Ross Douthat: The smartphone and the sources of teen despair

Social media bounces between toxic narcissism and the solidarity of the mob.

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

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

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

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

Then data aside, having lived through the online revolution as both a participant and a parent, it seems obvious that social media has worsened the coming-of-age experience relative to the halcyon 1990s — creating a “sense of another consciousness that’s welded to your own consciousness and has its own say all the time,” as my fellow teenager-of-the-’90s Freddie deBoer wrote recently, which makes the general self-consciousness of adolescence feel much more brutal.

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

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

In the early Obama years, many liberals assumed that these trends were positive and healthy, or at least sustainable and manageable. They weren’t yielding the social disorder that conservatives always fear, crime was low and the decline of the two-parent family could be treated mostly as an economic problem, and blue America (or at least upper-middle-class blue America) seemed to be successfully balancing moral liberty and personal responsibility.

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

All of which has made social liberalism look much more unsustainable and self-undermining than it did in 2008. It’s threatened not just by political radicalism and returning disorder, but by a collapse of familial and romantic and even sexual connection, a terrible atomization and existential dread, a chasing after ever-stranger gods.

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

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

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.