The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Kids These Days

published December 2018

A looming crisis and how to avert it

Scientific American (cover)

This column was first published in the December 2018 issue of Scientific American.

Something is amiss among today’s youth. This observation isn’t the perennial “kids these days” plaint by your middle-aged correspondent. According to San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, as reported in her book iGen (Atria, 2017), to the question “Do you have [a] psychological disorder (depression, etc.)?” the percentage of college students born in 1995 and after (the Internet Generation, or iGen) answering affirmatively in a Higher Education Research Institute study rose between 2012 and 2016. For men, the figure increased from 2.7 to 6.1 percent (a 126 percent increase) and for women from 5.8 to 14.5 percent (a 150 percent rise). The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that between 2011 and 2016 the percentage of boys who experienced a depressive episode the prior year increased from 4.5 to 6.4 and in girls from 13 to 19.

iGeners began entering college in 2013. Between 2011 and 2016 there was a 30 percent increase in college students who said they intentionally injured themselves (for example, by cutting), and according to the Fatal Injury Reports of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates increased 46 percent between 2007 and 2015 among 15- to 19-year-olds. Why are iGeners different from Millennials, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers?

Twenge attributes the malaise primarily to the widespread use of social media and electronic devices, noting a positive correlation between the use of digital media and mental health problems. Revealingly, she also reports a negative correlation between lower rates of depression and higher rates of time spent on sports and exercise, in-person social interactions, doing homework, attending religious services, and consuming print media, such as books and magazines. Two hours a day on electronic devices seems to be the cutoff, after which mental health declines, particularly for girls who spend more time on social media, where FOMO (“fear of missing out”) and FOBLO (“fear of being left out”) take their toll. “Girls use social media more often, giving them more opportunities to feel left out and lonely when they see their friends or classmates getting together without them,” Twenge adduces after noting that the percentage of girls who reported feeling left out increased from 27 to 40 between 2010 and 2015, compared with a percentage increase from 21 to 27 for boys.

In search of a deeper cause of this problem—along with that of the campus focus of the past several years involving safe spaces, microaggressions and trigger warnings—Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue in their book The Coddling of the American Mind (Penguin, 2018) that iGeners have been inflenced by their overprotective “helicoptering” parents and by a broader culture that prioritizes emotional safety above all else. The authors identify three “great untruths”:

  1. The Untruth of Fragility: “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.”
  2. The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: “Always trust your feelings.”
  3. The Untruth of Us versus Them: “ Life is a battle between good people and evil people.”

Believing that conflicts will make you weaker, that emotions are a reliable guide for responding to environmental stressors instead of reason and that when things go wrong, it is the fault of evil people, not you, iGeners are now taking those insalubrious attitudes into the workplace and political sphere. “Social media has channeled partisan passions into the creation of a ‘callout culture’; anyone can be publicly shamed for saying something well-intentioned that someone else interprets uncharitably,” the authors explain. “New-media platforms and outlets allow citizens to retreat into self-confirmatory bubbles, where their worst fears about the evils of the other side can be confirmed and amplified by extremists and cyber trolls intent on sowing discord and division.”

Solutions? “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child” is the first folk aphorism Lukianoff and Haidt recommend parents and educators adopt. “Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded” is a second because as Buddah counseled, “once mastered, no one can help you as much.” Finally, echoing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” so be charitable to others.

Such prescriptions may sound simplistic, but their effects are measurable in everything from personal well-being to societal harmony. If this and future generations adopt these virtues, the kids are going to be alright.

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12 Comments to “Kids These Days”

  1. Paul Howard Says:

    Twenge’s research looks very focused on middle class young people. Should we be sceptical about drawing an overall conclusion about young people’s resilience?

    I have also seen and heard some rather nasty negative stigmatising opinions from local mental health professions blaming young people for their mental distress and their lack of resilience rather than applying a broader analysis.

    Paul Howard
    New Zealand

  2. Ghazi Says:

    What we need is a newly encouraging education for our dead good and better side, when profit and secret mockery dominate our own life and destiny.
    When all our life is send to better others impression and intellectual certainty, what can even eradicate untruths and teach actually working understanding wich also still true solution.

  3. Ghazi Says:

    Life and communicating beetween individuals had for a lot vanished, it need also just being rebuilt.

  4. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    As a college educator, I have noticed an increase in demand for ‘test prep.’ I am not sure if this is part of the generational trend. Frankly it is a small number of students 10-20 percent – comparable to the numbers in that study. It may be that jumping from 10 to 20% is just noise.

    Note: ‘test prep’ refers to study aids that help students narrow their studying so they don’t waste time on stuff that won’t be on the test. IOW: Helping get the best grade with the least learning.

    Note 2: This is perhaps the main reason why we cannot use a business model for education – because it’d be one of very few businesses where the customers are actively trying to get the least for their money. Or as a friend says: University students are like diners in a fine restaurant complaining after a delicious, nutritious dinner that their ‘happy meal’ didn’t have a toy in it.

  5. T Paine Says:

    Bad boy, thank you for sharing that very interesting observation

  6. Harry Says:

    As a high school teacher the number of students with lateral scars across there arms has increased over the past ten years or so. The odd thing is many of the “cutters” almost seem to wear them as a badge of honor. Although simply correlation, the use of cell phones has also jumped dramatically. As an aside it is almost terrifying in the classroom. If I let them, the vast majority of my students would happily spend the whole class staring at their phones, even though they are surrounded by their peers!

  7. Julie Hannah Says:

    As a healthcare worker, I have seen a lot of the depression and anxiety rise in young people, especially in the middle to upper class. Our society has moved too far away from the concept of personal accountability. All problems are someone else’s fault, not the natural consequences of poor choices. I know it sounds trite, but hardship builds character. It teaches a young person to find creative solutions, develop resiliency, and even find self-esteem and confidence as they see their efforts pay off. If everything is handed to you your whole life, and then upon getting a job and moving away from home you finally have to put in the effort to take care of yourself, it can be overwhelming. Kids who grow up feeling entitled are shocked when suddenly they are judged for what they can do and how well they do it. That’s why so many of them fail in the workplace and move back in with their parents; they fall apart in the face of hardship instead of enduring it.

  8. BillG Says:

    I think some of the authors above may do a disservice to some “kids these days.” We want our kids to tough but “charitable”, “…for the road, not the road for the child.”

    As adults many of us become distracted and callous to everyday realities, or the real “road”- the world is dangerous, deceictful and scary. Perhaps some kids aren’t as shallow as we have portrayed but are in tune with the realities of survival. I agree that social media can shoulder some of blame for the increased anxiety and the instant news (or information) from that computer that many of us carry in our pocket.

    Being sensitive and unapathetic does not make you a snowflake but perhaps smart and alive in a indifferent universe.

  9. Beth K Says:

    Do we have MORE kids/teens cutting themselves, or are we identifying those who cut better? Is there more awareness of it, or why – is there a reason why many don’t hide the scars as was done 40-50 years ago?

    There was a lot of cutting – as well as other forms of self-harm from anorexia to suicidal ideation and attempts going on – which went unnoticed back in the 1960s-1970s. When it was noticed, it was noticed for GIRLS. As an adult, I’ve encountered about as many men who cut themselves or attempted suicide back then too.

    There does seem to be some set of concepts among the “helicopter parents” of today that their children do NOT grow up – that they don’t have better wisdom and should be given some amount of freedom as they age – incrementally. Those who don’t do that are often seen as “neglectful” and even prosecuted for giving children permission to go outside and even get mildly hurt. A question I hear kids being asked is, “At what age were you let out?” I didn’t understand it at first, but it means at what age were they allowed outside AT ALL without adult supervision – to play, to visit a neighbor kid… and kids are answering with ages like 15 or 17. In my day, this not letting kids out was called GROUNDING. For very serious or irritating activities, our parents would threaten “If you (blank), you’ll be grounded until you’re in high school (or are 18).” Parents never carried out this threat, but it put fear into us. Now…. that’s NORMAL????

  10. Rev Billy Says:

    Social media and texting is a huge distraction to young people. They have so many ways to put off their required studies and end-up stressing much more over educational classes they are taking. They most likely get lower grades and lose interest in advancing their preparation for supporting themselves in the real world. The more privileged children have a safety net because their families are better able to allow them to come back home after they fail.
    The poorer young people do not have that safety net. It is more likely they can’t afford the expensive devices that distract them from their responsibilities to succeed in their preparation and part-time jobs as they go through school . And they are not able to return home as often after job loss or failure.

    We have created a culture of intense insecurity in many of our younger folks. Also we have very poor leadership in the positions of authority in many of our institutions and business corporations.

    America has changed tremendously because of technological advances.

    Future generations will not be any better.

  11. Imants Vilks Says:

    Twenge attributes the malaise primarily to the widespread use of social media and electronic devices. This explanation confuses cause and effect. The use of social media is a big advantage and privilegy to our societies. The cause is missing the hierarchy of values, the main, the highest, the most important even are not defined. Here I will try to count some. 

    1. Big-scale survival of humanity. This means, as Carl Sagan said, to support the only known to us Universe’s matter try to get conscious of itself. 
    In order to fulfill the value (1), the others follow:
    2. rise above our genetic tendencies and change our lives in accordance with (1). This means to obtain satisfaction from knowing that all my life is in line with mankind’s highest value. 
    After establishing the main value the others follow:
    3. obtain satisfaction from helping other people, from learning and distribution of knowledge, from caring for own children and their well-being. For caring for all people on planet Earth. This includes the restriction of the number of people on Earth, radical change of current mode of life (radical decrease of energy consumption, immediate refusal of nature and climate damage, establishing a world government, wich will educate the not-knowing people to support the only and most important value for all humans – their survival on a big scale. 
    4. Use social media for mass-education of people, nugging their behavior towards supporting their own survival.
    “She also reports a negative correlation between lower rates of depression and higher rates of time spent on sports and exercise, in-person social interactions, doing homework, attending religious services, and consuming print media, such as books and magazines”. 
    This is commonly known: sports and exercise, social interactions, consuming books – all these actions provide us with satisfaction for full-filling our genetic needs. Our most important genetic need is the need for something higher than everyday life, the need for something high, sanct and holy. The contemporary science-based world view must supply to people the hierarhy of values. 

    In order to win people’s behaviour we must win their hearts. This means: give to them the values which they will accept as their own. Imants Vilks, Latvia.

  12. John Says:

    Maybe young people today are more aware of what is going on in the world. I know that Mr. Shermer and some others say how wonderful things are; but the young people are right: reality is depressing.

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