It has been a subject of much recent internet discourse that the kids are not okay. By all reports, the kids very much seem to be not all right.
Suicide attempts are up. Depressive episodes are way up. The general vibes and zeitgeist one gets (or at least that I get) from young people are super negative. From what I can tell, they see a world continuously getting worse along numerous fronts, without an ability to imagine a positive future for the world, and without much hope for a positive future for themselves.
Should we blame the climate? Should we blame the phones? Or a mind virus turning them to drones? Heck, no! Or at least, not so fast.
Let’s first lay out the evidence and the suspects.1
Then, actually, yes. Spoiler alert, I’m going to blame the phones and social media.
After that, I’ll briefly discuss what might be done about it.
The suicide numbers alone would seem at first to make it very very clear how not all right the kids are.
Washington Post reports, in an exercise in bounded distrust:
Nearly 1 in 3 high school girls reported in 2021 that they seriously considered suicide — up nearly 60 percent from a decade ago — according to new findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost 15 percent of teen girls said they were forced to have sex, an increase of 27 percent over two years and the first increase since the CDC began tracking it.
Thirteen percent [of girls] had attempted suicide during the past year, compared to 7 percent of boys.
One child in ten attempted suicide this past year, and it is steadily increasing? Yikes.
There is a big gender gap here, but as many of you already suspect because the pattern is not new, it is not what you would think from the above.
In the U.S, male adolescents die by suicide at a rate five times greater than that of female adolescents, although suicide attempts by females are three times as frequent as those by males. A possible reason for this is the method of attempted suicide for males is typically that of firearm use, with a 78–90% chance of fatality. Females are more likely to try a different method, such as ingesting poison. Females have more parasuicides. This includes using different methods, such as drug overdose, which are usually less effective.
I am going to go ahead and say that if males die five times as often from suicide, that seems more important than the number of attempts. It is kind of stunning, or at least it should be, to have five boys die for every girl that dies, and for newspapers and experts to make it sound like girls have it worse here. Very big ‘women have always been the primary victims of war. Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat’ (actual 1998 quote from Hillary Clinton) energy.
The conflation of suicide rates with forced sex here seems at best highly misleading. The sexual frequency number is rather obviously a reflection of two years where people were doing rather a lot of social distancing. With the end of that, essentially anything social is going to go up in frequency, whether it is good, bad or horrifying – only a 27 percent increase seems well within the range one would expect from that. Given all the other trends in the world, it would be very surprising to me if the rates of girls being subjected to forced sex (for any plausible fixed definition of that) were not continuing to decline.
That implies that in the past, things on such fronts were no-good, horribly terrible, and most of it remained hidden. I do indeed believe exactly this.
Also, can we zoom out a bit? On a historical graph, the suicide rate does not look all that high (scale is suicides per 100,000 children, per year)?
The kids are not okay. The kids in the 1990s were, by some of these graphs, even more not okay. The kids in between were also not okay. It’s not like 14% is an acceptable number of kids seriously considering suicide in a given year, or 7% an acceptable rate of them attempting it. But those kids, by these measures, were less not okay.
CDC Risk Study
We also know that the rate of major depressive episodes among US adolescents increased by more than 52 percent between 2005 and 2017. I do think some of that is changing norms on what we call such an episode. I doubt that is all (or more than all) of it. That problem still seems sufficient to make farther-back comparisons not so meaningful, and make me want to fall back on suicides, similar to the case count vs. death count question in measuring Covid.
Here is the CDC study of youth risk behavior.
They are happy to report several things. Adolescents are engaging in less ‘risky sexual behavior,’ which means less sexual behavior period, both at all and with four or more partners. There is less substance (alcohol, marijuana, illicit drug, misused prescription drug) use.
(Rough math aside: In case anyone was wondering, yes, sexual contacts and alcohol use go together. If 30% of students have had sex and they are 41% likely to be drinking, and overall rate is 23%, that means only 13% of virgins are drinking, over a 3:1 ratio. For illicit drugs, 25% vs. 7.4%. And for marijuana, this it’s 34% vs. 8.3%, over 4:1, so looks like hard drugs are bad even on their own terms.)
Overall: So less fun. Sounds depressing. Less sexual activity is flat out called ‘improvement’ by the CDC. I am going to come out and say that the optimal amount of teenage sexual activity, and the optimal amount of teenage substance use, are importantly not zero.
They also talk glowingly about ‘parental monitoring,’ defined as parents or other adults in their family knowing where students are going and who they are with, as ‘another key protective factor for adolescent health and well-being.’ While I certainly would agree with the correlation with short term physical safety, and that this leads to less sexual activity and substance use, I would centrally say that considering this a key protective factor is one of the prime suspects for reasons kids are depressed so often.
On the plus side, there was also less bullying.
They are less happy to report worse overall mental health, more suicidal thoughts and more suicidal behaviors, as already noted. There is less condom use, less STD testing and less HIV testing, which is what rational people would do given less sexual promiscuity and improved treatments available for HIV.
(On another note, this below has to be the weirdest stat I’ve seen, I keep trying to figure out what it could mean and coming up short.)
If you look at the above graph, you’ll notice that HIV testing is not declining once you control for rates of sexual activity. The decline in condom use is entirely explained by the decline in multiple sex partners combined with selecting responsible teens out of the dating pool. If we had access to ‘the crosstabs’ we could check if this is indeed what is happening.
They also observe a rise in ‘experiences of violence.’ When I saw that I noted I was outright calling BS on any real effect. To the extent that ‘experiences of violence’ are rising, it is about what people are told to report experiencing changing, not about any increase in real physical violence. Then I found the actual stats on page 46:
I mean that’s some bounded distrust right there. Is this an increase in violence? The only substantial increase here is not going to school because of safety concerns. I am happy to report that safety concerns are not violence. Actual safety concerns in a school surround bullying, which is down (and I’d heavily bet is down in severity too). What do we do about that? I mean, same as we always have, and hint it isn’t letting them miss school. We force students who are being beaten up by other students into close proximity with their bullies at the barrel of a gun, of course. What else would we do?
Also, seriously, no increase in electronic bullying since the introduction of the smart phone, are you kidding me? How is this even real? How did we do it? Huge if true.
Also I will state that ‘did not go to school because of safety concerns’ did not change between 2019 and 2021 and let that float around in everyone’s head for a bit.
There are a bunch of other ‘are you seriously saying this trend went this way during the pandemic?’ stats and I will spare you the rest of them.
On to their depression stats, which match other sources.
I am curious about the 13% or more who experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness without poor mental health. If I was feeling persistently sad or hopeless and someone asked me for the quality of my mental health, and I had the energy to reply, I would reply ‘poor, thanks for asking.’
Strangely, they list suicide considerations, plans, attempts and injuries, but do not list stats on actual suicides.
This New York Magazine article says that ‘No, Teen Suicide Isn’t Rising Because Life Got Objectively Worse.’ It does confirm that the lived experience of teens seems to have gotten worse, at least in terms of their mental health.
Life isn’t ‘objectively worse,’ in this view, because the economy has improved as has our social safety net. Our treatment of many groups has dramatically improved. If you are entering the labor force today, goes the argument, you can expect to earn a much higher ‘standard of living’ than your predecessors in the 1950s. Suspicion is pointed towards our phones and social media.
I would suggest this misunderstands what it means for things to be ‘objectively worse.’
Economically one should emphasize the ability to purchase a socially acceptable goods basket that enables the important aspects of life, more than worrying about the measured quality of its components.
Similarly, I would assert that the existence of social media can absolutely make things ‘objectively’ worse if it works like its critics fear, as can all the other suspects one might have. To the extent one disagrees with this, the word ‘objective’ is being used to dismiss concerns other than access to material goods as not ‘objective.’
If you want to use that definition, fine, you can use that word in that way. In which case I do not much care whether the ‘worse’ is ‘objective.’
(Also, you can’t both assert factors like ‘tolerance for many groups is way up’ as objectively good and then reject factors like ‘tolerance for not using social media is way down’ as not objectively bad. Both are real, and they are equally ‘objective.’)
That does not tell us what is causing the kids to not be okay. It does make it less likely that we should be looking mostly or exclusively at social media, or at wokeness, or fear of climate change, since none of those can explain the early 1990s. That would require the two peaks have distinct causes.
Children Versus Adults
Should the cause differentiate adults from children? Adults continue to say they are happy with their own lives despite not being happy with things in general (source). To the extent that their happiness with things in general changed, it does not correspond at all to when the kids were relatively not okay.
All the usual suspects correlate, in case anyone is pretending they don’t.
An alternative hypothesis is that perhaps adults are happy with their lives largely relative to the baseline of what they see as the lives of others around them, rather than as an absolute thing. Being more worried about losing one’s job makes you not okay, but it could also make you more satisfied with the job you do (at least for now) have. You can see 2008 on the personal satisfaction line, but it is a rather small effect. Whereas kids perhaps have not learned these tricks so much yet, and only observe that things are not okay.
A reasonable suspect for the core problem would be American schools. Remember that suicide rates go up during school, go down during summer vacation. When there were school closings, suicide rates declined.
Robin Hanson thinks this is clear, responding to the new paper reported via MR to have shown a negative log-linear relationship between per-capita GDP and adolescent life satisfaction.
If a group is attempting suicide this frequently, reports of life satisfaction this high do not make sense unless they represent comparison to expectations, or to the lives of others. We need to look for a better understanding of what such responses mean.
The problem with the school hypothesis is that while it explains kids not being okay in general, it does not explain the changes over time. If you buy as I do the hypothesis that our schools have been making kids miserable, why would that effect have gone down and then gone back up again?
I can tell a story for why school was especially toxic during the pandemic. ‘Remote learning’ was a new level of dystopian nightmare. That still does not fit the graphs.
I can tell a story where recently schools have become more controlling and restrictive, perhaps more woke and liable to alarm kids regarding climate change or gun violence, they interact in toxic ways with social media. Heck, they’re doing mandatory trauma infliction periodically, which they call active shooter drills.
That all seems like it doesn’t sufficiently differentiate school from these other candidate source factors, and we would still need a second story for how those things had local peaks in the 1990s, which doesn’t seem right.
Thus I would say that school lays the foundation for children to be miserable. I would say school directly causes children to be miserable. It still does not seem to explain why things recently got so much worse.
Matt Yglesias suggests we look at politics, and why young liberals are so much more depressed than young conservatives. He points to a study looking at depression in adolescents by political beliefs.
I notice that this graph is suggesting something happened around 2011 that impacted everyone, and disproportionally impacted only liberal girls. Until then, liberal girls and liberal boys had similar depressive levels. Even now, conservative boys and conservative girls are similar, and the temporary difference ran the other way. The conservative vs. liberal gap among boys is similar in 2005 and 2018.
The story this data is telling is something like:
- Liberal children are more often depressed than conservative children.
- Since 2005, depression among children has risen across the board.
- Since 2005, something has made liberal girls in particular more depressed.
Causation between politics and depression is not obvious here. All of these stories seem plausible:
- If you are depressed, that tends to make you liberal. Change is needed.
- If you are liberal, that tends to make you depressed. Change is needed.
- If you are liberal, you tend to identify as depressed more often.
- If you are attending liberal-area school, you’ll report depression more often.
- If you are around liberals more in person, you’ll report depression more often.
- Liberal parents are raising their kids in ways that cause more depression, and kids tend to adopt the ideologies of their parents.
- Urban areas lead to greater risk of childhood depression, and are liberal.
A left-wing theory by authors of a paper on the subject of why this is happening is that it is all because bad political actors are doing bad things, which are very depressing if you are a good person who understands. I’ll quote the same passage as Yglesias does, except for spacing:
Adolescents in the 2010s endured a series of significant political events that may have influenced their mental health.
The first Black president, Democrat Barack Obama, was elected to office in 2008, during which time the Great Recession crippled the US economy (Mukunda 2018), widened income inequality (Kochhar & Fry 2014) and exacerbated the student debt crisis (Stiglitz 2013).
The following year, Republicans took control of the Congress and then, in 2014, of the Senate. Just two years later, Republican Donald Trump was elected to office, appointing a conservative supreme court and deeply polarizing the nation through erratic leadership (Abeshouse 2019).
Throughout this period, war, climate change (O’Brien, Selboe, & Hawyard 2019), school shootings (Witt 2019), structural racism (Worland 2020), police violence against Black people (Obasogie 2020), pervasive sexism and sexual assault (Morrison-Beedy & Grove 2019), and rampant socioeconomic inequality (Kochhar & Cilluffo 2019) became unavoidable features of political discourse.
In response, youth movements promoting direct action and political change emerged in the face of inaction by policymakers to address critical issues (Fisher & Nasrin 2021, Haenschen & Tedesco 2020). Liberal adolescents may have therefore experienced alienation within a growing conservative political climate such that their mental health suffered in comparison to that of their conservative peers whose hegemonic views were flourishing.
To me and to Matthew Yglesias, this sounds like a story of political discourse among and directed to young people making them depressed.
This is not plausibly a story about a society that was suddenly overcome by a huge rise in war (which wars is this even claiming to be talking about given the time frame, I seriously have no idea?) or any of the other non-economic factors. For economics, the timing does not match, nor is there any reason bad economic prospects should depress liberals but not conservatives during a period where both parties took turns in political office.
This is instead a story about how these bad things became central and constant parts of the discourse that young people felt socially obligated to discuss and endorse. As the authors say, they became ‘unavoidable.’
Young people in liberal peer group social circles – which is most young people, especially given the internet – were increasingly socially punished for not expressing the view that a lot of extremely depressing things were happening. Social media amplified this quite a lot. The youth both had to endorse that these things were depressing and terrible and unacceptable, focusing carefully on the current thing of the week, and signal that this depressed them, and also express the belief that these things were getting worse.
That certainly sounds like it would cause a lot of depression, regardless of the truth the claims subject to these social cascades.
Regardless of the extent to which these issues are central, I highly endorse not catastrophizing, and not encouraging others to catastrophize.
These last few weeks, I have written two giant posts covering events that Isee as plausibly leading directly to all humans being killed and the wiping out of all value in the universe. I have seen the richest man in the world announce his intention to do the worst possible thing he could do, to make the problem arrive faster and be that much harder to solve. Whether or not you (or most others) agree with this perspective on recent events in AI, it is my perspective, yet I do my best to (mostly successfully) keep smiling.
It is important to cultivate the skill of not letting such things bring you down, and to encourage a discourse and culture that helps others not be brought down rather than reinforcing such failure modes.
Whereas, as far as I can tell, liberal discourse explicitly reinforces not doing that.
Another aspect of liberal politics is the focus on various forms of identity, including demands for how kids must react to things and then potentially severe punishment if caught reacting the ‘wrong’ way, except for the hot and popular kids who of course react the way they always have and get away with it.
All of this is also plausibly very not good for kids’ mental health, and plausibly much more not good than the (also not good) traditional versions.
Then there is the tendency to medicate children every time they get out of line or pose any sort of problem, or are given any kind of label that needs fixing – you can imagine why worries about this happening could make one paranoid and unhappy. Also the drugs themselves often make kids unhappy.
I had a rough childhood in many ways. I never got any sort of formal diagnosis, and was never put on medication. Whatever other things I might be mad about, I am deeply grateful for both of these things.
These days? Not a chance. There is more to say here, but I would leave it as an exercise to the reader.
Phones and Social Media
The Social Media Hypothesis (SMH) is both common and common sense. It is easy to see why we might expect social media to be (1) damaging to everyone, (2) especially damaging to teenagers, (3) even more damaging to girls and (4) extremely difficult to escape even when you know about the problem.
The timing also matches quite well, although it obviously can’t explain the 90s.
Richard Hanania considers the SMH. He notes that given his other views he has strong motivations to reject the SMH and instead blame anything else and especially to blame wokeness. Despite this, he is convinced:
After looking at various kinds of evidence, however, I have changed my mind. This essay sets out to explain why I think that the rise of social media has had disastrous effects on the mental health of young people. First, randomized control trials show that quitting or cutting back on Facebook is good for your mental health. It’s true that some studies show a null or even opposite effect, but, as I explain, the studies supporting the hypothesis that social media causes misery tend to be larger and more convincing. Second, I looked to see whether the increase in teen depression since around 2010 can be found in other developed countries. The answer is mostly yes, and some of this data is extremely impressive in that much of it comes from sources that weren’t setting out to prove anything about the social media hypothesis, but found data that supported it anyway. Finding similar trends across the developed world makes it much less likely that something specific to the US like the rise of wokeness can be blamed for teen misery.
He focuses on gold standard RCTs, dismissing quasi-experimental findings and even suicide rates as too confounded.
I am not going to check the primary sources here, so take with that note of caution.
The largest study he cites paid participants to stay off Facebook for a month, which improved their happiness by 0.1 standard deviations (which might not sound like a lot, but under the circumstances is kind of a lot), and caused permanent reductions in Facebook use after the trial period – it looks like a 23% reduction, which lines up exactly with their planned reductions after the trial period, which is weird because one would expect big willpower issues.
I would also note that abandoning Facebook suddenly carries costs due to network effects, so everyone getting off it at once would presumably have a larger positive effect, everyone never joining in the first place an even larger one, and then there’s the question of substitution by other social media.
The second largest study finds an even bigger effect, again from Facebook explicitly. Whereas the largest study Hanania found with negative findings was over the course of two days and doesn’t seem like it was measuring much that is useful.
Hanania then surveys studies on rates of depression around the developed world, finds that the trends are not isolated to America. This matches what phones would do, and rules out many (but far from all) other hypotheses as central explanations.
He then notices that Covid caused a lot of additional mental distress, which I don’t doubt but comes too late to explain most of what we are observing.
Noah Smith later points to the study Lambert et al from 2022, where a week off of all the major social media cites improved well-being and depression, which certainly is evidence but to know anything terribly useful we need longer observation periods. There are a lot of studies that point in this direction, but there are a lot of studies period, and most don’t measure what we need to know.
Johnathan Haidt notes that his larger story is the transition from play based childhood to phone based childhood.
In brief, it’s the transition from a play-based childhood involving a lot of risky unsupervised play, which is essential for overcoming fear and fragility, to a phone-based childhood which blocks normal human development by taking time away from sleep, play, and in-person socializing, as well as causing addiction and drowning kids in social comparisons they can’t win.
He also frames the social media, I think correctly, as primarily about network effects rather than individuals or dose-response effects. The existence of social media transforms the social landscape. As an adult, one can mitigate this by choosing one’s friends and colleagues. As a young student in school, you have no chance.
Correlation is not causation, it is easy to see causation running partly the other way, the correlation is still pretty strong here.
He also claims that studies often support that social media use at Time T predicts poor mental health at time T+1. I’d need to check a few details before I’d agree.
Derek Thompson did a podcast about this, and both he and his guest endorsed the social media hypothesis.
The theory here was that this hits girls much harder than boys because girls are far more vulnerable to social comparison, which social media forces on them even more and worse than traditional media.
They also focus on the contrast of passive scrolling versus active use. Actively talking to people you know, arranging events and other similar things, in this view, are fine. That, too, makes sense to me. The problem is modern social media pushes against this. Even when you are being active, there is a huge push to do what will go viral or be popular.
Thus, the argument over whether small accounts are desperately trolling for followers, or large accounts are desperately trolling for followers.
Accounts of all sizes, in my experience, do both kinds of behavior. My experience is that as I get more followers I become more conscious of wanting not to waste people’s time or drive them away, whereas if my followers were mainly people I know I think I’d post more freely. My self-awareness might be lacking, though.
What I am confident is making this worse is the transition away from seeing your followers or friends stuff and towards algorithmic feeds. When I post something on Twitter that the algorithm does not care for, maybe 10% of my followers will see it. When I post something that catches fire, sky is the limit. Most of my views on Twitter come from a handful of posts – which means your likes and retweets actually matter a lot for effective visibility, and are appreciated.
Noah Smith agrees: It’s probably the phones. Here’s his fresh variation of everyone’s favorite graphs.
Why would that make us unhappy? There’s an obvious reason: social isolation.
As the natural experiment of the pandemic demonstrated, physical interaction is important. Text is a highly attenuated medium — it’s slow and cumbersome, and an ocean of nuance and tone and emotion is lost. Even video chat is a highly incomplete substitute for physical interaction.
This graph looks quite a lot like the depression graphs, note this ends in 2016. Once again, something quite terrible happened around 2011 or 2012.
And look, it’s the reverse version.
My experiences growing up strongly confirm this. When I got to spend a bunch of time with friends, that was a much better day than whenever I didn’t.
It is noteworthy that the 1990s did not have especially low numbers here, things slowly got worse until finally the bottom fell out.
Here’s another happiness graph for comparison.
Noah doesn’t consider it that meaningful to differentiate the phones versus social media, since to have anything like its full effects social media requires phones. It does still point to very different best responses now.
Arnold Kling also surveys the situation, concludes it is ‘all one big unhappy loop of reinforcement, connecting a neurotic temperament, smart phone technology, social media and pathological progressive politics.
A consequence of social media and phones that needs more attention is the destruction of privacy and the expansion of the permanent record.
When socialization takes place in a medium that is largely public record, it destroys privacy. It means one must constantly be on guard for what anyone, now or in the future might have to say or think about what you are up to. Even if you are communicating in a private channel, it is recorded, so there is every reason to worry that it might eventually be made public or used against you.
This then combines with a zero-tolerance policy for many things, often things that were widely considered fine not too long ago, and that can ruin your entire life plan. Every attempt to talk to another person, especially to perhaps date them, is an existential risk. Colleges rescind admissions based on a single social media post taken out of context. Schools suspend you. You have no room to experiment, to breathe, to make mistakes.
I think this is a pretty big deal.
How do we solve this? I would start by normalizing vanishing messages and auto-deletion of posts, and making it out of bounds to do unannounced recording, as a start.
Is This Core Case for the Social Media Hypothesis Convincing? Is It The Phones?
I am convinced that the central problem here is likely a combination of phones, social media and the resulting physical social isolation. Kids aren’t seeing friends in person, they often don’t even have good friends, they’re instead scrolling on their phones, and this is bad for them.
Phones also expose children (and adults) to a bunch of other information in ways that seem plausibly to do great harm to their lived experiences and mental health, as I discuss in the two sections after this one.
There are a lot of different angles of evidence gathered to support the phone hypothesis. Except for the need to explain the 1990s, and discounting the misleading alarmist stuff, they all point in the same direction – the phones.
The population data over time is to me the strongest evidence.
There is little question that something very terrible for teenagers happened around 2012. That rules out an economic cause. That rules out some weird political shift, other than the shift in discourse that came from the rise of phones and social media. The only two things suggested that could possibly match the timing at all are a cultural shift (e.g. towards some form of social-media-and-being-online-reinforced wokeness.)
Wokeness would plausibly hit the mental health of girls and liberals harder, and the timeline isn’t completely crazy. It still is a far less good match, the timing isn’t quite right here, takeoff would be more gradual at first and if the action mechanism is ‘world seems terrible to students’ then you’d expect a large spike when Trump was elected, and it isn’t there. Whereas for phones timing is almost too perfect, and have the studies behind them.
I do see a role here for political viewpoints, but mostly or entirely as acting through phones and social media. The phones and social media make everyone Too Online, they create pressure to keep up with and affirm current thing, create signaling cascades and so on. Such toxic dynamics are part of the story of phones and social media, without those (in this model) these dynamics wouldn’t be that big a deal. Or: Yes what you are talking about on tumblr might be making you miserable, but that has less to do with the particular details of what you’re discussing and more to do with tumblr.
What About Other Causes?
That is not to say that there aren’t plenty of other things that are not great and one would do well to fix, both things that are getting worse and things that have always sucked.
Our screen problem is not limited to phones, there are also tablets and computers and good old fashioned televisions. Plausibly the damage compounds over time and generations.
Tablets are a serious problem for younger children. I know of a number of examples of children who are very very attached to their tablets. If you are not careful, they will lose interest in everything else in favor of a bunch of optimized dreck. This kind of thing can easily compound if allowed to fester. The timeline would be a few years delayed so it doesn’t match, but it’s a real issue. Of course, good tablet applications are insanely great here, if you put in the work and keep it in moderation.
Computers and video games are the screens that came online in the 1990s. Could that have been what happened then? In the early-mid 1980s, you played video games in an arcade. The arcade was social, and it cost money per play so it was limiting. Then kids started getting their hands on an NES or a PC. And at first NES was super awesome and kids played together and had the same three games but then things branched out and the SNES/Genesis era was more insular and also more all-consuming, and things went south for a bit until we learned how to handle it?
One could tell a story of computers and video games being social in the 80s, then isolating in the 90s, then early internet bringing us together in the 00s, only to have phones and social media turn it all toxic in the 10s. It’s a theory. It’s the only one I could come up with that even pretends to explain the 90s. Paging Chuck Klosterman.
A common pattern when dismissing the dangers of new tech is to say ‘remember how everyone said television would rot our brains and destroy our communities? You know, like Socrates worried about books?’ Books turned out to be good, but television? Have we considered that perhaps, while there is also plenty of good television out there that enhances our lives and culture, those warnings were one hundred percent right? And then it pretty much happened?
I think it pretty much did happen.
Like phones, television most certainly wasn’t all bad. Used responsibly it’s great.
The whole ‘too much screen time’ concern is very real. One difference is that with television you had a much easier time imposing limits than you do now with phones. The television stayed in one place, and wasn’t a means of socialization.
The social isolation problem, and lack of community, predates smart phones and even widespread video games and computers. Remember Bowling Alone? I do think that phenomenon was real and important then, and has been massively amplified now. Its other causes count too.
What role do economic issues have, the fear of not being able to get job or support a family or the terror of endless school and student loan debt, or the competition to get into a good college or else not be employable?
I do know the timing does not match. It is not obvious to me the extent to which these things got worse over this period, but I am confident they did not suddenly get worse in 2011-2013, whereas they did get worse in 2007-2008. The ‘90s don’t seem like they were a time of unusually high economic worry either.
This could still be an important contributing factor, I do think we are not doing a good job measuring the lived expectations of youth when we point to our economic statistics.
Perhaps young people now better know their situations, aren’t fooled by our slogans and statistics, and are not so happy about it?
Perhaps The Truth Can Be Rather Depressing?
I have several times seen claims that depressed people see the world more accurately in its details, whereas most people are overly optimistic and rosy on those details.
What about if all this wasn’t about actual economic problems, or other problems, but the newfound perception of those problems? That could alter the timing and brings us back to the smart phones.
Under this theory, economic, career and lifestyle expectations for many have been declining for decades. Our system fell into great stagnation, rent seekers have been stealing opportunity by locking up housing markets and jacking up health care and education costs and such. Our culture has stopped respecting core human needs like raising a family. As the competition tightens, and you need a college degree to get any decent job, childhood becomes a tightrope of cutthroat competition rather than a time for exploration and joy. We are failing our young people.
For a while, this theory might say, kids mostly managed not to notice this. When kids go off to college they still mostly choose liberal arts majors and take on debt, f*** around and find out, because they are sold a lie that they won’t get punished for this. Your future sucking doesn’t make you miserable now if you don’t know about it.
Same could be said for plenty of other problems, including all the leftwing favorites: racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, police brutality, the list goes on. By any reasonable standard, humans have been pretty damn horrible about all that for at least as long as we’ve wanted to have cities enough to build roads.
Similarly, most people throughout history have, by any standard a modern American would consider reasonable, lived really terrible economic lives. They struggled to keep a roof over their head, food on the table and everyone clothed. People did not automatically get to save up to have secure and comfortable retirements. We did not follow our passions and love our jobs, we worked where we could find work. Kids were forced to work terrible jobs. We did not have ready access to health care, fair treatment or effective due process of law, and if you wanted to live any kind of alternative lifestyle then good luck with that.
Many, many things we consider standard now were luxuries.
Then came smart phones and being constantly online. The truth came out.
We could no longer maintain our mismatches between our rhetoric and reality. Kids could no longer be gently introduced to the realities of the world over time. And switching fully over to what our rhetoric implies is not actually possible, because continued physical existence does not care what your principles are, and our view of what our principles should be will always be ahead of whatever we can pull off.
It was all really freaking upsetting and depressing, perhaps?
Under this theory, smart phones did not make us miserable because we are using them to engage in ‘unhealthy behaviors and comparisons.’ They are making us miserable because they woke us up to our problems – one could say they made us ‘woke.’ How much of that is economic reality versus social reality or other problems one can debate.
We all hide some truths from our kids. Disagreements are a matter of details, and a matter of degree – we don’t want to overwhelm our children with thoughts of man’s inhumanity to man, of suffering and hunger and nuclear firestorms and misery and death. We also quite reasonably hold back various stuff about sex – except now everyone with internet access has unlimited free hardcore porn. There is a term ‘grow up too soon’ for a reason.
I strongly don’t believe in lying to kids, that still doesn’t mean dumping the weight of the world on them all at once at age seven, or even twelve, or ideally even seventeen2.
At this point, we kind of do exactly that. It is all right there, right in your face, and it is on you as a student to be ‘raising awareness’ of it all. Maybe that really, really sucks?
Combine that with what has been called the Revolution of Rising Expectations, where we continuously raise our standards on all fronts, doing social comparisons with all the unrealistic reference classes from individuals up through to civilizations, with a laser focus on the exact places either you or the collective we are visibly falling short. What did you think was going to happen?
This theory doesn’t centrally say ‘blame liberal politics’ as much as us being a little itchy on the trigger with pointing out that Life’s a Bitch and Then You Die in all its forms. There are plenty of ugly truths out there. No one has a monopoly, and everyone has a web browser. The political response could scarcely be otherwise. Perhaps it is mostly result rather than cause.
Looping back to the economic and competition aspects, kids nowadays can very clearly see how rough it is going to be out there for them.
That, in turn, makes their real physical situation worse.
If kids are mostly going around being kids and then colleges judge them, and then employers judge them on where they went to college and what they studied, and there are lots of consequences for messing up at every step, and the losers suffer a lot? The few who are highly motivated to get ahead mostly can get ahead. The suffering of the losers is not great, but the kids get to be kids, life gets to be lived, we play and learn and love and so on.
If that is all happening and it is common knowledge, that is so much worse. If you don’t start optimizing for the metrics in order to have a childhood, you’re increasingly screwed. Everyone is suddenly spending their adolescence in a rigid thankless contest to present themselves the right way, building the best possible resume, learning all the right passwords and that actually living life is not a luxury they can afford or so important to their lives. Then the distribution of final economic outcomes doesn’t change and everyone has had less fun, is less of an actual person and is in worse mental health. Moloch triumphs. This seems really, really bad.
If all of this is happening, it is common knowledge, except that people think things are even worse than they are, that’s even worse than an accurate perception. Parents and kids are convinced you absolutely have to stay on the straight and narrow and go to the best possible schools and all that, or you’re finished. And, frankly, that’s not true. You can and likely should go out there, start a business, join a start-up, find ways to do real things and get paid for it regardless of your educational resume. And you can always learn to code (or, for now, among other things, play poker, and also none of this is investment advice or career advice and so on, standard invocation). Things are not so great out there, but people think they’re even worse, which is making them continuously get worse.
A similar pattern on the personal level is what happens if we now more reliably learn about, understand and process information about bad things that have happened to us, difficulties and disadvantages we have, and ways in which we diverge from the normal, that isn’t going to always make us happier or better off, adjustments made in response are often harmful. One way that happens is that we calibrate our understanding of a problem based on the group that couldn’t hide the problem, and then tell the mild cases that could have muddled through that they have this terrible problem, and how bad it must be. It often goes poorly. The correct level of walking things off is not zero.
There is also a big fertility effect from all this, as kids despair of having the resources to raise families so they don’t plan on it, they increasingly don’t even party or have sex. Even when they do get into position later on, they don’t relish their children having to go through the same obstacle course, and they feel obligated to provide everything to let their children succeed at that, which raises their felt financial and other burdens a lot.
The same dynamics, in various ways, also are contributing to increasingly harsh restrictions on children’s ability to exist and be kids, which in turn is crippling their social lives and making them miserable well beyond what makes sense from the game theory involved.
Compare this to the ‘revolt of the public’ theory. What if this revolt is that much more widespread, for most of the same reasons?
Perhaps We’re Spouting All Sorts of Obvious Nonsense?
When the things people say don’t make sense, and you are not yet old enough to have been beaten down enough to stop noticing, it could be kind of depressing.
I am not going to formally defend such claims or cite examples or cite causes beyond phones and social media definitely being a contributing factor, and I won’t be taking any questions.
I will simply say, for completeness, that it is my belief that the overall quality of discourse has radically declined during the period in question, the number of people capable of good discourse has radically declined, the sanity waterline has receded, and it is commonly demanded that people endorse or at least not oppose various things that are obvious nonsense on a continuous basis.
I’m also just going to leave this here, don’t mind me.
What Is To Be Done about Ubiquitous Phone Use and Social Media?
So what do we do about all this?
Whatever other problems are here, social media is making things far worse. What can we do about it?
What won’t work is advising kids of the harm social media does. Even if they can overcome the addictive properties and make an intentional choice, they are stuck in an inadequate equilibrium. The inadequate equilibrium with social media problem is obvious. Even for an individual, turning off one’s phone or deleting one’s accounts is hard. Once all your peer group’s social coordination is on social media, what are you going to do about it?
Being a full-on weirdo no one knows how to contact is not exactly the way to go back to hanging out with friends all the time and having a rich social life.
Have you tried not using what everyone you know and are physically forced to be around all day uses to do social coordination?
Even if true, I do not see how this is an answer. Magnitude matters. So does the direction of the effect.
As an obvious parallel, at times in the past, smoking was a key part of socialization. If you wanted to hang out with the cool people, you had to smoke. So lots of people smoked, which meant lots of other people smoked, and everyone was colder and sicker and poorer and worse off. It is at least reasonable to propose a regulation to shift the norm away from that, where restricting people’s choices makes everyone better off. If it’s kids, the case is that much stronger.
If your friends use of social media is bad for teenagers, as it seems to be, that is an externality. Externalities are a classic market failure that, if big enough and important enough, justify intervention to fix them, ideally in the form of a tax but alternatives can easily be superior to nothing.
Would I support stricter age restrictions on social media or smartphone use?
I am loathe to have the government come in and start restricting our ability to communicate. The problem is that the statistics here are really, really dreadful and horrifying. So I’m on the fence about that. In practice, I’m probably still against it – I’d be for the ideal version but we won’t get the ideal version, and also I don’t want to get into bad habits.
If we can’t reduce usage, one idea as hinted at above is perhaps to make evidence drawn from children’s social media and electronic communications broadly inadmissible. Make it hide auto-delete or at least hide from everyone else by default after a while, viewable only by friends, illegal to consider in any school disciplinary action or admissions process or job interview.
I do know that I want my own children to stay off social media, and minimize their ownership and use of smart phones, for as long as they possibly can. And that I intend to spend quite a lot of my available points, if needed, to fight for this. And that if I was running a school I’d do my best to shut the phones down during school hours.
The only solution to phone use in general is a cultural shift. Being on your phone actually pretty much sucks. I am very rarely on my phone, and constantly strive to be on it less. I don’t play games on my phone. Constantly checking your phone also sucks.
If this was merely a collective action or externality problem I would despair, but you really are better using the larger screens sometimes and mostly unplugging (aside from things like logistical coordination and directions, and actual phone calls) otherwise. So if nothing else was about to hugely disrupt such dynamics I’d expect a cultural shift to start improving things.
Well, whoops. Social media and phone use are about to crash head first into the problem of ubiquitous and rapidly advancing AI. If it wasn’t for AI, I’d say I expect the social media issues are now about as bad as they are going to get and should improve as we adapt to the new world, and that the culture should start shifting soon to get people to look up from their phones more often. Instead, things are about to get super weird, in ways that are very hard to predict.
We can also help this along by improving alternatives to phone use. If children aren’t allowed to go places without adults knowing, or worse adults driving them and coming along and watching them, what do you think they are going to do all day? What choices do they have?
The more we allow and encourage free range childhood at all, in our actually vastly safer world, and encourage rather than discourage the kinds of in-person social interactions kids are missing, the more they won’t need to be on phones all day.
Another potential idea is a rule against any major product (in terms of number of users) that has features that are available on a phone app and not on a desktop. Forcing people to use their phones like this is feeding toxic habits.
What is To Be Done About Information Overload?
The exposure to information problem is that much tougher. If your fellow students know things, you get to know them too. Cultural shifts don’t have opt outs either. There is no way for families to opt out of any of it without radically altering their lifestyles, and even that likely doesn’t work. Any government intervention with much chance of working here would be far worse than the disease.
So the unfortunate answer is, essentially, ‘not much.’ We can avoid making it actively worse, but I don’t see what else we can do on a societal level.
What About Other Economic and Social Problems?
The economic and social problems, and other lived experience issues, can be divided into perception versus expectations versus reality.
For fixing the reality, how to Do Better, and in what ways we must Do Better, is of course an endless debate – I won’t get into it here beyond strongly asserting there is lots of low hanging fruit.
For fixing perception, there are the places where the problem is that perception is wrong and the places where perception is right but causing problems.
Where it is wrong and doing harm, the ideal answer is obvious, but also sometimes one must actually ‘fix’ the problem due to such perceptions alone. If no one will fly in an airplane unless they are a hundred times as safe as it otherwise makes sense to make them, well, I have news about how safe you are going to make your planes.
Where it is right but doing harm, that is tricker. Going back to lying is not going to work. You never want to be in this spot, in any context:
We can take individual-level steps to shield info for a time, but that is also severely limited.
The obvious solution is ‘fix the underlying problem and ensure people realize this,’ which when feasible is obviously insanely great.
Alas, depending on political and social realities, and on the physical aspects of the problem, that may not be possible.
That brings us to the problem of rising expectations.
In many cases, our expectations for economic or social progress have become completely divorced from physical reality and how humans and civilization work. In others, expectations automatically ratchet to the level above wherever one happens to be, so they can never be satisfied.
So we might correctly understand what is happening, and still find it is impossible to ‘fix’ what is happening. This could be either because the problem is inherent to civilization and humans and the fix flat out can’t be done, or maybe it could in theory be solved but the fix would break other things and make things worse or be absurdly expensive, or the fix would cause a shift in expectations and thus would not solve the central problem.
Lowered expectations? Hopefully via better understanding of the problems, but also perhaps when that isn’t working some ordinary despair and willingness to compromise, realizing that things are actually pretty good, considering?
I mean, kind of, yeah. Otherwise, I don’t know. I don’t think anyone else knows either.
Ideally with a large side of actually doing much better, and acting as if the kids are not okay and constantly on their phones for good reasons – that we’ve robbed them of their alternatives and their futures and their freedom and their privacy, so perhaps we should give some of those things back.
Other problems resulting from cultural shifts will be similarly hard to reverse, the damage has been done. It is still possible, all such things go in cycles rather than only getting worse.
Conclusion and First Step
I wish I knew of better answers.
The good news is that for most of us, ubiquitous use of smart phones and social media is transparently terrible for us. This isn’t an inadequate equilibrium if it is not an equilibrium. There is a reason so many comedians and other famous people talk about locking their phones so they can’t use them for anything but a few basic functions.
You can profitably be the change you want to see in the world here. My recommendation for adults (including myself, some of this is aspirational)is that you do the following, and insist kids do the same:
- Don’t ever passively use social media on your phone. No scrolling, ever.
- Cut down social media use as much as you can even on your computer. Twitter is a strange hybrid case where I think it is often necessary, but f*** Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok unless you’re actively doing business or logistics.
- Don’t ever play games on your phone.
- Don’t do anything on your phone that you could do better on your computer.
- Also, get yourself a desktop computer with a large monitor. Walk over, use that.
- When you are at home, don’t even have your phone next to you if you’re not expecting or in a call or actively texting. When you’re not at home, unless you have a specific thing to be doing, don’t take it out. Never scroll. Be present. In case of boredom, see the approved uses list.
- Don’t never take pictures but mostly never take pictures.
- Turn off all non-essential notifications in all forms, definitely including email.
- Actively fine uses of a smartphone include: Maps and directions, phone calls and video calls, reading e-books, playing music and podcasts and audio books, quickly looking up relevant information, storing tickets or otherwise showing others info.
- Look upon all other uses as highly suspicious.
…and make concerted efforts to see people in person as often as possible. I have been failing at this one since the birth of my third child. I need to do better.
So do we all.
ChatGPT’s top 5 candidates in order, after failing to come up with a good song completion (not that I tried that hard): Financial Pressure, Lack of Good Role Models, Social Media and Cell Phones, Fear of Failure, Need for Friends and Lack of Self-Care.
Or 44, really, my first hand report is that it still isn’t any fun.
Thank you for this. Fascinating statistics and a great analysis. Throughout, I couldn’t help thinking that we need to teach young people about internal vs. external locus of control. If it’s their “lived experience” that is making their lives challenging, I wonder whether we couldn’t nudge them to view their existing world through a new lens? Perhaps easier said than done. As for your first steps, I’ve been adhering to your suggestions for 9-10 years (though do allow myself to play a puzzle game *only* while waiting at medical appointments) and it’s changed my life drastically. I was never depressed, but the phone and doom-scrolling were an unnecessary distraction.
One other thing that happened around 2011: Teenagers began substantially switching from cigarettes to vaping. Tobacco contains, among other chemicals, anti-depressants (of the old, effective MAOI kind, except as far as I know these MAOIs are unique in that they don’t kill you if you eat cheese). Vapes contain only a very limited selection of these chemicals, focusing as they do on nicotine itself – and do not generally contain the anti-depressants found in tobacco.
I’m aware of this because I myself switched to vaping around this time period, and quickly discovered a deterioration in my mood. After some research I switched to vaping products that contained a more comprehensive collection of the chemicals involved, which did in fact seem to improve things, although n=1 and all of that.
Interesting. I’m skeptical that smoking actually net improves mood all things considered (even ignoring long term impacts) but one could presumably do a retrospective study on this and get a pretty good idea.
Effect size still seems too large for this to be a primary driver, though.
The problem here is that smoking had been on the decline for a long time prior to this, so we would expect depression to be gradually going up if this were a primary driver. But I don’t think that the number of teenage smokers (including my number self) was large enough in any case to drive the numbers seen here.
“That does not tell us what is causing the kids to not be okay. It does make it less likely that we should be looking mostly or exclusively at social media, or at wokeness, or fear of climate change, since none of those can explain the early 1990s. That would require the two peaks have distinct causes.”
How about this world model:
Cable+CNN+Fox+TV-all-day was Media Virus Delta, causing a peak in the 90s, declining with eventual immunity. iPhone+Social-Media+Constant-Internet+Constant-News was Media Virus Omicron, causing a peak in the late 2020s, which will…
For the record, I’ve curated my Facebook feed so it works for me in a way similar to how you’ve curated your Twitter feed. And I comment a lot, so it’s not just scrolling.
My wife refuses to let me have a desktop computer in the house, so I’m stuck with my phone for a lot of things. At least they have Slay the Spire on mobile and I do my best to stick with “free” games that don’t insist that I play them all day every day. (I’ve had to delete some I otherwise liked because of that.)
Also, if you want a “free” mobile game that actually respects your time, I suggest Another Eden. It’s a JRPG from many of the same people that made Chrono Trigger, the story is pretty good, no content is ever time-limited (except for the Chrono Cross crossover, which the lawyers said couldn’t run for more than 5 years), and you can clear almost anything in the game without using any gacha characters.
It’s also available on Steam, apparently.
Thanks, I can check Another Eden for Steam but I actively don’t want a free game on mobile.
Someone who is unwilling to let you have a desktop computer sets off some pretty damn large red flags, I mean seriously WTF.
Maybe it’s just a “space in apartment” issue. In which case a chromebook or Dell laptop is an adequate substitute as long as you don’t need to record, edit, or stream video.
I would guess that the early-90s peak in teenage mental health badness has the same cause as the early-90s peak in violent crime, whatever that is. Intuitively, most pre-Internet things that cause one would also tend to cause the other; certainly e.g. lead poisoning seems like a reasonable candidate for both. Whereas Internet-driven social isolation will decrease violent crime by decreasing opportunities for same, even as it makes people sadder.
Teen suicide rates rose steeply from the late 60s, maybe earlier, reaching a plateau starting in the late 80s. I suspect that the suicide rate more than doubled in this period due above all to decaying social norms. This means the elite decided they were bored with the traditional norms, tried some experiments for themselves, and legislated experiments for the sub-elite classes. The legislated experiments did not go as expected. What was notable about the nineties was not that suicides peaked, but that they began to decline for the first time in decades in the late nineties. Maybe this decline happened because people had assimilated some of the social changes by then.
The quote from Haidt on moving from play-based to phone-based childhood is the best summary of the causes of the problem I’ve seen. Social media severely disrupts the normal social environment of children. I can’t think of a good reason to suppose the new situation is healthier.
Adding to the solid analysis of reduced privacy, I wonder about the position those children who prefer to have only a few close friends find themselves in, given social media realities. Twenty years ago one could have only 3 or 5 friends and this would not be known to outsiders. Now one’s private friendship network may be more easily discoverable and, of course, it’s not cool for a teenager to have a close and limited network.
Social media is designed from the start to be addictive. The practical ten steps at the OP’s end reminds me that Jaron Lanier wrote a concise, insightful, albeit politically biased book on social media mind disease a few years ago (“Ten Reasons to Delete Your Social Media Accounts”). One might hope the cool kids would make it uncool to be addicted to a portable surveillance/manipulation machine. But, like Wall Streeters who can manage life with cocaine because they have so many personal advantages compared to poor crack users, the cool kids may not benefit from social media, but they probably handle it better than socially unsuccessful kids.
I would also blame many of the rules adults have made that seriously limit social opportunities for young people. For example, in my state they made it illegal for a teenager to have other teenagers in their car. This happened around 2010. Since then, teens don’t go out and do stuff together at night. When I was that age, one friend would pick up the others and we’d go bowling, go to the movies, hang out at the diner, or just drive around. It was great, but now it is illegal. Maybe kids spend a lot of time on their phones partly because adults took away a lot of the other fun things they could be doing in order to ‘protect them’.
“Illegal to drive with other teenagers in the car”. This sounds so incredibly insane that I couldn’t believe it at first. I had to google to convince myself that in fact California (and perhaps others) actually has such a law. This is now my go-to example of safetyism gone mad.
A major difference from when I was a child is that children have few or no spaces outside home and school and free of adult supervision where they can spend time with their peers. From age 7 or so I’d roam the streets where I grew up, hang out in libraries and parks and woodlands, and take public transport on my own just a couple of years later to go further afield. Unsupervised kids outside line of sight of their home is implausible in most places around here now; I see kids as old as 12-13 only ever leaving their house to go to/from school or on parent-organised activities.
So of course they turn to phones and social media to stay in touch with their friends: it is the most attractive option. I suggest that removing it without providing an adequate replacement will not improve their mental health.
The free-range kids, meanwhile, rare though they are, do not seem to feel the need to spend much time on social media. The real world remains more compelling. Funny how that works.
Just for a data point, I’m lucky to live in a country where children are allowed to roam freely, spend time outdoors without adult supervision, take public transportation, etc. Our teen depression, suicide rates, and so on are somewhere around average for a developed country. We still have to fight against excessive social media use. During breaks at schools, our kids sit hunched over their phones until the next lesson starts. It’s still nice that they can roam freely.
Thezvi, while everyone has their own opinion about what’s causing these issues, there’s a very simple answer that almost no one with a significant media presence takes seriously but any learned person will recognize.
There are only a few things that can cause people to fall into despair. Those types generally fall into a few categories; lack of agency (an ability to control the outcome), lack of voice (intimately connected with agency, and reflected appraisal), and arbitrary interference.
The younger generation has born the brunt of technology misuses, and its not a new phenomena, people have been saying these issues for years and no one of consequence (capable of changing the outcome) has taken action to prevent, hold accountable, or create a fair and impartial system, or even paid attention.
In fact abuses occur arbitrarily, often with impunity and without consequence. For example, I have an uncle whom I respect, but whom I disagree with on principle but who am I to tell him how he parents. They have a teenage son, and their rules were you have to keep your phone with you and powered at all times. That phone had a spyware app which tracked his every activity, with many features. He was punished for being minutes late past curfew because he hit all lights on the way home. When the GPS glitched above a certain MPH while driving, he would be punished for speeding later. Its possible he may have been speeding, but I’m a technologist and know how often technology actually fails.
Many IT people see social media solely as a many-to-one system of control, capable of amplifying or de-amplifying a message, and have stopped participating.
Who decides which message, and what accountability do they have? (They decide, None).
So the big takeaway I think almost everyone unilaterally misses is, the current and recent past generations have put systems into place that disadvantage their children’s environment.
People lose hope, and when things get bad enough, they start looking at options to relieve that pain or suffering. You look at social credit systems, and see the counter-contra movement of “The Last Generation”.
Worse, there is little to no credibility that anything will be resolved at this point. If it were going to happen, it would have happened in the 90s. The past several generations have simply passed the buck on most issues while creating more issues and worse, coddling the people that will take over for them.
Instead choosing to tie them down in red tape and enriching themselves as a cohort to everyone else’s expense. Deceit and corruption are the norms, mostly for short-term personal profit to others losses.
Interference abounds in almost every aspect of life, some of frighteningly complexity, and children who have no coping mechanisms, what do they do when facing this kind of future where nothing will be easy. Children if nothing else are natural keen observers.
These issues are only going to get worse, you already see people not having children because of financial security and debt slavery, and the various frauds where no one responsible really gets punished in Ponzi markets.
You see people unable to get jobs they have 10+ years experience doing because they don’t have a piece of paper because the required GE classes are setup to fail most repeatedly (weed-out courses and non-deterministic test proctoring). Worse, when they can’t get those jobs they take the jobs younger people would hold and normally develop professionally.
Core systems that affect all of our lives and wellbeing have been changed over the past generation. Mainly towards being less resilient, more brittle, less agency and no visibility or means of affecting change.
There will be a time in the not too distant future where a stand being made is an unfortunate inevitability because the alternative will be compulsion, death, slavery, or extinction.
Weizenbaum had a warning back in the 80s. No one really paid attention.
His 5 questions were:
“Who is the beneficiary of our much-advertised technological progress and who are its victims?
What limits ought we, the people generally and scientists and engineers particularly, to impose on the application of computation to human affairs?
What is the impact of the computer, not only on the economies of the world or on the war potential of nations, etc…but on the self-image of human beings and on human dignity?
What irreversible forces is our worship of high technology, symbolized most starkly by the computer, bringing into play?
Will our children be able to live with the world we are here and now constructing?”
To know where things went wrong requires reading a lot of history and rediscovering common knowledge which has since been lost, and being able to read between the lines, and unfortunately it is not good history, its very dark history.
Much of the systems in place today are not as described, have been obfuscated by intent, and the goal of institutions has changed from describing them and educating to focusing on parsel-tongue in a way that misleads those trying to come to a fundamental understanding or first principled understanding, primarily so they will take a loss so others not-in-the-know can make money. Then there’s also those that are wrongfully accused by algorithm…
A recent example, what do you call fractional reserve banking, when there is no fraction reserve required by the banks. Are you aware in 2020 the reserve requirements were set to 0 (see the fed reserve website), and that they’ve pivoted that requirement to a less visible international agreement (Basel III) that claims to do the same thing, but uses capital requirements which count underlying reserves to include stock-holder equity for reserve calculations? What could possibly go wrong there if there’s no risk for poor decisions, and the cap rate acts as reserves (to the loss of those who invested through public trading)?
If you want to dig further into actual support for causes, here’s some suggested reading without getting sidetracked by the too numerous bogus or misleading materials out there. This is aimed at providing a base regarding changes in banking markets, and ideological subversion, obviously focus on referenced material, and validate yourself what isn’t referenced; keep a very critical eye.
You may want to start your journey with
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense,
Knowing about Mass Psychology is important; Robert Cialdini’s Influence (to have a fundamental understanding of psychological blindspots/manipulations and how they are used, especially the part about Consistency and the Whorfian Hypothesis with relation to how it was used against POWs in Vietnam),
Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1778) [the importance of the division of labor, and context for how changes toward oligopy, monopoly, or concentration of resources/power deviations have led to poorer outcomes],
The Tuskegee Experiments, and other Eugenics based programs, and how they have been allowed to continue to present day (in the form of involuntary sterilization) despite abuses.
The US Marine Corp University website has a well referenced book on Political Warfare, and all that entails (which is where most of the misinformation, propaganda, and interference we face today comes from; see also books by Levchenko and Bittman who were defectors).
The Federalist/Antifederalist Papers and Democracy in America,
The man without a face/Stasi,
Wealth and Poverty of Nations (Landes),
Legacy of Ashes,
The Creature of Jekyll Island (only pay attention to referenced parts, the author goes on skippable tangents),
Debt – the last 5000 years
and, 48 Laws of power, and The Prince by Machiavelli.
I am still looking for good resources on Greece/Roman Empire and its troubles with Demagogues, nor have I found a solid overview of socialism, fabianism, communism that actually focuses its studies on the structural failings (Economic calculation, insufficient reaction to shortages, death from failed policies & corruption, and the lifestyle of the population that often produces as a disadvantaged labor source for an aristocratic elite [i.e. fascism]).
If you happen to find any good resources in this area, let me know. I’m always looking and I’ve read almost everything on those three subjects available to my library.
Oh. No :( I’m addicted to my phone, but your post speaks to me. I’ll stop using it for scrolling. [I’d add more caveats here, but that you would set me up for failure]
Anyway, “Implications about a rough childhood that’s nevertheless unmedicated is left as an exercise to the reader,” so let’s think up some possible implications:
1 – Medicated childhood stifle talent and creativity, for life? Like, direct cognitive impact, as well as fewer “real” formative experiences. That’s my main take on the implications.
After that, only more handwavy possible stories:
2 – Being diagnosed puts a child in a box, and their psyche will accomodate to fit that box? It’s hard to be against “coddling children who have Disorders”, but it might be necessary: unmedicated, undiagnosed children will have more trouble in the present, but being forced to socialized with non-disorder kids might be worth it. [Or not; who knows what led to the 90’s rise in suicides?]
2b – OTOH tracking seems effective, according to Duflot’s RCTs in India (so take it with a grain of salt). Changing a curriculum / expectations for diagnosed medicated kids might help them more than having to follow the same script as the “rest.” (Yeah, that probably doesn’t even happen; they might have social stigma without special accomodations.)
3 – This change shows that the parents (aka society) might have changed. Your parents didn’t medicate you; but half a generation later, the parents are happy to find a cure for their child being a child. That might be boring global “kids these days,” but like your example with TV, I like to be reminded that today’s parents are yesterday’s kids all grown up – and yesterday’s kids were already subjected to deep social changes.
Being diagnosed with something often just means attaching a label with no real solution, there are a number of diagnosis where they are simply catchalls after other things have been ruled out. In most cases, a diagnosis is a crutch and once someone has a label, they don’t look past the label due to confirmation bias.
You might find it interesting, take a look at symptoms for heavy metal poisoning (mercury, lead, arsenic). Compare those symptoms with spectrum disorders, and do some research into how they test for that in the cases of chronic exposures.
You might be surprised that they can only test for acute poisoning, largely because it binds so quickly in tissue, and so to test for that they have to cause acute poisoning to happen by giving you a rapid chelator, sending you home, and then doing a blood test the next day. The test is negative or your acutely poisoned.
As for sources of exposure, Mercury is 50% by weight in silver amalgam dental fillings, that can be released when consuming acidic beverage (Soda?). Arsenic is commonly in municipal water, and airplane fuel is and has been leaded for the past 50-60 years.
Common practice in the case of an emergency landing with a full fuel tank is to dump the fuel in air (leaded gasoline) so it doesn’t explode when it crashes/lands.
Food for thought.
“Airplane fuel is leaded”
Only for small, piston-engined aircraft in “general aviation” (avgas). Anything with a turbine engine — every commercial passenger plane is either a jet or a turboprop, and even some smallish propeller planes are actually turboprops — uses kerosene and has no need for an anti-knocking additive.
Physics: gasoline engines mix the fuel into the air well before it is supposed to burn, thus inadvertent early ignition (from the adiabatic heating of compression and some hot parts of the cylinder) a.k.a. “knocking” is a concern. Diesel and turbine engines only introduce the fuel into the already-compressed air at the point when it is supposed to burn. Compressing the air more improves fuel efficiency (and can make the engine lighter for the same power; this is the main concern in this case), thus gasoline engines were always pushing against this limit on knocking.
AFAIK amalgam has been long discontinued in dentistry primarily exactly due to concerns about the mercury (and secondarily because a white ceramic filling isn’t “ugly”), and the allowed arsenic levels in water have been lowered decades ago (also, common sources of arsenic pollution, e.g. pest-/herbicides have been replaced/banned decades ago, as in, DDT was a replacement for arsenic-based stuff).
If ever there was a post that needed a short version, this one does
As a almost-ex-teen (18), I was really surprised that this post didn’t mention social texting at all. I’m admittedly in a lot of unusual bubbles that mean my experience isn’t exactly representative, but the *vast* majority of my phone time is spent in WhatsApp or Safari, and among other boys in my social circle, p2p social media (including small chat groups) is quite a bit more popular than algorithmic social media. Girls are a little different—algorithmic social media is generally used more, but nobody uses Facebook regularly as an algorithmic site (messenger is used for coordination), Twitter is normally used as a mix of basically a less-targeted group chat with your ~10-20 Twitter acquaintances (which aren’t necessarily your closest friends) and a content aggregator, and Instagram/Snapchat are fairly popular.
Particularly during- and post-pandemic, social texting not for the purpose of arranging anything (where texting means WhatsApp/Messages/Discord/Telegram) is incredibly common and popular. This can take a variety of forms:
– ~6-20 person groupchat of a friend group that people use as effectively “lunch table conversation”
– 3-4 person groupchats which chat about vaguely common interests+random life events (primary social venue for most people, equivalent to hanging out with a few close friends at the mall, etc.)
– 1:1 texting with friends intermittently, analogously to talking face to face (a few texts a month-a conversation every day or two)
– Sustaining a continuous asynchronous conversation over text with one person regardless of physical locations (many texts daily, equivalent to traditional best friend/sit next to on the bus relationships)
I think pretty much all of these have had a hugely positive effect on my mental health, except the last, which has probably had a negative impact on my mental health but in a way I’d consider worth it due to weird external circumstances. Similarly, I think most teens are involved in all of the first 3, but the last one is probably a bit uncommon. I think these basically replicate traditional high school dynamics, both good and bad, in the obvious ways. I’m not sure how this affects the thesis on teen mental health—I absolutely believe that Instagram especially is a mental health disaster.
There is a movement to disable info-sharing by using texting without read receipts, etc. to reduce stress a little. One of the big differentiators between people who are genuinely pleasant to text with and people you text with out of social obligation is if they don’t ever mention you being online/reading their texts/etc., even if they can see it or do notice it.
Finally, teens are also really good at overcoming limitations in texting—with someone I know well, I find that I can generally read 90-100% of the emotions they intend through how they express themselves. Some people complain about the proliferation of LOL, etc. in texting language, but the exact punctuation and interjections used are how tone is communicated, and every person has their own “grammar” you get used to. Picking up on emotions people are trying to conceal is more difficult, but generally possible with people you know reasonably well unless they’re *really* good at it. Similarly, communication efficiency is a lot better than people who are worse at texting than teens assume—both synchronously and asynchronous texting feel about as efficient as in-person communication to me in terms of time spent, and come with massive logistics benefits and constant access to Google.
Hopefully this is interesting/helpful!
Fiddler, while I can appreciate your subjective experience, it is not exactly objective.
There are a couple of confounding factors, and its easy to dismiss them if you hadn’t already been through the experience firsthand.
The fact is, when you are young, your brain isn’t fully developed, and as a result you notice the upsides more, and the downsides less, almost to the exclusion of everything else. This perceptual issue results in it taking a real extremely causative and negative event to notice something, and then remember it.
An example might be eating twinkies, or something with a huge amount of sugar in such large amounts that you become so sick you throw up.
Prior to the age of 12 or 13, you aren’t able to generally think logically, critically, or differentiate subtle deceit, deceptions, or lies unless you’ve had a severe or traumatic experience. Its biological development, its often called the age of reason in literature and it varies, but it also must be developed, and you generally accept whatever you are told and tell the truth prior to that, its biological.
Areas that help control addiction don’t develop until your 20s. It makes controlling things like addiction difficult to impossible, and these companies do some real subtle psychological manipulations that you have not been taught to recognize, and that work on a fully developed person, and these fall under the guise of gamification. This is largely why gaming today is so addictive yet each game follows the exact same structured elements.
As a young person, you have many more psychological blindspots than grown adults, and almost every environment exploits this to some degree. This is one of the main reasons why its important to have older friends to bounce things off when something seems confounding or confusing. If you can only see one thing, but you have someone you can trust and they see something else that you don’t, you can ground yourself.
If you’d like to learn more about those psychological blind spots I’d recommend the book Influence by Cialdini. You’d be surprised how the structure of just about everything you see out in public uses these subtle tactics to push a designed narrative to control you.
A final comment more about the reliability of those communication services. They are wholly unreliable, they may seem reliable based on past experience, and marketing, but they have a major pitfall.
You cannot verify or guarantee any message sent is received by other people without being right next to them.
The apps will display the message as being sent, and any number of people in-between you and your recipient can determine if others see it (delivery), and when they see it (delay).
I’ve had numerous instances where meeting friends and comparing phones shows messages were sent and never received (with timestamps), not in its entirety but in a targeted way (i.e. group messages would arrive to some but not all recipients and fail silently on those recipients), sometimes messages would arrive weeks later and this impacts your relationships when people think you are giving them the cold shoulder and can’t get in touch with you.
I have seen it happen often enough, and the path for reporting it to your provider ends with support tickets being closed arbitrarily, multiple times at the 30 day mark, with no action taken, so these companies are doing this with intention and no accountability. You would need to have to do their job for them and have specialized background in radio to track the issue down.
Thanks, that is indeed great info.
On a tech note: I don’t know the extent to which T is reporting real issues with the tech, but the more complex the social games and demands for correct responses, the more even a very small delivery failure rate can cause a lot of damage even if it’s totally random.
I’m guessing you are overestimating how good texting is at communicating here, even if it has no errors. And more than that, I am worried that trying to communicate in this way over text is harmful – if you need to communicate exact tone and emotional state, in a written record, intentionally, continuously, in a way you can consciously sculpt, what happens? Everyone is communicating what they want others to *think* their facial expressions are, which means the rabbit hole goes much deeper, and everything is less authentic, more stressful, bigger downsides, etc.
Even more than that, having texts that you feel obligated to constantly read or respond to right away means you are doomed to never be able to unplug. Your social life becomes a job, you’re on it all day and you can’t ever stop. Which also means you’re always on your phone.
I do agree that the larger 20-person group texts are plausibly good things, if there is no pressure in them and one can freely opt out on any given day. However at best I still am worried that this means that it is often substituting for face-to-face interaction and I think that’s probably really bad, and also preventing any deep work or alone time, although if it is substituting for never talking to anyone it’s good.
I have a separate confusion here: if people want a synchronous protocol — if they think their message is so damn important and urgent that they should get an immediate acknowledgement of its reception (or explicit failure thereof) — why don’t they initiate a voice call, using the very same device or even app? It still doesn’t carry facial expressions, but does have a much wider bandwidth for emotional information, too, for the people who care about that.
> I have a separate confusion here…
Yes, that is the generally preferred method… when it connects, and you can verify with the person.
This isn’t always possible, sometimes because the person screens their calls and prefers to communicate over text or an app, but equally, there may be last mile connectivity issues and it may not build a voice path and simply go straight to voicemail, now say you leave a voicemail, you then run into the exact same issues as before, and some new ones as well.
As a sender, you don’t know your message is being received. You may be able to hear the voicemail box message, and that is supposed to mean they can hear you but that may not actually be happening. Also there may be no way to verify the message you left was actually recorded, they used to have a playback message option but that feature has been silently dropped by many service providers in recent years, and there is no way to callback and verify a previous message you left was properly saved.
As a receiver, you don’t know someone tried to leave you a message, you may not get a notification of voicemail, you might call in manually to check your voicemail box and you would assume that message would be there, but it may not be, you have no way of knowing, and some providers simply discard blank messages with no record, and the actual call record is left up to the last mile so there may be no record someone called when there is an issue between the provider’s tower and your phone, and the sender records may not match the receiver. This is supposed to be on the provider, but as previously mentioned, they may simply close problem tickets after 30 days with no action.
Often times when there are issues, that last mile timestamp is assumed to be the timestamp for displaying the message, but I’ve seen that timestamp vary widely, with the largest being off by up to a few weeks.
So there is no way to guarantee integrity of your message, and you shouldn’t have to because of the math built into our communications protocols is supposed to account for binary erasure.
In practice, the fact that failures like these are occurring more often, makes it all the more odd when they fail in this way (silently) because those channels that are encoded and built-up and transmitted over radio, are based on applied probabilities to prevent silent erasure, and the math is solid.
With some cheap radio equipment (SDR), its fairly simple to see that the information is being transmitted to a tower, which makes it all the more difficult to find the cause since its clearly at least on the tower-side leg, and providers block access while also closing tickets without follow-up.