What’s wrong with the kids today, revisited?

The data couldn’t be more stark.  Over the past ten years, teenagers are more depressed, more prone to thoughts of suicide, and more likely to attempt ending their own life.  Some think smart phones and social media are to blame, but I believe the problem goes much deeper and starts much earlier with the culture itself.

Two weeks ago, I suggested that the startling increase in teenage depression, thoughts of suicide, and self harm was primarily caused by a culture that has turned sharply pessimistic since I was a child in the 1980’s.  This claim was met by some pushback from my own friends and family, some of whom are teachers and have more experience working with young people than I ever will.  Most who disagreed with me insisted the combination of smartphones and social media are the root cause of teenage woes, believing – and to be sure, I am summarizing here – the youth of America are the victims of platforms designed to be addictive, rampant jealousy and keeping up with the Joneses that causes less popular people to question their own lives, combined with out of control bullying, 24-7.  Their position seems to be that if we could collectively agree to turn the phone off or not allow the usage of these platforms until adulthood, the startling numbers presented by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention would return to something resembling normal.  Personally, I do not doubt that social media is a factor, clearly there are challenges in how it can be used or misused by an immature mind, and it exacerbates any latent problems.  I have no issue with recent proposals to increase the age of social media usage to 16 or above.  At the same time, social media is a distribution channel.  It facilitates the spread of a kind of mental contagion, but it is not that contagion itself.  A virus travels through hosts, and in doing so it makes each individual host sick, meaning there is no infection in an individual without the virus spreading.  Putting this another away, if these young minds were filled with sunshine and unicorns, we wouldn’t have this problem.  The problem, in my opinion, must lie with the children first and the smartphones second, and, here, I will attempt to explain why in more detail.

To be sure, I did not think my argument would be aided, however inadvertently, by woke Washington Post technology columnist Taylor Lorenz, she who rails against privilege, complains about everything, has no qualms doxing ordinary people, and then acts like she is the victim.  She did, however, summarize the situation about as well as I ever could on February 19 in two tweets.  “People are like ‘why are kids so depressed it must be their PHONES!’ But never mention that we’re living in a late stage capitalist hellscape during an ongoing deadly pandemic w record wealth inequality, 0 social safety net/job security, as climate change cooks the world.”  She continued, “Not to be a doomer but you have to be delusional to look at life in our country rn and have any amt of hope or optimism.”  Ms. Lorenz has never been one to display much self-awareness or understanding of irony, but here she gets it, even if she fails to appreciate that she is a part of the problem.  By that I mean she is a privileged person.  She has a cushy job at one of the most prestigious news organizations on the planet, following a stint at the equally prestigious New York Times.  Her upbringing was in the upscale beach town of Old Greenwich, Connecticut.  She attended two top flight colleges, the University of Colorado Boulder and Hobart and William Smith.  She is a visiting fellow at Harvard University and was named to Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list in 2020 as an influencer in media and entertainment.  She was also honored by Adweek as a young influential shaping media, marketing, and tech.  In short, she is more successful than me in many ways, has absolutely nothing meaningful to complain about in life, should be happier than the proverbial pig in shit by almost every measure, and yet she cannot find a cause for any amount of “hope or optimism.”  None, whatsoever, life to her is sheer misery and it will only get worse, as she believes it will for everyone else.

Further, she believes these things because she has been told them, not because she arrived at these conclusions independently.  This is what she has absorbed after years of education in the United States and working in the modern media environment.  I’m a few years older than her, but the difference might as well be a century.  I’m also willing to bet that I had a more difficult childhood and early adulthood than Ms. Lorenz.  When I was 11 years old, my family went from being the prep school kids of a lawyer on Staten Island to living on food stamps in South Jersey after my parents split up.  My mother sold clothes at Macy’s and waited on tables to make ends meet, far removed from everything we’d known beforehand.  It took years to build ourselves back up, and even by the time I started college in 1994, funds weren’t exactly flush.  There were many times where I had a single dollar in my pocket for the PATH and a crumpled up train ticket to get home.  If I’d lost either, I’d have been begging in New York City.  I do not mention these things to complain; poverty is certainly a great equalizer and living through it makes one value the good things in life all the more.  I mention it because not once during this period did me or anyone in my family believe this was a permanent condition, and there was no reason for optimism and hope.  Not a single, solitary time, not for one moment, did we give up or fall into despair, claiming things were just too hard because of the late stage capitalist hellscape we lived in and the world was on fire anyway.  We made the best of it that we could and assumed that prosperity was inevitable given enough hard work, dedication, discipline, and of course a little luck.  We knew this because we were fortunate enough to be born in the greatest country in the history of the known universe, and opportunity was inevitably around the corner.  This, in fact, was precisely what we were taught in school, where America was once upon a time considered a great country, an example for the world to follow, the shining city on a hill imagined by our ancestors.

There is no comparison to the Critical Race Theory inspired intersectionality and multiculturalism taught to students as young as five  years old today.  The Manhattan Institute recently conducted a study of 1,505 18-20 year olds who were either about to graduate high school or recently done so.  They were asked, quite simply, if six controversial topics, four of which directly connect to Critical Race Theory, were taught in their school or if they had heard about them from an adult at school.  62% reported that they’d learned or been told by a teacher that “America is a systemically racist country,” 69% that “white people have white privilege,” 57% that “white people have unconscious biases that negatively affect non-white people,” and 67% that “America is built on stolen land.”  The students were also asked if they were taught contrasting arguments against these ideas.  68% said that they were exposed to either no counter argument at all, or that any counter arguments were not respectable.  Even more worrying, teaching that America is fundamentally racist enjoys the broad support of Democrats.  According to a 2021 YouGov survey, large majorities believe young minds should be taught that racism is systemic in America (85% support), disparities between blacks and whites are caused by discrimination (72%), white people are privileged based on their race (85%), and they have a responsibility to address racial inequality (87%).  A student thirty years ago would have been exposed to precisely none of these topics outside of specific college classes, and yet all of them admit no cause for optimism or hope.  This is distinct from teaching the history of slavery or the Civil Rights Movement, where it was seen as a triumph for America itself that the forces of justice ultimately prevailed.  Back then, we were taught about the nature of the sin from slavery to segregation, but also how millions of people rallied, sometimes giving their lives to overcome it and that the solution was in our Founding Documents themselves.  In other words, the story was one of optimism and hope, triumph in the face of adversity.  This bears no resemblance to claiming America remains a patriarchal society and might always be so.

Likewise, these same students are no longer taught that America’s form of representative republican government restrained by the Constitution and corresponding free market economy are optimal systems, among the best in the world.  Common Core State Standards began taking over education in the United States starting in 2008 and then became supercharged under President Barack Obama, requiring a massive rewrite of all textbooks, effectively nationalizing what was once a state and local enterprise in a few short years.  Vincent F. Shapanus, a retired Navy commander and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Military, Scientific, and Industrial Research summed up the new curriculum.  “The new US History textbooks eliminated events, misrepresented facts, inserted new individuals who were unimportant, defamed the Founding Fathers, criticized the US Constitution, falsely reported the massive genocide of Native Americans, covered up the fact that the US fought wars to free millions of enslaved people, and invented an inaccurate and wholly negative impression of the Republic, as being cruel, racist, oppressive, violent, and discriminatory.  US History textbooks now enumerate the contributions of Sikhs, LGBTs, Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Mexicans, black Americans, Hindus, and many other groups—it’s a modern Socialist handbook.”  These trends have only accelerated over the past decade with the introduction of The 1619 Project in classrooms, which re-dates America’s founding to the arrival of the first slave on North American shores rather than the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Students are now being taught that America was founded on and remains mired in racism, rather than freedom, however imperfect and incomplete.  The view that America is the story of freedom being fully realized by more and more people has been replaced by the idea that the entire purpose of this experiment in democracy was to take it away.

In addition to a radically altered view of the United States, these students are simultaneously exposed to the idea that the planet is on fire, and humans are rapidly causing their own extinction.  A study by the National Center for Science Education in 2016 found that 75% of students are taught about climate change and recent global warming trends, but only about a quarter are exposed to opinions that question the establishment consensus.  This includes 34% of teachers who do not believe human activity is the primary cause, and 30% who emphasize that most scientists believe it is the primary cause, but there are outliers who disagree.  Even this small amount of dissent is too much according to the establishment, however. Carol O’Donnell, executive director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center and a member of the Interacademy Partnership Global Council on Science Education, recommends better training and more “complete” guidelines to effectively teach climate change.  “It is crucial to educate youth on climate change, one because it’s absolutely important that they understand the data, for example what comes out of the IPCC; and that they understand the implications of climate change in a local context; and that they understand what students can do in their own individual actions and behaviors to mitigate climate change,” she said.  “But there’s this void. And that is teachers’ understanding of climate change and instructional materials to support the teaching of climate change.”  This can only be taken to mean endless doom and gloom, the specter of a supposedly existential crisis that will end life on Earth.

For example, the climate curriculum for high school students in Massachusetts begins with “The Fragile Framework: Can Nations Unite to Save Earth’s Climate?”  This “lesson” instructs students to “create a timeline of global climate action” and list the years, locations, meeting milestones, and global disasters.  The next lesson asks them to consider their consumption of natural resources compared to developing countries, and then to consider, “In your opinion, if all developing countries consumed natural resources at the same rate as the United States, what would this mean for the planet?  Would this scenario be sustainable?  Why or why not?  Please be specific.”  Some would even go further and almost surely do, the center-left Brookings Institute has proposed a new “green learning agenda” that will unleash “the creativity of teachers and students to develop and implement climate action projects in their homes, schools, and communities” with the express goal of turning them into activists.  “When education helps students develop a strong personal connection to climate solutions, as well as a sense of personal agency and empowerment, it can have consequential impact on students’ daily behaviors and decision making that reduces their overall lifetime carbon footprint. Imagine if 100 percent of students in the world received such an education. New evidence also shows that the combination of women’s empowerment and education that includes everyone—especially the 132 million out-of-school girls across the developing world—could result in an 85 gigaton reduction of carbon dioxide by 2050.”  Students in the 1980’s by contrast were not exposed to anything of the sort.  To the extent there were climate fears such as acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer, they were generally seen as challenges that would be solved, not the impending end of the world.  We certainly were never asked to imagine what global disaster might be coming, or whether the car our parents drove was killing the planet, and yet this is precisely what children are taught today since grade school.

Education, of course, is only a part of the broader culture young people absorb during their formative years.  As someone pointed out in response to my first post, students don’t tell their guidance counselor they are depressed because of this or that political issue.  The malaise is more generalized, but there is a little doubt it is everywhere, at least in my opinion.  Music is a case in point.  MTV’s late 1980’s heyday coincided with the peak of the glam rock era, and little is more illustrative of the radical difference in mentality, where the never ending quest for fun and adventure were idealized above almost all other things.  As silly as it sounds, it’s impossible to imagine songs like Poison’s “Nothing But a Good Time” or Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart,” from 1988 and 1989 respectively, dominating the charts today, but back then they helped define a genre and an attitude that was skeptical of authority and convinced the good life was a single decision away.  This was an attitude that lead directly to a unique combination of skepticism of authority, thrill-seeking, and the knowledge that circumstances change based on your own behavior. The video for “Nothing But a Good Time” begins with a young man washing dishes in a dead end job, listening to Kiss’ “Rock and Roll All Nite” on a transistor radio.  His boss storms into the kitchen, shuts off the radio, and delivers a lecture.  The young man is being paid “to wash dishes, not to listen to that… that rock ‘n’ roll,” and he’s “moving in two speeds: slow, and stop.”  The boss leaves, but the young man does not return to his job.  He kicks upon a door and Poison is on stage performing the song.  Somehow, when the song ends, the dishes are clean.  Similarly, “Kickstart My Heart” summarized the zeitgeist in a single stanza.  “When we started this band All we needed, needed was a laugh.  Years gone by, I’d say we’ve kicked some ass.  When I’m enraged or hittin’ the stage, Adrenaline rushing through my veins, And I’d say we’re still kickin’ ass.  I say, ooh ah, kick start my heart, I hope it never stops, And to think, we did all of this to rock.”  Anyone in any genre expressing these sentiments today would be laughed off the stage, if not accused of being problematic on multiple levels, but this was what an entire generation devoured and absorbed, believing that the life they wanted to lead, whatever it may be, was out there, just waiting to be had, all one had to do was seize it.

Students today are indoctrinated with the opposite and this indoctrination begins long before they start using social media and smartphones.  The result is a decided negativity bordering on despair and concurrent lack of risk taking.  We see this in the same CDC study where students reported huge drops in sexual activity (less than half report having sex), alcohol consumption (similar drop), and marijuana usage (decline of about a third), meaning they are simultaneously pessimistic and risk averse. Any root cause has to account for both of these trends happening at the same time. Traditional depression, however, frequently leads to excessive alcohol abuse. About a third of people with major depression also have an alcohol problem. There are estimates that teens who have experienced major depression are twice as likely to start drinking as those who haven’t. Therefore, how is it possible that depression in girls has doubled while alcohol consumption has halved if we are looking at a standard phenomenon, the same as what we have seen before? The only model for this sort of change is what has been found to be frequently linked together throughout the animal kingdom.  Animals under stress tend to either pull into themselves or lash out, rather than grow, explore, and take chances.  In the journal of Early Human Development, Pat Monaghan, University of Glasgow, and Mark F. Hausmann, Bucknell University, studied the positive and negative consequences of stressors during early life.  As they concluded, “The animal enters a so-called ‘emergency state’, in which activities such as growth, body maintenance, and reproduction are suspended, and energy is directed towards counteracting and surviving the imminent danger. This prioritisation is obviously adaptive, but if growth and body maintenance are suspended for long periods, this can be damaging over the long term, potentially increasing disease risk and the pace of degeneration in later life.”  I submit to you that this is precisely what is occurring among America’s youth; raised on a steady diet of stress about their country, their role in their country, the economy, the planet, and the idea that everything is getting worse, all of the time, has unleashed a torrent of negative emotions and rather than growing and thriving, and yes experimenting with risky behavior, they are becoming depressed, introverted, shells of themselves.

Blaming smartphones and social media makes for a relatively easy target, but fails to capture the reality of what is occurring.  Turning them off is a good idea, but will only do so much.  Resetting the culture to embracing the land of the free and the home of the brave mythos that prevailed throughout most of the country’s history will do far more.  Even Taylor Lorentz agrees.  No one can prosper long without hope, that most necessary if fragile of all human emotions.


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