Life changes, technology advances and only curmudgeonly old farts should object, right? We always have the eternal verities to fall back on, religious belief still provides succour, we’ve never been healthier or more prosperous here in the developed world, etc etc
There are a lot of unhappy people out there. This post is not to condemn all social media, far from it, but a little history is very telling. Over to Jonathan Haidt, quoted extensively in the admirable Spiked:
‘I don’t know if most college students, even at those elite schools, are more fragile. What we do know is that rates of depression and anxiety [have been] sky-rocketing since around 2011.’
Haidt says these issues are not related to the millennial generation, but to those born after 1995, who grew up with social media as the norm. He calls them the i-gen (the internet generation). This tendency towards vulnerability has a number of causes, he says, but there are three main ones: social media, rising national polarisation, and the decline in unsupervised (adult-free) time during childhood.
‘The widespread introduction of social media on a potentially hourly basis occurs after around 2009 or 2010. The iPhone is introduced in 2007, Facebook opens itself to teenagers in 2006. So it takes a couple of years before most teenagers are on social media, but by 2008, 2009, a lot are… The problem seems mostly to involve social-media sites, where a teenager puts out something and then waits to sees what dozens or hundreds of people say about it. That seems to be the most damaging thing – it leads to more anxiety and insecurity.’
On polarisation, Haidt says that cross-partisan hatred has been increasing in the US since the early 1980s, ‘but it’s much more intense now… There is a much fiercer battle going on, and there is more motive to charge the other side with crimes and to claim victimhood for your side. I think this is part of the “speech is violence” movement. It is part of a rhetorical move to convict the other side of more serious crimes.’
The third major cause has been the ‘general decline in unsupervised time and the rise of adult protection’, says Haidt. In the US in the 1980s, there were two high-profile abductions and murders of two young boys, and parents panicked, he says. ‘Now there never was much of a risk of abduction from strangers… But America freaked out and overreacted and stopped letting kids out of their sight.’ By the 1990s there were pictures of missing children everywhere – ‘as if it was an epidemic, but it never was an epidemic’, he adds. At the same time, there was more of an emphasis on anti-bullying, as well as a decline in unsupervised play. ‘Studies of how kids spend their time show that up until the early 1980s kids spent a lot of time outside playing without adult supervision, but by the early 2000s that has almost disappeared, especially for younger kids’, he says.
Ironically, this over-protection of children may have done more harm than good. ‘The key psychological idea in understanding the rise in fragility is the idea of anti-fragility’, says Haidt. ‘It’s a word coined by Nassim Taleb and it describes systems that are the opposite of fragile. If something is fragile then you need to protect it, because if it breaks then it’s broken and it won’t get better. But there are some things that if you protect them, they won’t get better; the immune system is the classic example. If you protect your kids from germs and bacteria then the immune system can’t develop and your kids will be immunologically fragile… So protection can sometimes be harmful if there is an anti-fragile system at work.’ He continues:
‘Kids need conflict, insult, exclusion – they need to experience these things thousands of times when they’re young in order to develop into psychologically mature adults. Every adult has to learn to handle these things and not get upset, especially by minor instances. But in the name of protecting our children we have deprived them of the unsupervised time they need to learn how to navigate conflict among themselves. That is one of the main reasons why kids and even college students today find words, ideas and social situations more intolerable than those same words, ideas and situations would have been for previous generations of students.’
Haidt is obviously making several points here, but they are related. The key period of 2007-2010 that he highlights is exactly right. People in their twenties and younger do not really know the previous world and its social structures and norms. The social challenges though have multiplied.
On balance I would say this is a bad thing, and the mental health issues that he identifies are very common indeed.
The irony is that the all powerful Zuckerberg with his $70billion+, and various ludicrous attempts to be normal pending his presidential run, seems to be a long way from being a “psychologically mature adult”.