Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Kids Are Not Alright

Taking the measure of the mental health of American youth is a tricky business. Derek Thompson addresses it in this Atlantic article and he does a creditable job. So, I am happy to report his analysis, along with a few observations of my own-- just for taste.

Thompson opens by saying that the kids are not alright. By his research teenagers are suffering from an extreme mental health crisis.

He explains:

The United States is experiencing an extreme teenage mental-health crisis. From 2009 to 2021, the share of American high-school students who say they feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from 26 percent to 44 percent, according to a new CDC study. This is the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded.

The government survey of almost 8,000 high-school students, which was conducted in the first six months of 2021, found a great deal of variation in mental health among different groups. 

More than one in four girls reported that they had seriously contemplated attempting suicide during the pandemic, which was twice the rate of boys. Nearly half of LGBTQ teens said they had contemplated suicide during the pandemic, compared with 14 percent of their heterosexual peers. Sadness among white teens seems to be rising faster than among other groups.

But the big picture is the same across all categories: Almost every measure of mental health is getting worse, for every teenage demographic, and it’s happening all across the country. 

Since 2009, sadness and hopelessness have increased for every race; for straight teens and gay teens; for teens who say they’ve never had sex and for those who say they’ve had sex with males and/or females; for students in each year of high school; and for teens in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

We all want to know what is causing this. Thompson begins by listing and rejecting three common interpretation-explanations:

The first fallacy is that we can chalk this all up to teens behaving badly. In fact, lots of self-reported teen behaviors are moving in a positive direction. Since the 1990s, drinking-and-driving is down almost 50 percent. School fights are down 50 percent. Sex before 13 is down more than 70 percent. School bullying is down. And LGBTQ acceptance is up.

Intuitively, one does not accept unthinkingly that school bullying is down. The internet has become infested with it. And one dares to remark that the nonstop indoctrination in the tenets of LGBTQ ideology might well have damaged children’s sense of their own gender identity. It might have simply confused them and even traumatized them.

In his second fallacy, Thompson dismisses the notion that children have always been moody and depressed, only now we have better ways of measuring it. On this point, I agree with him:

The second fallacy is that teens have always been moody, and sadness looks like it is rising only because people are more willing to talk about it. Objective measures of anxiety and depression—such as eating disorders, self-harming behavior, and teen suicides—are sharply up over the past decade. 

And, his third fallacy concerns the general idea that it was all caused by the pandemic. On this I also agree with him. The crisis in teenager’s mental health largely preceded the pandemic.

The third fallacy is that today’s mental-health crisis was principally caused by the pandemic and an overreaction to COVID. “Rising teenage sadness isn’t a new trend, but rather the acceleration and broadening of a trend that clearly started before the pandemic,” Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University, told me. But he added: “We shouldn’t ignore the pandemic, either. The fact that COVID seems to have made teen mental health worse offers clues about what’s really driving the rise in sadness.”

As for some better explanations, Thompson begins with the concept, advanced by numerous very serious people, to the effect that social media use and techno gadgets are destroying children’s mental health. One might say that there is a correlation, but perhaps the correlation does not constitute a causation:

In the past few years, scientists have disputed the idea that social-media use itself makes teenagers miserable. “There’s been absolutely hundreds of [social-media and mental-health] studies, almost all showing pretty small effects,” Jeff Hancock, a behavioral psychologist at Stanford University who has conducted a meta-analysis of 226 such studies, told The New York Times recently.

Then, Thompson makes the salient point. It is not so much the social media sites themselves, as the fact that they replace socializing. No more face-to-face interactions; far more online non-interactions:

Both Steinberg and Twenge stress that the biggest problem with social media might be not social media itself, but rather the activities that it replaces.

“I tell parents all the time that if Instagram is merely displacing TV, I’m not concerned about it,” Steinberg told me. But today’s teens spend more than five hours daily on social media, and that habit seems to be displacing quite a lot of beneficial activity. The share of high-school students who got eight or more hours of sleep declined 30 percent from 2007 to 2019. Compared with their counterparts in the 2000s, today’s teens are less likely to go out with their friends, get their driver’s license, or play youth sports.

Social media (like gender identity indoctrination) desocialize children. The effect is largely negative:

“It’s well established that what protects teens from stress is close social relationships,” Steinberg said. “When kids can’t go to school to see their friends and peers and mentors, that social isolation could lead to sadness and depression, particularly for those predisposed to feeling sad or depressed.”

On these points one is compelled to agree. One might ask why children are so susceptible to these lures, and that would lead us to ask some more pertinent questions. 

First, how many of these children are being brought up in stable two-parent homes? The numbers of broken homes and out-of-wedlock births have been increasing significantly over the years. Surely, living in this social chaos does not help mental health. It must damage it.

The second question must address what children are being taught in school. Indoctrinating children in woke ideology, systematically damaging their sexual identities must cause significant psychological distress.

Parents are so anxious about how much they have failed to provide a stable home environment that they overcompensate by being too involved in their children’s education. And, considering that the education they are receiving does not prepare them for the best jobs, they are fighting a losing game:

The “rug rat race” is an upper-class phenomenon that can’t explain a generalized increase in teenage sadness. But it could well explain part of what’s going on. And in the 2020 Atlantic feature “What Happened to American Childhood?,” Kate Julian described a related phenomenon that affects families a bit more broadly: Anxious parents, in seeking to insulate their children from risk and danger, are unintentionally transferring their anxiety to their kids.

And then there is the ideological indoctrination, whereby children are taught to live in an all-or-nothing world, a cognitive world that produces depression by diminishing the mind’s ability to consider opposing points of view. When you shut down opposing points of view,  you are making people depressed.

Don’t we know that Aaron Beck founded cognitive therapy when he assigned his patients homework assignments whereby he told them to take a depressive thought-- I am useless or worthless-- and to write down three facts that might prove it and three facts that might disprove it. He did not tell them that they had to believe one or the other. He wanted them to engage in balanced thinking, in thinking that allows for both points of view. If you can understand that your opinion might or might not be wrong you will be less likely to consider it to be unimpeachable dogma. And you will be less likely to want to persecute or to cancel those who disagree.

Thompson hints at this:

Maybe the authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt are right that college campuses and internet culture have come to celebrate fragility. Maybe political polarization is fueling anxiety, not only by creating mutual hatred but also by encouraging people to reject opposing views, which over time reduces their capacity to handle cognitive dissonance in a confusing world.


David Foster said...

Someone at Twitter said his 4th grade daughter was given a bookmark that said: '"The world is beautiful, but has a disease called man." (Nietzsche)

My response was: 'Do they want to increase the youth-suicide rate?'

I see the above quote being repeated, with nodding of heads, in hundreds of posts all over the Internet.

Anonymous said...

I trust nothing from THE ATLANTIC...which was after the National Review convinced me to turn my back on it,

lynney62 said...

Great post! Being a Grandma, my opinion goes to "where is the family unit"? Parents who are not DEEPLY involved in raising their children will probably have children with some mental problems, because children must have guidance while growing up, from a Mother and a Father, if not possible at least Grandparents or close Family to guide them. It's a sad situation in America today and has been for 2+ decades for our children. My final thought is this: to Parents...grow the hell up and take responsibility for the childen you produced!! Teach them, love them, make them spend time with family, get the hell off the tech thingies!!

autothreads said...

The ultimate goal of implementing critical theory in schools: creating generations of dysfunctional young people who in their disaffection will become the vanguard of the marxist revolution.