Category Archives: Social Media

Is Social Liberalism the problem?


I am still looking at the issue of why there are so many youth suicides. What happened?

Ross Douthat of the New York Times thinks Jonathan Haidt, the social psychologist, did not go far enough. He should have looked more at the society into which this new technology fell. Douthat said this:

“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.”


We must realize that by “social liberalism” he did not mean exactly what you might think. He is not talking about the woke culture that Republicans are currently constantly criticizing. He does not think anti-racism or diversity equity inclusion (‘DEI’) is the real problem. He thinks it is the liberalism that preceded it—the individualism of the 1960s that included secularization, which replaced the decline of religion in the 2000s. From Douthat’s point of view, which is clearly Christian and conservative, (though not in the Trumpian sense), is that social and sexual permissiveness, widespread and open pre-marital sex, out-of-wedlock child rearing, and marijuana use all contributed to the problem. I would point out that Douthat has not backed up his claims with the rigorous kind of evidence Haidt did, but his ideas have some attraction. All of those factors which might even have been morally justified and rational, might very well have contributed to the moral instability of youth, particularly young girls.

Douthat saw such liberalism this way:

“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.

These modern technologies fell on soil that was fertile to growing insecurity and anxiety and thus wrecked havoc on our youth. Freedom can be difficult for anyone, let alone youth and children.  They needed a moral foundation to support these liberal freedoms, which was often absent as parents did not know how to supply them, often relying solely on religious teachings and dogma that were not always adequate for the purpose. This combination of new exciting technologies, exhilarating freedom, and dubious religious instructions did not give youth the solid grounding they needed. Freedom alone can be hell.

Douthat concluded this way:

“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 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.”


I think Douthat’s analysis provides some helpful supplements to Haidt’s scientific analysis. In other words, in my view, new technologies, new freedoms without a solid moral foundation is what left youth unanchored, and weak religious teachings combined to create the debacle of the 2010s. And sadly, that all started a chain reaction which has fed a steady stream of youth suicides. And we are not over it yet.

Why are North American Teens Miserable?


I have already commented on a big problem with youth in North America. In particular, I referred to significant work done by Jonathan Haidt and his team of researchers. Unfortunately, there is more to say on th e issue.  It is time to meander back.

Based on the recent CDC Youth Risk Report Ross Douthat commented as follows in the New York Times:

“American teenagers, and especially American teenage girls, are increasingly miserable: more likely to entertain suicidal thoughts and act on them, more likely to experience depression, more likely to feel beset by “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.”


We must remember that every generation worries about and complains about the generation that follows them. My parents did, I did it, and my kids will do it. The next generation is never considered as good as our generation. The only other thing we like to blame as much as the youth is modern technology. Yet now, perhaps surprisingly, at least there is some evidence to support this worry.


Jonathan Haidt a leading social psychological researcher has done extensive scientific study on the issue of what is happening to our youth. He has testified about it to the United States Senate. He bases his statements on scientific evidence, not bias. He has shown that based on many indicators there has been a severe darkening of the mental health of youth occurred in the early 2010s. These, of course, in the US were the Obama years. His research lab has actually pinned it down to that time. He saw a worrying change that has continued to the present.


Haidt bases his claims on the fact that this is exactly the same time when social media changed significantly.  I have seen the effects of social media on young girls and it is not pretty. Ross Douthat who concurs with Haidt said, “The timing of the mental health trend fits the smartphone’s increasing substitution for in-person socialization.” Douthat also said this:

“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.”


It has always been tough being a teen.  But social media has greatly exacerbated the problem. This problem is not confined to the United States. Similar evidence of severe mental health issues have been seen in Canada and throughout the west.  I think this indicates  a severe decline in the west.

Hysteria Rides (and falls) Again



It is hardly surprising, but hysteria has failed again. That is because hysteria rarely leads to encouraging solutions to real problems. Hysteria interferes with critical thinking.

Many Winnipeggers learned this lesson on Friday. As Maggie Macintosh reported in the Winnipeg Free Press,

More than 1,000 students — including nearly half of one elementary school’s population — were absent from classes in one Winnipeg school district Wednesday as misinformation spread online about its teachers distributing graphic sexual content.


Many Winnipeggers believed the nonsense they read about on social media that teachers planned to suddenly expose children to explicit and inappropriate information. That is typical of the stuff social media spreads, and unfortunately, many parents are inclined to believe such claims. People who are addicted to conspiracy theories believe stuff like this no matter how incredible it is. People living in what Kurt Anderson called “FantasyLand” are addicted to such absurdities.

 Superintendent Brian O’Leary said We had a lot of information circulating on social media, particularly within the South Asian community, telling parents that the schools were planning to hand out books with graphic sexual material to all students.”

As Macintosh reported, the Superintendent  said,

 “false and malicious fearmongering” on social media prompted hundreds of families in the Seven Oaks School Division to keep their elementary-aged children home from classes Sept. 20.


He also said the posts in Punjabi, Hindi and Arabic were “deliberately concocted to scare parents,” and were circulating on Facebook. The problem is that far too many parents, and others, believe everything they hear on social media, particularly if it aligns with their anti-government ideology. The problem is not gender ideology, it is the ideology of automatic distrust in government. Adherents to this ideology would much rather believe nonsense on the internet than government sources.  And this is a big problem for society.

As Macintosh said,

“About 50 per cent of students enrolled at Arthur E. Wright Community School did not show up Wednesday. The absenteeism rate dropped to five per cent Thursday. The abnormal attendance levels were recorded on the same day as the “1MillionMarch4Children” — a protest organized by a conservative group that is “against gender ideology” and claims schools are sharing “sexually explicit content” with students — played out across the country.”


When hysterical parents hear lies this, particularly if they have a sexual element,  they immediately move into high gear before they have a chance to think things through rationally. Hysteria is the mortal enemy of critical thinking.

I don’t think it is a coincidence either that this happened as hundreds of protesters showed up at the Manitoba Legislative Building the day before to call for more parental rights, even though they already have ample parental rights they rarely use.  When parents are haunted by fantastical visions of children being sexually abused, their reactions are on hair-trigger mode.

The president of the Manitoba Teacher’s Society Nathanial Martindale was disappointed that parents had believed such nonsense that  Manitoba teachers are out to harm children. As he said, “nothing could be further from the truth… Educators want the best for all learners and will never be onside with homophobic or transphobic hate.” But reasonable ordinary truth like that  just does not cut it on the Internet when there are salacious lies instead.

Lies and Hate travel at warp speed on the internet compared to dull truth.


Eye Witness Testimony

Jonathan Haidt also told the Senate that “eyewitness testimony” confirms the academic findings: social media is a culprit. Not necessarily the only culprit.

Their research and others directly asked teens what they think is causing the problem. As we all know, many of them like social media, like heroin users like heroin,  but when teens were asked whether they think social media overall is good or bad for them, according to Haidt, “The answer is consistently “no.”

Added to that, Haidt pointed out to the Senate that

Facebook’s own internal research, brought out by Frances Haugen in the Wall Street Journal, concluded that “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression … This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.”

Haidt advised the Senate that in Australia a study showed that “teens believe that social media is the main reason that youth mental health is getting worse.”

This is what Haidt told the Senate committee investing the problem:

“This crisis did not emerge gradually. There was no sign of it before 2010, but by 2015 it was everywhere, overwhelming mental health centers that catered to teens and college students. The crisis emerged in the exact years when American teens were getting smart phones and becoming daily users of social media platforms such as Instagram. Correlational, experimental, and eye-witness testimony points to social media as a major cause of the crisis. I do not believe that social media is the only cause of the crisis, but there is no alternative hypothesis that can explain the suddenness, enormity, and international similarity that I laid out in part 1 of this document. Researchers and spokespeople for the major platforms who tell you that the evidence is “inconclusive” or that the effect sizes are “too small” should be asked directly: “OK, then what do YOU think caused this?”


Haidt and his team believe, based on significant evidence, not just grump adults, that social media is part of the reason that in the United States, Canada and elsewhere are suffering from these serious health problems.

It is clear that in the United States and Canada the countries are experiencing what Haidt called “a catastrophic wave of mood disorders (anxiety and depression) and related behaviors (self harm and suicide).”

The crisis is so severe that the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, recently issued an Advisory on Youth Mental Health warning Americans to take this problem seriously.

 I think we should all do that. If we don’t the west will continue to decline and many more American and Canadian young people will suffer immeasurably.

A World-Wide Problem


Jonathan Haidt made another important point to the Senators that he has often made in print, namely, that this is not just an American problem. The same crisis has hit “many countries” not only the United States. That means that it cannot be blamed solely on problems unique to the US such as gun violence, particularly in schools. The cause must be broader than that. He then made a statement that should concern Canadians, namely that

 “The patterns are nearly identical in the UK and Canada, and the trends are similar though not identical in Australia and New Zealand. We do not yet see signs of similar epidemics in continental Europe or in East Asia, although I have not yet found good data from those regions.”


Together with His associate researcher Jean Twenge, they had discovered

“a sudden increase between 2012 and 2015 in all regions of the world. These patterns indicate that whatever happened to American teens was not uniquely caused by trends and events in the USA (e.g., a sudden fear of school shootings after the Newtown massacre of 2012). The cause is likely to be something that affected teens in many or all regions of the world at the same time.”


This is a world wide problem, partly because social media is a world wide phenomenon.

Note in particular the sharp rise for Girls after 2020. In particular, between 2012 and 2020 The rates of major depression for girls more than doubled during this time. The increase for boys was not as high.

Most of the research is confined to the west, but by no means exclusively.

One must always bear in mind the scientific point often made, that correlation does not prove causation.  For example, just because 80% of sex assaults are perpetrated by men who ate potatoes that day does not prove potatoes are a cause of sexual assaults.

First, Jonathan Haidt explained to the Senate Select Committee that “Correlational studies consistently show a link between heavy social media use and mood disorders, but the size of the relationship is disputed.”

Haidt then drilled down:

“Nearly all studies find a correlation, and it is usually curvilinear. That is, moving from no social media use to one or two hours a day is often not associated with an increase in poor mental health, but as usage rises to 3 or 4 hours a day, the increases in mental illness often become quite sharp.”


The graphs are quite explicit. To see them go to the reports. The message is loud and clear.  The more young people use social media the more they suffer from serious depression and anxiety and the more likely they are to attempt to commit suicide. Haidt puts it this, contrary to what some of his critics have said,  “The correlation is much larger than for “eating potatoes” or “wearing glasses.”

This is a big deal. We should all take note but particularly our political leaders who have the capacity to respond. This is not something that should be swept under the rug.

Serious and Sudden Stuff



When Jonathan Haidt testified before the American Senate, he presented specific data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (‘CDC’) that showed how sharp and sudden the increase had been for hospital admissions for teen girls who had intentionally harmed themselves, mostly by cutting themselves. This was serious and sudden stuff in other words. The numbers were stunning, particularly for young girls and serious, though not as drastic for young boys.

He noted that “emergency room visits for self harm increased very rapidly among teen girls beginning in 2010.”

One of the most interesting things about all of this data was how fast it rose. As he said, “The crisis came on suddenly, in the early 2010s.” In other words, things were fine before 2010 and then incidents shot up! What happened after 2010 was not just a continuation of what had started before then.  Something caused this rapid rise that could not be explained on the basis of prior conditions! As he said to the Senate,

 The curves you can see in the Adolescent Mood Disorders Google Doc are not just the continuation of trends already in evidence for the Millennial generation (born 1982 through 2016). They are more like “hockey sticks,” with a long relatively flat period before the early 2010s, and then a sharp upturn or elbow. This is rare in mental health data. It suggests that something changed in the lives of American teens around 2010

The next thing Jonathan Haidt explained to the Senators was that these numbers were big. As he said,


The increases in mental illness are very large. When you compare rates in 2009 –before most teens were daily users of social media––to 2019––the last full year before Covid made things even worse––the increases are generally between 50% and 150%, depending on the disorder, gender, and subgroup.

 After that he testified that “The crisis is gendered. He explained to the Senators what this meant:

The collapse of mental health has hit both sexes, and on many measures, boys and girls are up by roughly similar percentages. However there are two important caveats: A) the base rate for mood disorders is always higher for girls than boys, particularly after puberty, which means that a doubling of the rate produces far more additional sick girls than boys, as you can see in Figure 2 below, and B) there are some disorders and age groups for which girls are up far more, especially for self-harm, which is a much more common way of manifesting anxiety in girls than in boys.

 In specific terms, “rates of major depression roughly doubled, for boys and for girls, from 2010 to 2020”.  I must repeat this with emphasis. The rates for major depression doubled for boys and girls in 10 years! This is serious stuff! Serious and sudden.



Haidt’s Testimony before the  Senate Judiciary  Committee, Subcommittee on Technology, Privacy, and the Law May 4, 2022


I continue to be interested in why suicide rates, and rates of depression, and anxiety have so suddenly reached such high levels in Canada and the US and elsewhere in the west.  Is it a sign of the decline of the west? What is the cause?


Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist from New York University who has been studying moral psychology and moral development since 1987. He says that around 2014 he noticed something had gone wrong with mental health and social behavior of college students. He began to work with Greg Lukianoff to write an article for Atlantic magazine in 2015 which they called “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Later they expanded that into a book by the same title which they published in 2018. Later he also worked with Jean Twenge (a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, and author of iGen) to further collect academic research on teen mental health and how it related to social media.  They made the research data  available to other scholars on line so they could contribute to the research and critique what they were collecting.

Based on that research Haidt testified before the American Senate to share what they had learned. They thought they have relevant information to a serious mental health problem among American youth that the Senate should have. He summarized the research for the members of the Senate Committee. I think it is worth looking at what he told the Senate.

The literature review the two professors performed concentrated on the time period beginning in 2012. In particular he wanted to testify on the effects of social media on the plummeting mental health of America’s youth. He testified about “the  research linking deteriorating teen mental health to the arrival and widespread adoption of social media, which transformed childhood activity, attention, social relationships, and consciousness in the years between 2009 and 2012.” Besides the effects on American youth, Haidt testified that he was very interested in the effects that social media was having on “America’s political dysfunction.” In other words it was also a societal issue. We must remember that the research show similar problems at similar times in Canada.

In part 1of his testimony he spoke about “the specific, gigantic, sudden and international mental health crisis.” Haidt began by pointing out that “the crisis is specific to mood disorders—those related to depression and anxiety” and that this was “not a general across-the-board increase in other illnesses.”

He also stated that

“The crisis is not a result of changes in the willingness of young people to self-diagnose, nor in the willingness of clinicians to expand terms or over-diagnose. We know this because the same trends occurred, at the same time, and in roughly the same magnitudes, in behavioral manifestations of depression and anxiety, including hospital admissions for self-harm, and completed suicides.”


The two professors wanted to know what was going on? It was very interesting. I will get to that in the next post.



Moral Panics are seldom Useful


Jonathan Haidt is quick to admit that new forms of technology often spur quick reactions from adults that amount to moral panics about what awful things kids “these days” are doing.  In my youth it was television. Moral panics are seldom helpful. As Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times said,

“Adults have fretted about the damaging impacts of radio, comic books, television and even the music of Prince. That’s a reason to approach the evidence linking social media to mental health disorders with caution. But it’s not a reason to discount it. After all, unlike hysteria over rock music, concern about the psychological effects of social media is something many young people share. “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression,” said internal Facebook research leaked by the whistle-blower Frances Haugen in 2021. “This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.


As well, many liberals are quick to blame evil corporations for their children’s woes as conservatives are quick to blame perverted liberals grooming of kids, but this time there is convincing data that social media giants are to blame for the steep rise in serious mental illness among America’s youth.

What we really need to do is look at the evidence dispassionately. Follow the evidence.  Jonathan Haidt says he does that. Let’s look at some more.


The Politics of Depression and Anxiety


Politics is not usually a good mix with health issues. Politics can tend to make us all stupid. What does politics have to do with the rising rates of youth depression, anxiety, and even suicides? First of all, it shouldn’t have anything to do with that, but it does. Bigly.

Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times pointed out that a recent study showed that adolescents who leaned left were experiencing a greater increase in depression than their conservative peers. While girls were more likely to be depressed than boys, liberal boys had higher rates of depression than conservative girls?  What does that mean?

According to Goldberg,

“It’s long been known that liberals tend to be more depressed than conservatives, which you can interpret as either a cause or an effect of their unhappiness with the status quo. But innate factors couldn’t explain why, among the 12th graders the study examined, the gap in depressive symptoms between liberals and conservatives appeared to be growing. Nor could those factors explain why, after several years in which liberal girls and liberal boys endured roughly equal rates of depression, girls who identified as liberal had started having a much harder time.”


Some felt the girls who leaned left politically might just be experiencing a natural reaction to the many problems in society—growing sexual assaults against women, climate change, continued prevalence of misogyny and discrimination against women and girls. There is much to be depressed about in other words. After all it could hardly be surprising if those immediately affected by sexual violence or discrimination felt it most keenly. You might say it would be irrational not to be depressed or anxious or both. As Goldberg acknowledged “the notion that Trump’s America was a psychologically unhealthy place for young women resonated with me…”


Like Jonathan Haidt, she noticed the significance of 2012 for the rise of anxiety and depression among young women and girls. 2012 was the year of the shooting at Sandy Hook where very young school children were massacred. But it was also the time of Barack Obama’s re-election which no doubt cheered liberals. In 2013 the US Supreme Court extended gay marriage rights. It was happy times for liberals! Why would this lead to despair?

She consulted with Jean Twenge a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of the 2017 book iGen, about the deleterious psychological effects of social media.  Twenge had preliminary data that showed that liberal teenagers spent more time on social media spent more time on social media than their conservative peers. Her data also showed that boys tend to spend more time on screens than girls because in large part they spent more time on video games.

There was another interesting thing in her data. She had found that there were also increasing rates of loneliness among teenage girls. Would politics make them lonely? That seemed weird.

Remember the data I have already flagged in an early blog post. The recent study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (‘CDC’) showed serious rises in adolescent girls experiencing greater feelings of sadness and hopeless, and almost a quarter made a suicide plan. As I mentioned earlier too, Jonathan Haidt’s data showed this could not really be attributed to the pandemic. The effects of Covid-19 were not that great.

 Some have emphasized the sexual violence against women. That is a big problem.  According to the CDC 14% of high school girls said they had been forced to have sex. Nearly 20% had experienced sexual violence. Taylor Lorenz writing in the Washington Post said the big problem was not phones but rather “the fact that we’re living in a late stage capitalist hellscape during an ongoing deadly pandemic.” A feminist writer Jessica Valenti claimed that depression is a natural reaction to a misogynistic society. She wrote, “The real crisis, the problem that needs fixing, isn’t girls’ mental health… In the midst of all this violence and dehumanization, their depression is actually very reasonable!”

All of these are relevant and no doubt contribute to the problem but as Goldberg, Twenge, and Haidt all point out the data all shows that in about 2012 severe declines in mental health of young people were occurring in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. Can that be a coincidence?  And remember that is exactly when the data also shows youth were turning to the new social media available on their phones!

As Goldberg summed up,


Technology, not politics, was what changed in all these countries around 2012. That was the year that Facebook bought Instagram and the word “selfie” entered the popular lexicon. As Twenge showed in “iGen,” in 2009, fewer than 60 percent of eighth-grade girls reported near-daily use of what were then called “social networking sites.” By 2014, more than 80 percent did”


And it wasn’t just that youth were fascinated by new technology. It really was changing their lives in profound ways. As Goldberg said,

Social media didn’t just cut into offline socializing. It precipitated a revolution in consciousness, in which people are constantly packaging themselves for public consumption and seeing their popularity and the popularity of others quantified. It’s not shocking that this new mode of existence would be particularly fraught for those in a stage of life where both fashioning the self and finding a place to belong are paramount.”


And then of course there is the scientific research itself. Working together, Professors Twenge and Haidt maintained a Google document in which they collected studies on social media and mental health and even permitted their critics to contribute to it. Jonathan Haidt said “55 studies in their review found a significant correlation between time spent on social media and mood disorders, compared with 11 that found little or no correlation. Other research suggests a causal relationship.”


One study in the American Economic Review had some amazing data about Facebook. It was introduced on various college campuses at different times and this study found that “The introduction of Facebook at a college had a negative impact on student mental health,” it found, presenting evidence that Facebook fostered “unfavourable social comparisons.”

 The evidence makes it very difficult to deny the serious adverse affect of social media. And politics can supercharge the problems.


The Stupid Decade Continued


Jonathan Haidt makes the astounding claim that starting in the mid 2010s people, particularly young people, but really a lot more than that, starting getting stupid! It’s not just the kids.

Haidt, like me, is a fan of John Stuart Mill who pointed out that if a person only knows his or her own side of a dispute, he knows little of that.  I have blogged earlier about Mill’s arguments on this point.

[If you look under tags  under John Stuart Mill you can find links to these posts] ]

In other words, to really understand a position one must look at it from different perspectives. We need to have opposite cases pushing against each other. That is what used to be done in universities, at least, according to Haidt, until around 2013 or 2014 when universities became places where ideologies were homogenized, and questions about sacred positions became hazardous to professors’ career paths.  It became difficult for professors and their students to challenge conventional wisdom. This was particularly true for a few sacred issues like race, gender, transgender and others. If a professor or even students, suggested there might be a case to be made for views that challenged the conventional wisdom, the challenger would feel the full wrath of social media warriors. And as Haidt said, “when critics go silent, the group gets stupid.”


Haidt admits that we have had polarized views in the past, but the new element is that social media supercharges the tendency to require ideological conformity. That of course amplifies polarization and intellectual tribalism.  The “other side” gets ignored. We need critics to make us smarter. If we don’t have them, we get stupider. We need opposing views or we get stupid. As Haidt said,


 “What’s new is these new dynamics brought to us by social media and especially Twitter, that we’re not shooting the other side so much anymore, we’re shooting the moderates on our own side. And so, what happened in the early to mid-2010s is the moderates on the left and right begin to go silent and the extremes get super empowered.


Haidt points out that as result on the right the Republican Party went off the rails and on the left, it was not so much the Democratic Party that went off the rails, but the supporters of the left who dominate major cultural and educational institutions, universities, media, museums etc. According to Haidt, “Both sides started shooting their moderates…Moderates on the left and right begin go silent and the extremes get super empowered. Metaphorically of course, I must add.


We must remember that polarization has many causes, but social media sure seems to be one of them. Anything that helps to silence our critics helps to make us stupid.  And that according to Haidt is how the west declined—by getting stupid.