Jonathan Haidt on why the mental health of liberal girls sank first and fastest

Jonathan Haidt on why the mental health of liberal girls sank first and fastest
(AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Jonathan Haidt has a forthcoming book on this topic titled Kids In Space: Why Teen Mental Health is Collapsing which should be out next year. The gist of his argument has two basic parts. The first is that there is lots of evidence showing a growing mental health crisis among teens, especially teen girls. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of disagreement on that point. Last month the CDC released data which also found teen girls are having a very tough time.

“If you think about every 10 teen girls that you know, at least one and possibly more has been raped, and that is the highest level we’ve ever seen,” said Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, who said the rise of sexual violence almost certainly contributed to the glaring spike of depressive symptoms. “We are really alarmed,” she said…

Almost 3 in 5 teenage girls reported feeling so persistently sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row during the previous year that they stopped regular activities — a figure that was double the share of boys and the highest in a decade, CDC data showed.

The other part of Haidt’s argument is about the cause. The data seems to suggest that this crisis is relatively new. The numbers indicating mental health problems seem to take off around 2011-2012. That’s when indicators of depression and self-harm among teens started to rise. Haidt believes that’s because the crisis is tied to the adoption of smartphones and social media. Of course many adults and some kids had cell phones earlier. The first iPhone came out in 2007, but it took a few years before smartphones were widely adopted by teens. It’s the adoption of smartphones and the spread of sites like Facebook and Instagram that teens became fixated on their phones.

There’s also another interesting aspect to the data on mental health. The data seems to pretty clearly show that liberal/progressive teens are significantly worse off than conservatives. Michelle Goldberg wrote a really interesting column for the NY Times saying that she’d initially been drawn to the idea that progressive teens were, in essence, being driven mad by Donald Trump. But as she looked at the data she realized the timing didn’t fit.

As I looked closer at the data, I saw that the inflection point for liberal adolescent depression wasn’t 2016, but around 2012. That was the year of the devastating Sandy Hook mass shooting, but it was not otherwise a time of liberal political despair. Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012. In 2013, the Supreme Court extended gay marriage rights. It was hard to draw a direct link between that period’s political events and teenage depression, which in 2012 started an increase that has continued, unabated, until today…

Technology, not politics, was what changed…around 2012. That was the year that Facebook bought Instagram and the word “selfie” entered the popular lexicon.

Goldberg concluded that it looked like Haidt, and conservatives like Josh Hawley who have taken up the cause of taking on social media use by teens, were right. She argued that the issue was too important to become a political football. And by the way, good for her because it can’t be easy to say Josh Hawley is right in the pages of the Times.

Finally, earlier this month Matt Yglesias added something to the discussion by suggesting that while a direct influence of politics didn’t seem to account for the mental health crisis among teens, it did seem possible that the left’s own political culture could help explain it. In other words, it’s not about who is president or what is in the newspaper but it could be about a left-wing tendency to catastrophize and reward those who constantly try paint the bleakest possible picture of the future.

I think the discussion around gender and the role of social media is an important one. But I also don’t believe that liberal boys are experiencing more depression than conservative girls because they are disproportionately hung up on Instagram-induced body image issues — I think there’s also something specific to politics going on.

Some of it might be selection effect, with progressive politics becoming a more congenial home for people who are miserable. But I think some of it is poor behavior by adult progressives, many of whom now valorize depressive affect as a sign of political commitment.

And here I have to credit Yglesias as well for talking about his own past struggles with depression, not to gain sympathy but to point out his experience of what people struggling with depression are often taught to help combat the condition.

Life is complicated, and this is difficult. But for a very wide range of problems, part of helping people get out of their trap is teaching them not to catastrophize. People who are paralyzed by anxiety or depression or who are lashing out with rage aren’t usually totally untethered from reality. They are worried or sad or angry about real things. But instead of changing the things they can change and seeking the grace to accept the things they can’t, they’re dwelling unproductively as problems fester.

And all of that is the background for a piece Jonathan Haidt wrote for the Free Press going into more detail about why he believes cell phones and social media are behind the mental health crisis.

There are at least two ways to explain why liberal girls became depressed faster than other groups at the exact time (around 2012) when teens traded in their flip phones for smartphones and the girls joined Instagram en masse. The first and simplest explanation is that liberal girls simply used social media more than any other group. Jean Twenge’s forthcoming book, Generations, is full of amazing graphs and insightful explanations of generational differences. In her chapter on Gen Z, she shows that liberal teen girls are by far the most likely to report that they spend five or more hours a day on social media (31% in recent years, compared to 22% for conservative girls, 18% for liberal boys, and just 13% for conservative boys). Being an ultra-heavy user means that you have less time available for everything else, including time “in real life” with your friends. Twenge shows in another graph that from the 1970s through the early 2000s, liberal girls spent more time with friends than conservative girls. But after 2010 their time with friends drops so fast that by 2016 they are spending less time with friends than are conservative girls. So part of the story may be that social media took over the lives of liberal girls more than any other group, and it is now clear that heavy use of social media damages mental health, especially during early puberty.

But I think there’s more going on here than the quantity of time on social media. Like Filipovic, Yglesias, Goldberg, and Lukianoff, I think there’s something about the messages liberal girls consume that is more damaging to mental health than those consumed by other groups.

There’s quite a bit more to his post than I can easily summarize and it’s all worth reading. I’m going to stick with the idea that there is something about the messages progressive teens are getting in particular that is a problem. And on that point, Haidt writes about Tumblr and 4chan.

Angela Nagle (author of Kill All Normies) described the culture that emerged among young activists on Tumblr, especially around gender identity, in this way:

There was a culture that was encouraged on Tumblr, which was to be able to describe your unique non-normative self… And that’s to some extent a feature of modern society anyway. But it was taken to such an extreme that people began to describe this as the snowflake [referring to the idea that each snowflake is unique], the person who constructs a totally kind of boutique identity for themselves, and then guards that identity in a very, very sensitive way and reacts in an enraged way when anyone does not respect the uniqueness of their identity.

Nagle described how on the other side of the political spectrum, there was “the most insensitive culture imaginable, which was the culture of 4chan.” The communities involved in gender activism on Tumblr were mostly young progressive women while 4chan was mostly used by right-leaning young men, so there was an increasingly gendered nature to the online conflict. The two communities supercharged each other with their mutual hatred, as often happens in a culture war. The young identity activists on Tumblr embraced their new notions of identity, fragility, and trauma all the more tightly, increasingly saying that words are a form of violence, while the young men on 4chan moved in the opposite direction: they brandished a rough and rude masculinity in which status was gained by using words more insensitively than the next guy. It was out of this reciprocal dynamic, the experts on the podcast suggest, that today’s cancel culture was born in the early 2010s.

I honestly never thought of it that way but it makes sense. A battle between edgelords and special snowflakes with the extremism of one side constantly reinforcing the tendencies of the other. And the result is a culture of progressive kids who go to college 4-6 years later believing on some fundamental level that they were fragile and that all of society was made up of “victims and oppressors—good people and bad people.” And when they get to college they find a whole body of critical theory that seems to validate all their priors.

This discussion is really just getting started but my own take is that this account seems very plausible. As someone who has been watching these woke culture wars play out online and on campus and spreading out from there over the past decade, this explanation of where it came from makes a lot of sense and seems to fit the available data.

Haidt closes the piece by suggesting some ways to fix this problem including raising the age for use of social media from 13 to 16-years-old. Maybe it’s time to think about something like that.

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