Back Home > Cover Story > Our Digital Selves > The ‘Digitalised Self’
November 2022   |   Volume 24 No. 1

Cover Story

The ‘Digitalised Self’

The effects of digitalisation on the human mind and sense of self are only starting to be explored. Dr Chan Kai-tai is among those pondering the potential impact.

In 2016, Clinical Associate Professor of the Department of Psychiatry, Dr Chan Kai-tai, took a short break from his previous work as a psychiatrist at Castle Peak Hospital to study history and culture as an Academic Visitor at the University of Cambridge. He was used to switching gears – he is also a professional songwriter – but this time he was motivated by an important professional purpose: he wanted to deepen his understanding of the impact of technology on the human mind and human culture.

“Digitalisation is a two-edged blade. Of course, it can improve our lives – we are now omnipotent with a smartphone compared to 30 years ago. But on the other hand, humans have not tended to have much foresight about the potential long-term adverse effects of technology,” he said.

The Industrial Revolution and urbanisation, for instance, gave rise to many conveniences and reduced the uncertainty caused when survival depended on farming. But at the same time, a sense of alienation emerged alongside a weakening affiliation to institutions such as the church and monarchy. Atomised ideas about the ‘self’ started to develop, most famously in Freud’s ‘ego’, ‘id’ and ‘superego’ constructions.

Dr Chan is concerned that digitalisation may also have as-yet-unknown impact on the human mind and self because of the blurring boundary between the physical and virtual worlds. People are developing different online identities and there are potential changes in our fundamental experiences. He recently published an academic paper proposing the idea of a ‘digitalised self’ to describe these developments.

Evidence of influence

“I’m not saying there must be a digitalised self, but the evidence is pointing towards the idea that there is some unique and profound influence of digitalisation on our mind and society, which might have further impact, including on mental health. This still needs more discussion and research and my purpose as an academic and a clinician is just to ask this question,” he said.

The evidence he refers to includes research by others showing, among other things, that there are differences in the brain areas responsible for language among pre-schoolers exposed to different digital media use and brain changes in adolescents who engage in more social media use. The potential implications need further exploration. “The timeframe is still very short because digitalisation has become prominent only very recently,” he said.

Other scholars have also observed emotional impact from digitalisation, such as moral outrage in the digital space; behavioural changes such as internet addiction; cognitive challenges in the human brain since it is not wired for multi-tasking; manipulation of the ways people communicate and socialise online; and the use of different identities online which raises questions about potential identity confusion and disconnection with the physical world.

Dr Chan himself is studying the impact of digitalisation and smartphone addiction on the human mind, including self-concepts. He is also curious about the different impact digitalisation may have across generations. “Those of us who have not grown up in the digital world are digital immigrants – our first experience of digitalisation has involved migrating some part of our original selves in the physical world, such as our original identity, to the virtual world.

“Younger generations born in a highly digitalised world are digital natives and might have additional formation of the self in the virtual world. But what happens when they go back into the physical world, and which self would they prefer?” he said.

Setting boundaries

Dr Chan also works on the development of youth mental health and he advises people to set boundaries and practise healthy use of digital devices, especially smartphones. But his team also makes use of the advantages of digitalisation to access youth.

An innovative online mental health advisory service, called ‘headwind’, established under the leadership of the Chair Professor in Psychiatry, Professor Eric Chen Yu-hai, invites young people in need to seek advice from a psychiatrist on the platform and promises a high degree of privacy, so they can be motivated to seek help. The service has attracted more than 2,000 users since its launch in late 2020.

“Mentally distressed young people might tend to seek help through digital platforms, where we can engage them and further help in both physical and online settings,” Dr Chan said.

Still, he advocates continued investigation of this new idea of a digitalised self. “I’m not sure whether the possible changes arising from digitalisation on the human mind and self will be eventually rejected or not. The important issue is that if something potentially fundamental to humankind may be changing, we should pay attention before it is too late. Because we cannot undo it at the press of a button,” he said.

The important issue is that if something potentially fundamental to humankind may be changing, we should pay attention before it is too late. Because we cannot undo it at the press of a button.