Mental Colonisation and Cultural Imperialism – Threat of Technology and Social Media (PART 1)

Potential dangers of technology and content from social media extend far beyond the impacts on the education system and the workforce.

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Published in Astro Awani, and Asia News Today, image by Astro Awani.

Influence from social media has been recognised as one of the contributors to the increasing school dropout rates and the staggering proportion of high school graduates not pursuing higher education. Although this gives a good glimpse into the dangers of technology and content from social media, the risks extend far beyond the impacts on the education system and the workforce.

In the backdrop of a divided society, various forms of discrimination, an ineffective if not failed education system, insufficient quality parenting time, higher cost of living, unemployment and so on, the combination of technology and content on social media has been a successful tool in mental colonisation and cultural imperialism.

According to US-based telecommunications giant Verizon, Generation Z (those born from 1997 to 2012, age 10 to 25 in 2022) or also known as “Zoomers” are currently the most connected generation with 95% of the group owning a mobile device and are immersed in the use of social media.

Generation Alpha or also known as “Alphas”—which is the generation following Zoomers and currently includes all children born in or after 2010—is likely to continue pushing the trend even further as they start to use gadgets such as smartphones earlier than Zoomers did.

Thus, it is crucial to study how early and prolonged exposure to gadgets and digital social media are shaping their growth and development. Measures must be put in place to mitigate its potentially detrimental social reengineering effects. 

The New “Parents” to Zoomers and Alphas

Ideally, the most important influencers in a person’s growth and development would be the family unit, starting with the parents, then influencing factors from the formal education system and the rest from non-formal sources.

However, this hierarchy of the developmental pyramid has been reversed in the current global ecosystem.

According to a 2018 research by Adobe on social media content consumption habits in the UK, Zoomers spend more than 10 hours engaging with online content daily. 

On average, we can safely assume that such an overwhelming screen time is followed by the duration spent at school, and lastly, moments home with the parents. 

Zoomers and Alphas are now being exposed most of their time to social media content from global and largely unregulated sources at a much younger age, well before they have developed solid foundations in knowledge, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual maturity.

Given the relatively tougher and more competitive economic situation, many Zoomer and Alpha parents lead busy lifestyles, which makes career-parenthood balance a real struggle.

The constant onslaught of potent social media content dominates the bulk of their time growing up, and with an ineffective or failed education system and insufficient quality time with parents, younger generations are missing the two most important counter-balancing forces.

This could explain why the American National Family Life Survey in December 2021 by American Survey Center found that more than 50% of Zoomers reported feeling lonely at least once or twice a month during their childhood, which is a stark contrast to Baby Boomers with only about a quarter of them reported feeling the same. This is alongside other reasons such as a large share of single parents among Zoomers. 

As a coping mechanism, they may turn to digital media even more to fill the void, feeding the vicious cycle further.

In terms of overall time spent with Zoomers and Alphas, gadgets and social media have taken over as the “parents”—dominating and shaping the thoughts of young minds.

The topic of increasing numbers of suboptimal family unit structures deserves its own attention and will not be discussed here, but suffice to note that it is closely linked to the destruction of the social fabric as it exacerbates other issues mentioned in this article. 

The Dearth of Talent and Ambition

In Malaysia, we have seen reports of well over 70,000 Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) 2021 candidates failing to receive the certificates. Failing compulsory subjects could be a contributor, alongside dropping out entirely. As for the SPM graduates, reports from a survey by the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) in 2019 found a staggering 72.1% of SPM leavers chose not to pursue higher education.

Unlike Baby Boomers and even Millennials, Zoomers and Alphas feel extraordinary social pressures early on through the bombardment of a skewed proportion of content portraying materialistically-hyper-successful people and lifestyles instead of the mundane daily life or failures which arguably are more representative of the majority. 

The heightened societal expectations lead to a decreased ability to be satisfied with one’s circumstances. 

More people with average to below average lifestyles or coming from average to below average household income groups—which would otherwise feel just fine, if not happy and grateful—now feels increasingly inadequate, unhappy, and unfulfilled relative to the skewed portrayals in social media. 

This leads to a higher (illusive and constantly changing) bar of personal satisfaction. Given the hardship of life and the pressure to succeed (as shown through the lens of social media) the priorities of people devolve into shallow values such as materialism. 

Compounding this issue among youths is the fact that they may view the vast political and economic corruption and discrimination in the socio-economic ecosystem to hold little promise for their future material success. 

There is simply not enough capacity in the local economy to match the increasing number of people coming out of the education system. 

As shown in Figure 1 (as published in EMIR Research article titled “Ruthless colonization Mat Kilau could not even imagine” by Dr Rais Hussin dated July 25, 2022), these economic performance indicators (decreasing economic growth, innovation, exports, FDIs etc.) are matched with what appears to be exponentially increasing youth unemployment, plummeting tertiary-educated labour force and accelerating brain drain.

via EMIR Research

As the years go by and the situation worsens, Zoomers (and Alphas in the future) become increasingly disillusioned and are no longer confident that pursuing higher education would allow them to secure competitively-paying jobs. 

The relatively tighter economic circumstances in households experienced by parents nowadays are exacerbated by the increasing materialistic needs and desires of their children, and the overall financial and materialistic push factors could be leading a significant proportion of high school graduates out of the education system and into the workforce immediately. 

Another push factor includes the mindset or perception that education is not necessary, driven by pull factors of some social media content creators and influencers portraying the achievements of fame and financial success.

Another alluring pull factor comes from the potential of relatively higher entry-level income from the gig economy, compared to entry-level jobs given to tertiary graduates. Anecdotal reports are pointing to monthly income north of RM4,000 which could be more than what many local companies offer to fresh graduates. 

The World Economic Forum estimated that Zoomers have nearly double the unemployment rate in almost every OECD country, compared to older age groups. Similarly, according to DOSM, the youth unemployment rate for those aged 15 to 24 years (comprising all Zoomers in Malaysia) was the highest compared to other age groups at 13.2% in January this year.

Reports indicate that Zoomers will make up roughly 30% of the workforce by 2030, and subsequently by Alphas. Thus, future industries are at risk of a shortage of talents and a better-qualified workforce, and a nation’s prospect for growth and ability to generate value diminishes. 

Perversion of Meaning and Values

Although informative, inspiring, and educational contents are widely available, consumption pattern tends to favour less useful or negative ones. A previous Bank Negara article mentioned that 81.2% of Malaysia’s internet users download media and play games (indicating a strong focus on media consumption for entertainment), leaving only a small fraction percentage engaging in productive activities.

The spectrum of content being fed to immature and susceptible minds of Zoomers and Alphas spans materialism, meaninglessness, negativity, extremism, pessimism, rejectionism, new age “wokeness” of political, economic, spiritual and social concepts, gender and sexual orientation issues and many more.

With early exposure to a broad spectrum of global content, Zoomers and Alphas are at risk of being the “confused generation”—mentally colonised through the exposure to a diversity of elements, ideas, cultures, values, practices, norms, philosophies and lifestyles before developing sufficient intellectual, emotional, and spiritual maturity. 

Therefore, they are less equipped to distinguish right and wrong, good and bad, truth and falsehood and fact from fiction.

There is significant social media content promoting a perverse meaning to life, mostly revolving around materialistic or sexual pursuits, or worse, selfish materialistic pursuits i.e., the chase of more goods for personal satisfaction instead of helping others or contributing meaningfully to society. 

As pointed out by Marsha L. Richins in a 1992 research paper titled Media Images, Materialism, and What Ought to Be: the Role of Social Comparison: “the strongest response to the negative feelings associated with a comparison discrepancy, and the one most frequently posited by theorists, is to increase efforts to reduce the discrepancy between oneself and the comparison standard”.

Consequently, the immediate and constant exposure to the yardstick of “success” set by social media results in intense peer comparison, of which one of the outcomes is the increasing efforts by people to bridge this gap.

The shallowness of meaning and value isn’t limited to the obscene accumulation of mundane material things. Other unreasonable expectations or standards include how “success” of physical looks and physical health should look like for men and women. 

The nature of peer competition for lifestyle or status symbols motivates more people to continuously show off (“share”) their portrayal of “success” (real or unreal) in whichever shallow dimensions they venture into, feeding the entire toxic and superficial virtual society even further. 

Relentless pursuit of perverted meanings and the “hustle” mentality for shallow gains devoid of bigger and deeper purposes lead to burnouts, sadness, anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses often not sufficiently shown in social media. 

As Theodore Roosevelt said, “comparison is the thief of joy”.

As discussed here, people’s behaviour can be reinforced by technology and social media. But because everyone is different, not everyone will react the same way.

Some may reject it and some become confused or indifferent while others become mere mindless consumers. In Part 2, we further elaborate on other ways the individual and society can be negatively shaped through this powerful colonisation tool. 

Ameen Kamal is the Head of Science & Technology at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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