Algorithms Hijacked My Generation. I Fear For Gen Alpha.
Freya India explains how algorithms act as conveyor belts, transporting girls to dark and extreme places
[A note from Jon Haidt]
In October 2021, the brilliant Helen Pluckrose introduced me to a young British woman who had written some superb essays for her at Areo about the problems members of Gen Z were facing. Freya wanted to talk with me about a book she was thinking about writing, and I wanted to learn more from her about what young women were experiencing online.
Freya’s writing is compassionate, gripping, and deeply psychological, including essays such as My Generation Isn’t Suffering Enough (which is about antifragility), and Women’s Sexuality is Powerful, Is Onlyfans The Way to Use It? She recently wrote an essay that has haunted me, titled We Can’t Compete with AI Girlfriends. It’s about what is going to happen to young women as ever more young men shack up with gorgeous, witty, programmable AI girlfriends, who can be given proportions and personalities unobtainable by real women.
As Zach and I began to seek out the most insightful “voices of Gen Z,” we immediately thought of Freya. (I quote Freya in the chapter on girls in The Anxious Generation.) She had an essay topic already in mind when we reached out to her––an insight about virtual conveyor belts. Freya shows us how it all works––how girls get transported to ever more extreme ideas, identities, and behaviors––and she urges us to protect the next generation from suffering the same fate.
P.S. If you like Freya’s writing, sign up for her Substack, GIRLS where she writes about the challenges girls face in the modern world.
Voices of Gen Z, #3: Freya India
Let’s start with the young women who transform their faces. You know the ones: they have their lips injected, noses chiseled, skin blurred with Botox, and cheeks pumped with filler, each funneling their previously unique features into the same Instagram Face.
It often happens slowly. First, they fill their lips. Next, they need to even it out with a nose job. Then botox; then a brow lift; and it goes on.
Then one day they wake up and realize they have rearranged their entire face for Instagram. They don’t recognize their reflection. Or even like it. I’ve seen this happen a lot lately: influencers are dissolving their fillers, reversing surgeries, realizing they were beautiful before. Molly-Mae Hague, for example, a Love Island influencer here in the UK, recently admitted to having no idea how she ended up destroying her face: “I literally looked like a different person. When I look back at pictures now, I’m terrified of myself. I’m like, ‘Who was that girl?’ I don’t know what happened.”
What happened? We need to know.
Instagram Face, I have come to believe, is just one symptom of something far larger and more pernicious. It is one manifestation of what I see as the driving force behind much of Gen Z’s growing and global mental health crisis. It is the end result—the inevitable end-point—of what I think of as the algorithmic conveyor belt. Let me explain.
Let’s say you were born in the year 1999 so Instagram comes out when you are 12. Back then it was fairly benign: a platform to share pretty sunsets and candid pictures with friends. A few years in, the editing app FaceTune arrives (launched in 2014), and everyone on your feed starts to look perfect. You start editing yourself—smoothing your skin, reshaping your nose, restructuring your jaw. By the time you’re 16, your Instagram face is very different from your natural face, which you’ve come to despise.
And then the algorithms are introduced: your feed is no longer chronological but customized (launched in 2016 for IG). Instagram now serves you not just photos of the friends you follow but of influencers––beautiful women from all over the world, selecting the ones that make you feel the most insecure. You, with fuller lips! You, with a microscopic waist!! Soon you get ads to fix your flaws: Botox; fillers; Brazilian Butt Lifts! By the time TikTok comes out you’re 18, and your feed tracks you even faster. Hate your nose? Try this editing app. Not enough? Try this video editing app. Want it in real life? Nose jobs near you! Suddenly you’re in your 20s and you’ve transformed your style, your face, maybe even your body. And yet you are still insecure. You still hate how you look. And every day your feeds flash on with “This is your sign to get a nose job!” “The earlier you start Botox the better!” “Get ready with me for a Brazilian butt lift!”
In this way, for many girls, this rewiring of their self-image, this pressure to alter their appearance, happened without them realizing it. It was gradual. Subtle. Drip-fed.
And where have we ended up? With record rates of cosmetic surgeries, from buccal fat removal to lip fillers to liposuction, and younger clients than ever before. With young women asking plastic surgeons to make them look like Snapchat filters. With 14-year-olds obsessing over wrinkles and a surge in teenagers seeking Botox. Plus rising rates of facial dysmorphia, body dysmorphia and eating disorders.
Algorithms act like conveyor belts. Show even the slightest interest, fear, or insecurity about anything—hover over it for half a second—and you will be drawn in deeper. Little by little, the algorithm learns what keeps you watching. And since the most negative and extreme posts get the most engagement, very often your feed will become an endless stream of content that makes you feel worse about yourself. You’ll find yourself on a continuous conveyor belt of apps, products, services, pills, and procedures to fix you.
Let’s consider another domain where this happens: Mental health.
I remember first hearing conversations about mental health in the mid-2010s when I was 12 or 13. The first YouTube stars started opening up, tentatively, about their anxiety and depression. Celebrities confessed to struggling. Mental health communities formed on Tumblr. I learned about anorexia, self-harm, and disorders like ADHD. It all felt important to talk about.
But things quickly began to change. Some of us got hitched to the algorithm. Platforms like YouTube began to reward cheap, clickbait posts to boost ad revenue, meaning that users were being served more and more sensational content. Slowly we went from watching influencers talk about anxiety to live-streaming their panic attacks, describing deeply personal traumas along to pop songs, and even capturing split-personality switches on camera. TikTok came out and suddenly everyone seemed to be sharing their symptoms of mental illness. Next, they started telling us we might be mentally ill! We began to see TikToks telling us we have anxiety, autism, ADHD, and traumatic stress disorders. Companies caught on. Soon we were served customized ads, micro-targeted ads, solutions to our specific struggles. Videos with vaguer and vaguer symptoms. Distracted a lot? You might have ADHD. Have ADHD? You need Ritalin. Pay for this virtual therapy app; get medication delivered to your door; buy some ADHD merch!
And where have we ended up? With genuine conversations about mental health cheapened, monetized, and often trivialized into TikTok trends and fashion accessories. With pre-teens making mental illness the core of their identity. With some teenage girls picking up tics from Tourette’s influencers; kids self-diagnosing with dissociative identity disorders; and young women calling antidepressants “hot girl pills” and putting them in cute candy dispensers. With a #mentalhealth hashtag on TikTok with over 110 billion views, and millions in my generation taking medication for their deteriorating mental health.
This is not to say that all of these trends can be explained by algorithms. But the conveyor belt phenomenon can help us better understand Gen Z and, particularly, why everything feels so extreme. It’s our looks. Our mental health. Our sexuality. Our politics. Some kids go from watching wholesome “What I Eat In A Day!” videos to being served pro-anorexia content to watching skeletal influencers like Eugenia Cooney starve themselves on Twitch. Some start with innocent dance videos which later devolve into sexualized challenges and eventually lead them to discover hardcore porn on TikTok. Others go from finding out what gender identity is to being told by TikTokers that being “forgetful” and “tired” are symptoms of gender dysphoria to watching influencers show off their top surgery scars.
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Of course, some might interject that users have more agency over their online experiences than this. Nick Clegg, for example, President of Global Affairs at Meta, argues that our social media feeds are shaped by our own choices and actions, with algorithms helpfully organizing what we see to align with our preferences.
But we know that these platforms are engineered to be maximally addictive. We know that they use persuasive strategies like personalized feeds, the infinite scroll, and autoplay videos to keep us online. We know that they constantly surveil us, collect our personal data, and can identify when we feel “insecure”, “worthless” and vulnerable to advertising. And we know that they are aware of the adverse mental health effects. A 2021 Wall Street Journal exposé found that Facebook knows Instagram is terrible for the body image of young girls, and is associated with thoughts of suicide among teens, yet downplays these concerns to the public.
So, I believe we have some personal agency. But I also believe that a 12-year-old’s mind is no match for a giant corporation using the most advanced AI to manipulate her behavior. Gen Z were the guinea pigs in this uncontrolled global social experiment. We were the first to have our vulnerabilities and insecurities fed into a machine that magnified and refracted them back at us, all the time, before we had any sense of who we were. We didn’t just grow up with algorithms. They raised us. They rearranged our faces. Shaped our identities. Convinced us we were sick.
So what chance does the next generation stand? Algorithms were introduced to my generation gradually, in the 2010s. The next cohort of kids, Generation Alpha (born after 2010), is coming online in the 2020s, a time when everything is already at the extreme—beauty standards, dating discourse, therapy culture, political polarization. Every aspect of their lives—from how they look to how they feel to what they believe—will be guided by algorithms from the very start.
Parents of Gen Alpha must take this seriously. I speak to many parents about social media; they worry that their kids will talk to predators or be exposed to explicit self-harm and suicidal content — which are, of course, real risks. But there is also something more pernicious, and more destabilizing happening. Something we have to get ahead of. Because maybe it seems like your child is simply watching some makeup tutorials, following some mental health influencers, or experimenting with their identity. But let me tell you: they are on a conveyor belt to someplace bad. Whatever insecurity or vulnerability they are struggling with, they will be pushed further and further into it.
What I would say to the parents of Gen Alpha is: don’t let your children open accounts on social media platforms when they are still in early puberty. Delay their entry until at least 16. Prioritize their in-person interactions, and encourage them to discover who they are from real-world experiences, not manipulative algorithms.
And what I would say to Gen Alpha is simple: get off your screens. Delete the apps. What these continuous streams of content do is prevent you from taking a second to pause, reflect on who you really are, and realize where you are headed.
Because you aren’t ugly. You are probably not sick. And if you are, let a doctor tell you that, not an influencer chosen by an algorithm. Just look at us, in the generation ahead of you. There are a lot of us now in our 20s who feel utterly lost. Detached from who we really are. We don’t recognise––or even like––ourselves. We are a generation more anxious, depressed, and confused about our identity than any other on record. And some of us are waking up and asking ourselves how did I get here?
The conveyor belt runs day and night. Let’s do what we can to help Gen Alpha step off—or avoid stepping on in the first place.
Postscript from Jon Haidt:
If you are a member of Gen Z, born after 1995, and you disagree either with this post or with the story I’ve been telling about your generation, please say so in the comments section. We’ll be collecting dissenting views and inviting critics to write for the Substack.
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