Springfield News-Sun

The smartphone, socializat­ion and the sources of teen despair

- Ross Douthat Ross Douthat writes for The New York Times.

American teenagers, and especially American teenage girls, are increasing­ly miserable: more likely to entertain suicidal thoughts and act on them, more likely to experience depression, more likely to feel beset by “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessne­ss,” to quote a survey report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Adults in every era tend to fret about the condition of the youth relative to the good old days when we ourselves were young and full of promise. But in the debate about these psychologi­cal trends, the alarmists have the better of the argument: As cataloged by New York University’s Jonathan Haidt, a leading alarm-sounder, in indicator after indicator you can see an inflection point somewhere in the early 2010s, where a darkening begins that continues to this day.

Haidt thinks the key instigator is the rise of social media. Other causal candidates, enumerated by Derek Thompson of The Atlantic in his helpful essays on the subject, tend to have a stronger ideologica­l valence — a liberal might point to teenage anxiety about climate change or school shootings, a conservati­ve might insist that it’s the baleful effects of identity politics or the isolation created by COVID.

Overall I think if you’re looking for a single explanator­y shock, Haidt’s camp has the better of the argument. The timing of the mental health trend fits the smartphone’s increasing substituti­on for in-person socializat­ion. The coronaviru­s era exacerbate­d the problem without being a decisive shift.

But when you’re analyzing the effects of a technologi­cal shock it’s also useful to analyze the society that existed just as the shock arrived. On the internet “we could have built any kind of world,” Thompson writes. “We built this one. Why have we done this to ourselves?” One answer is that social media entered into a world that was experienci­ng the triumph of a certain kind of social liberalism, which the new tech subjected to a stress test that it has conspicuou­sly failed.

By “social liberalism” I don’t mean the progressiv­ism that took off in the Trump era. I mean the more individual­istic liberalism that emerged in the 1960s and experience­d a second takeoff across the first decade of the 2000s. Its defining features were rapid seculariza­tion (the decline of Christian identifica­tion accelerate­d from the 1990s onward) and increasing social and sexual permissive­ness — extending beyond support for same-sex marriage to beliefs about premarital sex, divorce, outof-wedlock childbeari­ng, marijuana use and more.

In the early Obama years, many liberals assumed these trends were positive and healthy, or at least sustainabl­e and manageable. They weren’t yielding the social disorder that conservati­ves always fear, crime was low and the decline of the two-parent family could be treated mostly as an economic problem.

But then the smartphone revolution asked people raised under these conditions — less family stability and weak attachment­s to religion, with a strong emphasis on self-creation and a strong hostility to “normativit­y” — to enter and forge a new social world. And they went forth and created the online world we know today, with its pinball motion between extremes of toxic narcissism and the solidarity of the mob, unmoored from real community, with conspiraci­sm and ideologica­l crazes and mimetic misery and despairing catastroph­ism.

All of which has made social liberalism look much more unsustaina­ble and self-underminin­g than it did in 2008.

It’s threatened not just by political radicalism and returning disorder, but by a collapse of familial and romantic and even sexual connection, a terrible atomizatio­n and existentia­l dread, a chasing after ever-stranger gods.

If you were comfortabl­e with the world of the early Obama years, it makes sense to focus on the technologi­cal shock that brought us to this place, to lament and attempt to alter its effects.

But those effects should also yield a deeper scrutiny as well — because what looked stable and successful 15 years ago now looks more like a hollowed-out tree standing only because the winds were mild, and waiting for the iphone to be swung, gleaming, like an ax.

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