his work with what he calls an “ancient cure”. It is here that he speaks about his own journey through addiction, which kicked his behind and left him feeling like a nobody (p. 199). He got swept away and had a “lack of resiliency” (p. 200) that brought him to intensive care units and left him for dead. In his case, this was due to drugging and drinking; and he spent a lot of time in recovery, trying to figure out how to regain some sense of control. And he did that by helping others that were experiencing the same struggles as him. Much of his healing is holistic and has philosophical qualities connected to it: “The basic conclusion is that we, as humans, have developed our own reservoir of strength and resilience in the normal course of development” (p. 215). In other words, much of what we need changed comes from within, and we are much stronger than we give ourselves credit for. Stay away from therapy; go on your own and you will be okay.
Still, this is where Kardaras hits a wall. As much as true grit (p. 229) can be helpful, if we are to look at addiction as a disease, can we really just fix the problem with natural self-care? To use myself as an example, the way I have been able to cope with an over active brain and Spectrum Disorder is to attend therapy sessions and take medication. In essence, what Kardaras does, on some level, is to say we are all the same and can fight such issues without resorting to outside influence. If we are able to find meaning and hope, we can fill ourselves with joy, which will give us a sense of purpose and meaning. I am certainly glad this worked for Kardaras, but I need more convincing that this methodology is monolithically healthful. Digital Madness ends with useful wellness tips inspired by Plato and Pythagoras, all of which pry us away from digital stimuli and bring us to an appreciation of the natural world around us. I thank Kardaras for really doing his best to help us live our best life; however, in the long run, I feel skeptical as to whether audiences will heed his warnings and listen to his idealism.
Published online February 2023