Recent suicides by France Telecom workers are being indirectly blamed on stress caused by an overwhelming volume of emails and tweets. The warning flag has been hoisted. Incessant connectivity in the modern age is driving people crazy. Addiction to the "crackberry," a newly coined term for the popular smartphone, is ruling people?s lives, pushing them over the brink.
Isolated teenagers who communicate only with their thumbs become alienated from society, by never having human contact. Dependent solely on their smartphones for companionship, such isolation can result in suicide. This alarm is raised by a man responsible for the welfare of their eternal souls, the Archbishop of Westminster, head of the Catholic church in England.
Business sector deaths at France Telecom, which operates under the brand Orange, coincide with the company becoming privatized. According to Chief Financial Officer Gervais Pellissier, jobs have changed or been lost, and staff are having to acquire new skills and adjust to new locations, which is unnerving for employees. One jumped from a window.
In a different country, and different setting, Archbishop Vincent Nichols said: "We’re losing social skills, the human interaction skills, how to read a person’s mood, to read their body language." He thinks that Facebook and MySpace encourages teenagers to place too much importance on the number of friends they have. The sites lead teenagers to build transient relationships leaving them unable to cope when their social networks collapse. He notes that bullying not only in the school yard, but over the internet has been the root cause of suicides in some children.
Are these causes theory or fact? Is your Blackberry adding to a propensity to end your own life? The site of a 501c3 nonprofit organization, appropriately named Suicide.org is dedicated to educating people about the causes of self-inflicted death. They tell us that mental illness, which includes depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder], is the cause for the vast majority of suicides. Untreated depression is the number one culprit. Is technology an underlying reason?
Many forms of mental illness are the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, which can be treated with medication. Over 90 percent of people who die by suicide suffer from some form of mental illness at the time of their death. Few have their hand on a smoking Blackberry.
There are several causes of depression, stress being one of them, alienation from others is another. But can we blame the depression resulting in suicide on embedded chip devices; can RIM or Facebook be held accountable for those deaths?
Suicide.org claims that the number of suicidal deaths in 2001 was 10.8 in a population of 100,000. France Telecom has approximately 102,000 employees, of which 22 killed themselves (and another 13 tried unsuccessfully). Those figures significantly exceed the quoted yearly average. Did these traumas manifest because employees couldn?t leave job-related stress at the office? Carrying work home on a laptop or being hailed incessantly by a Blackberry may leave anxious employees unable to relax.
But, remember "beepers?" Previous generations were tethered to their jobs too, and, as far as we know, did not kill themselves because of those intermittent interruptions in their lives.
Shane Richmond, technology writer and editor at Telegraph Media Group in the UK argues against Bishop Nichol?s contention, saying: "The internet makes it easier to stay in touch with people when you can’t be with them in person. It enriches communication, it doesn?t destroy it."
Whichever side of this debate you find yourself on, the issue of suicide is real. If you or someone you know is suicidal, immediate action is required. Help is at the end of an old fashioned telephone, on support lines around the world. In the US, 1-800-SUICIDE, [1-800-784-2433] or 1-800-273-TALK [1-800-273-8255] are manned 24 hours a day. For specific state or international listings go to the hotline list supplied by Suicide.org. The site provides links to information such as warning signs to look for, or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org to connect with someone who can provide personalized support and information.
At the end of the day, each individual is different and reacts differently – that’s what makes us "individuals" in the first place. We have to debate about the influence of technology on people’s lives, not just natural multi-taskers but also people who cannot handle continuous data stream. You just might want to tweet this information to your friends.