Resilience and fragility in iGen teens

By Dr. Keith Witt
March 29, 2023
Recent research has shown that levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidality have been increasing since 2000, with a big bump starting in 2013. In 2021, 44% of teen reported persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness (up from 26% in 2009). 60% of high school girls reported persistent sadness and hopelessness, with 25% having a suicide plan. Interestingly these trends are more pronounced in left leaning teens than conservative teens, with liberal boys being more depressed than conservative girls. Adults aren’t doing so well either! A whopping 60% of parents of teen girls reported persistent sadness. 41% of adults reported symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder. Deaths of despair—suicide, drug overdoses, alcoholism—began rising in 2000 and have continued to rise. Johnathon Haidt has done meta-analysis finding 55 studies showing correlations between social media and rapidly increasing depression/anxiety/suicidality rates in teens starting in 2012. 11 other studies showed no correlation. The data are similar from the UK, Canada, and Australia. It looks like the social comparison and social exposure aspects of social media can be a problem for young people. This data has been supported by studies done at colleges who adopted Facebook at different times—there are consistent correlations with starting Facebook and increases in emotional distress. A little history here might be illuminating.
  • From 2002 to 2004 Friendster, Myspace, and Facebook were created to help people connect with friends.
  • Twitter was released in 2006 for quick easy communication between friends and acquaintances.
  • In 2006, Facebook started Newsfeed and added the “like” button. They created an algorithm based on previous likes to curate the content stream. This flattened the hierarchy off credibility since the algorithm didn’t evaluate the sources of content. Fake news expanded geometrically as blogs were packaged and delivered with the same look and feel as new articles, and there were no consequences for spreading disinformation.
  • In 2009, twitter added “retweet” to create a frictionless spread of content from immediate impulse. Subsequent studies show that including, “Are you sure you want to retweet this,” to tweets including hostile or virulent words or references significantly reduced them being retweeted. This suggests that adding a little friction to retweeting and sharing might reduce social media harm.
  • In 2012 Facebook added the “Share” button, adding another dimension to the frictionless spread of content. Studies show that messages including emotional or moral words are shared much more frequently.
  • In 2012 and 2013 Upworthy and other sites developed the art of testing headlines across dozens of variations to find which had the highest click through rates.
  • In 2014 Russia’s Internet Research Agency began industrial grade generation of fake accounts for sabotage and political agendas—focusing on creating outrage and pioneering the emerging popularity of moral grandstanding on social media. Moral grandstanding presents opinions in exaggerated black and white, good and evil, moral outrage, which discourages discourse and encourages moral condemnation.
The progression in general is to make content and use more addictive. The social media features of social comparison and opportunities for aggression and obsession have captured the consciousness of many teens and seems to have had a wide variety of toxic effects.

There are other sources of adolescent stress,

Even though there was a sharp increase in adolescent distress in 2012, teen depression and anxiety rates have been rising since before 2000. Social research has generated a fair amount of data on what correlates with this rise.

Helicopter parents

Lack of free time, and the presence of competitive, success-oriented parents who constantly supervise and direct many teens can create high-stress achievement-oriented family cultures which can feel oppressive to teens.

Extractive capitalism

Depressed and anxious parents navigating an extractive capitalist landscape that increasing looks stacked in favor of the super-rich brings chronic anxiety, and even despair, into many households. Real wages for working class and many middle class workers have been stagnating since the 1970s when the gloves came off and corporations deserted their workers in favor of striving for more effective ways to extract  more effectively from their workers and the general populace.

Schools teaching to the test rather than adapting to kids’ interests

The “No Child Left Behind” act has had a number of unintended negative consequences for teens. Schools must teach kids to pass tests so that the schools receive funding, so physical education, woodshop and metal shop, arts, and music have declined. This is devastating for a variety of reasons.
  • The most potent antidepressant ever studied is regular exercise, which is increasingly not mandated by high schools and middle schools. Take away a potent antidepressant from vast numbers of teens and you’ll naturally have more depression and anxiety.
  • Visual thinkers don’t do as well with the verbal sequential skills needed to excel in standardized tests. The progressive lack of funding for metal shop, woodshop, the arts, music (and music production), and architecture in high school curricula puts visual thinkers at a disadvantage in that they are blocked from educational paths that suit their strengths and interests.

Manichean social philosophies

The current age catastrophizes and polarizes problems into good and evil. This is the midst of very real catastrophizes like climate change, fascism, mass migrations, and pandemics. If this is the only story that children hear, it makes their personal futures look pretty bleak.

Increasing sensitization from well-meaning adults instead of resilience training

The misguided attempts to protect children from images, ideas, and human experiences can promote the message that the world is obligated to not offend them, and that other people and institutions are responsible if they feel injured or offended. This has coincided with increasingly fragile teens going into colleges who are inclined to “Protect them,” from controversial speakers, words, images, and texts, while some students feel righteously entitled to heckle, cancel, and disrupt speakers they disapprove of. Trigger warnings, safe spaces, and language restrictions don’t support healthy dialectics or true diversity in thinking, speaking, and behaving. Jean Twinge in iGen describes her research on the current iGen generation raised with social media. She says safety and equality are central concerns, and that current 18-year-olds are behaving and relating like 15-year-olds of previous generations. Human adolescence seems to keep getting longer. Current college administrations are seeming to relate to students as consumers they need to satisfy rather than learners they need to challenge and psychologically, intellectually, and socially enrich. I believe most college students are fine with healthy disagreement and the open sharing of ideas, but go along with noisy hypersensitives to avoid problems. This seems to mirror how extreme political groups dominate government and intimidate members who challenge, dissent, or seek cooperation and collaboration across party lines.

The empowering narrative

There is another narrative that is as valid as all the problem and catastrophe stories. This is an evolutionary narrative where children and teens have the power and resources to grow and develop throughout their lifespans, and that their contributions can (and should) serve the highest good for everyone. The idea that I can guide my life to success and service using my own gifts and the resources that family and culture provide is an empowering narrative. I encourage everyone to choose this over dark dystopian despair and cynicism. This does not mean ignoring evil, hypocrisy, and selfishness! To the contrary, this worldview looks with compassionate understanding on everything, and supports respectfully calling out liars, exploiters, abusers, and hypocrites, but not with cancel cultures and moral grandstanding. Instead, a growth mindset worldview looks to engage, find common purpose, and not automatically demonize those who disagree with us.

A good education

There are a lot of movements, educators, and parents who are engaged in groundbreaking approaches to helping kids thrive. Parallel to book-banning, shouting down speakers, and anti-woke political coercions are beautiful educational models teaching mediation of disputes, critical thinking, apprenticeships in mechanical and technical realms, and multiple perspectives. I’ve also observed more programs honoring special needs of different students, including those with learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorders. There are brilliant and dedicated teachers and administrators who support all forms of development. It’s good to discern these educators and receive their influence. I encourage my teenage clients to be realistic about catastrophe/polarization narratives, while embracing growth mindset narratives of understanding and action. This usually means each teen choosing directions to grow and focusing on effort and progress, confident of personal development and success, always reaching for compassionate understanding. Along these lines it helps to know the Spiral that organizes everything, and all the Integral understandings of body/mind/spirit in self/culture/nature. Yes, there is lot of unhappiness in the iGen cohort, but there is also vast creativity and increasing awareness of world-centric issues like climate change, systemic racism and poverty, and authoritarianism. I believe this generation will surprise us all with their contributions and solutions the wicked problems we all face today, but I also believe we can all help them more than we currently are.

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