Saturday, December 21, 2019


Jonathan Haidt, in The Coddling of the American Mind, identifies very specifically the increase in snowflake activity to the high school graduating classes of 2013 and 2014.  There was some beforehand, but it leapt up in that group and has remained high since.  They have higher rates of anxiety disorders, depression, and suicide, but not other mental illnesses.  Conservatives tend to notice the increase in annoying, unreasonable college students who are offended by everything, encouraged by school administrators (who are obviously not from that age cohort, but are heavily drawn from the hothouse flowers of the previous two generations, not accidentally).

Haidt would say that it is largely not their fault.  That was the first cohort that had ubiquitous social media before their personalities were formed, and they were raised in a different fishbowl.  Conservatives tend to be dismissive ans say they should just toughen up, get a job, stop whining, whatever.  Many of them are not actually able to do that.  They believe that social media bullying can destroy them, can give them status, and can largely dictate their social outcomes.  For many of them, that is true. That is the only world they know.  You and I can shrug it off - some of us could shrug off even a sudden explosion of national hatred against us on the basis of a misunderstood incident, though that is a lot to ask even of the fully-formed.

Let me insert an anecdote here.  Son #5 was in the class of 2014.  He came to us in the second half of 6th grade. As with sons 3 & 4 who arrived later in childhood, we went into full-court press for the first two years of parenting, so I went to many of his activities.  I chaperoned a field trip, and noticed that a majority of girls, but few boys, had their own phones. They would take selfies of themselves in the front of the bus and send them to their friends in the back of the bus, then run back to see the pictures arrive on the friend's phone, giggling and laughing together.  Rinse,  Repeat. I thought it was ridiculous, and enjoyed telling the story of it, tolerantly chuckling at how silly middle-schoolers were, especially girls when they were moving into this social-networking mode (as they have for thousands of years at this appropriate developmental time), and noting a different ridiculousness of the boys grinning stupidly, unable to crack the code of what was going on but wishing they were in on it somehow. I saw it as merely the modern technological version of the various age-cohort bonding and mating dances that had been going on for generations.  I thought it was unhealthy, but not horribly worse than what had gone before.

It has turned out to be horribly worse than what has gone before.  Most children are not so devastatingly affected by what has happened (reasons below), but a much larger percentage than in previous generations have simply gone under. As with unwed parenting driving terrible consequences, first in black and later in white young people, or successively more dangerous drugs picking off a slightly larger percentage of the otherwise functional each decade, the difference at the margin matters.

There are protective factors, often related to quantity of time spent interacting with actual people, and especially with people not in their narrow age group.  Family, sports, scouts, neighborhoods, choir, dance, church, hobbies, and most of all, time spent away from their devices, whether they use it to play alone, play with others, do something physical.  For those who have it worst, Haidt advocates exposing them to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which can teach them that hearing uncomfortable, challenging, or even painful things is not catastrophic.  CBT is a good thing, and that is the type of help it gives.  It is closer to a coaching than an analytic model of therapy.

If there is a consistent fault that conservatives and libertarians show, it is the idea that "those blind people could see if they really wanted to."  There are certainly shirkers, malingerers, and quitters in the world who need a firm hand.  But there are plenty of others who need encouragement, instruction, and patience. That we don't bother to give it to them may be our laziness and irresponsibility, not theirs. Hesitate before condemning, and seek out those who might be rescued.


james said...

I have a horrible feeling that telling college students that they need CBT will not end merrily.

Maybe if we can stimulate an educational fashion (based on real research for a change) for disconnection from electronics and group community services that are physical and not "activist" ... We'd need to collect some research, come up with some jazzy name for the programs, and locate some ambitious folks who'd benefit from the industry created by a new fashion.

Jonathan said...

Great post, thanks.

"Hesitate before condemning" is good advice in general.

Today's click-driven media business model may be a main cause of the problem.