The kids aren't alright.
“What the hell is going on? The cruelest dream, reality.”
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In 1999, an American rock band called The Offspring came out with a new hit song titled “The Kids Aren’t Alright.” It starts like this:
“When we were young, the future was so bright, the old neighborhood was so alive. And every kid on the whole damn street was gonna make it big and not be beat. Now the neighborhood’s cracked and torn. The kids are grown up, but their lives are worn. How can one little street swallow so many lives?”
Written more than two decades ago, the words couldn’t be more fitting to where we find ourselves today: The youngest generations are not alright.
Take, for example, a letter reportedly signed by what NBC News said were 40 White House interns, demanding U.S. President Joe Biden call for a ceasefire and end Israeli “apartheid.” Yes, interns. What happened to the days where the newest and youngest people in an organization kept their heads down and did their jobs until they worked their way up to decision-making positions?
Social media trends perpetuated lately by young influencers have included the idea that Jesus Christ was “a Palestinian refugee,” and Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America” has opened eyes to a history they never learned.
At The New York Times, “editors now tremble before their reporters and even their interns,” according to one of the newspaper’s former editors, James Bennet.2
“There is a lot not to miss about the days when editors could strike terror in young reporters,” wrote Bennet. “The pendulum has swung so far in the other direction.”
So, yeah, the kids aren’t alright. But why? Turns out, there are many explanations for this convoluted reality.
First, there’s the “algorithm generation” which probably doesn’t remember the time when today’s social media platforms were called “social networks” — originally designed to connect with others, not to perform for them. But somewhere along the way, too many users uploading too much content meant these social networks had to introduce algorithms to filter and curate “personalized” experiences.
“Algorithms act like conveyor belts. Show even the slightest interest, fear, or insecurity about anything — hover over it for half a second — and you will be drawn in deeper,” said British writer Freya India. “Little by little, the algorithm learns what keeps you watching. And since the most negative and extreme posts get the most engagement, very often your feed will become an endless stream of content that makes you feel worse about yourself. You’ll find yourself on a continuous conveyor belt of apps, products, services, pills, and procedures to fix you.”3
Around 2013, rates of depression, anxiety, and self-harm began rising rapidly for adolescents. Those born in and after 1996 — known as “Gen Z” — have the worst mental health of any generation for which we have data (going back to the “Greatest Generation,” born between 1900 and 1925).4
The context for boys and girls is different but equally interesting: In the early phases of the technological entertainment revolution, boys invested more and more of their time into computers, computer programming, and video games. It was only when social media became popular in the late 2000s that girls flocked over to the virtual world and began spending as much time as boys interacting with computers and smartphones.
One root of this problem is that, in many places around the world, “internet adulthood” starts at 13 years old. Another issue is that social media and other apps are designed for “engagement” (i.e. addiction) similar to alcohol, tobacco, and gambling, but they are not legally regulated like other addictive activities that harm society.
What’s more, the “digital age” has made us overwhelmingly obsessed with early achievement. We celebrate those who scorch university entrance exams, earn straight A’s, finish college early, land a first job at Google or Goldman Sachs, win big with their first startup, and are featured on those ubiquitous 30-under-30 lists. In 2014, Time magazine started an annual list of “Most Influential Teens.”
Yeah, you read that correctly — teens.
Our education system is also to blame, increasingly teaching students to believe:
Their emotions, especially their anxieties, are reliable guides for reality.
Society is comprised of victims and oppressors — good people and bad people.
What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
According to free speech lawyer Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the issue is not just that these beliefs contradict basic psychological principles about well-being and ancient wisdom from many cultures, but they also result in a culture of “safetyism” which interferes with young people’s social, emotional, and intellectual development. Ultimately, “safetyism” makes it harder for them to become autonomous adults who are able to navigate the bumpy road of life.
One of the reasons for this culture of “safetyism” is that parents are having far less children than in previous generations, which makes each of their kids more “precious” to them. As such, parents overly protect their children from potentially harmful situations, thus preventing their children from developing the necessary skills of and related to resiliency. Experts believe this plays a factor in adult-age disputes, since young adults become acculturated to avoiding anything that may seem challenging or burdensome.
“Safetyism” also leads people to over-index on illusions, myths, and “perfect world” thinking — at the expense of learning about and accepting harsh realities, such as those related to war and military conflicts, socioeconomics, immigration, politics, history, other societies which promote varying political systems and values, and a plethora of other issues.
Instead, we are living in a society of many feel-good “untruths” — amplified by social media, extended by capitalism, and misgoverned by the dysfunction of politics.
Identity politics, which has grown steadily since the 1970s, serves as a distraction from issues that are so much more important, such as the growing income gap between the rich and everyone else, the shipping of jobs overseas, and the abuse and corruption in financial systems.
Meanwhile, the rise of political Islam is exponentially endangering the free world, where only eight percent of the world’s population actually lives in a full functioning democracy, as measured by electoral process and pluralism, political culture, political participation, functioning of government, and civil liberties.5
In last year’s Democracy Index, Israel — you know, the “oppressive,” “colonizing,” “ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid” state — received a higher score (7.93) than the United States, Italy, South Africa, and Argentina.
Events such as the war in Ukraine and restrictive, long-lasting COVID-19 measures, have caused numerous declines to country democracy scores in recent years. Yet so many of our kids basically read from social scripts and can’t have a respectable conversation about these issues and others. Using hashtags and filters might make for a good social media post, but we cannot afford to play silly games and pretend that young people are actually smarter than older ones.
Rather than focus on centuries of wisdom from ancient cultures of all kinds, our young people are encouraged to engage in hollowed virtue signaling and banal messaging; dumbing down convoluted, nuanced topics; ignoring historical context; and hysterical screaming through megaphones: “Why can’t we all just get along?”
In this age of identity politics, the person who conveys a message is more important than the message itself. Identity politics doesn’t welcome the “we” — as in the collective, the whole of society. It groups society into “us” and “them,” forcing people to “pick a team” they feel more inclined to cheer for. Individuals are defined uni-dimensionally: black, female, Israeli, et cetera.
Politics becomes a stage for teams, where the participants are “team” representatives. The outcome is that issues which affect all teams are overlooked, and individualism — a “you” versus “me” or “my group” versus “your group” paragon — reigns supreme.
Interestingly, the rise of identity politics in the 1970s coincided with a rise of the ratio between the words “I” and “we” used in English literature and pop songs.
Until 1964, the ratio was relatively steady, when suddenly the word “I” started to dominate the word “we” — less emphasis on “we,” more emphasis on “I.” An analysis of older and newer pop songs using the words “I” and “we” has yielded similar results — more “we” in older songs and more “I” in newer ones.
This brings us back another line from The Offspring’s song, “The Kids Aren’t Alright” — “What the hell is going on? The cruelest dream, reality.”
“Poll: Most young Americans think Israel should be ‘ended and given to Hamas’.” The Times of Israel.
“When the New York Times lost its way.” The Economist.
“What the Algorithm Does to Young Girls.” Persuasion.
“Why I'm Increasingly Worried About Boys, Too.” After Babel.
“Democracy Index 2022.” The Economist Intelligence Unit.