Why It Happened and Why It’s Bad For Democracy
I'm a millennial who was very involved in identity / social justice issues from around 2012 to 2019 — both online and off, but I believe I got into it early due to being very online. My mental health during this period sank like a rock, but it's rebounded tremendously since leaving that world (especially the online parts of it) in 2020.
So when you ask: "Wouldn’t focusing on identity create a feeling of belonging with others who feel the same, and thus lead to *less* loneliness, or at least stability in loneliness? [...] But why would a focus on social justice lead to more depression? Wouldn’t coming together with like-minded people for a cause lead to *less* depression?"
My answer is a STRONG no. Not under present circumstances. Especially not online.
A focus on identity, especially internal identities such as sexual orientation and gender identity, is in large part a focus on the *self.* There is a place for focus on the self — but too much becomes a problem, and fast.
People who join online networks centered around such identities are not coming together to form communities in a meaningful sense. They are rarely making friends or even significant acquaintances who will be there for them in the real world. Instead they are converging online to engage in *co-rumination*. That is, they are fixating on the self, together.
The worst of these networks actively strengthen the feeling of disconnection from others even within the group as members are encouraged to divide themselves among ever more specific micro-identities, which are often conceived as hostile toward one another, even if unintentionally ("microaggressions" abound). Or you might think of yourself as the specific combination of *all* your various identities — racial, sexual, etc. — believing people who differ in any way just can't understand you. This can actually *decrease* interest in finding offline community related to the identities. For example, in circles I ran in, it was common for people to be afraid to go to pride events, having convinced themselves that other members of the alphabet soup hated their micro-subgroup in particular and would somehow turn them away.
By the same token, immersion in such networks can hurt members' existing, offline relationships. The focus on being oppressed increases negativity and decreases trust. There's a common message that members of "oppressor" identity groups (straight people, cis people) are all biased against you, even if they seem accepting. That actually, even if you felt perfectly safe before, you're in danger all the time. I've watched people strain their relationships with their family and friends, not because those people actually did anything wrong, but because of this categorical identity-based mistrust.
And that's not even going into the climate of fear that you'll step slightly out of line and the people you consider your friends will denounce you in the harshest terms, or the pressure to get out ahead of this and prove your loyalty to the group/cause by proactively denouncing others.
The offline identity/SJ-based communities I was part of were better — at first. But slowly, more members got involved in such online networks, and more new people joined who were steeped in them, and the groups became dominated by the maladaptive dynamics described above. One by one the older members — Gen X and up — who didn't like this left or (less commonly) kowtowed, making it worse.
Profound loneliness was the result, and so was a maladaptive way of thinking about that loneliness. The idea that said loneliness was inevitable by dint of your highly individualized identity, the intractable oppression of that identity, and the failure of "communities" based on that identity to provide the real relationships needed to reduce the loneliness.
"Coming together for a cause" *should* confer an anti-depressant sense of meaning and belonging, but it can't if what you're doing is more like wallowing in hopelessness and self-preoccupation than actually working together to help others.
Obviously this is just one person's perspective. I'm sure there are many people whose experience is much milder. I'm also sure there are many other factors going into the complex phenomenon that is this mental health crisis. But I think the broad strokes of this are pretty widespread, and I've watched over the years as the attitudes I've described surfaced among the whole gamut of people I know, from close friends to extended family members to diverse long-term acquaintances, with the commonality being that they identified as some kind of LGBTQ+++ and had gotten involved in online identity/SJ networks.
tl;dr: Identity/SJ-focused online activity can *increase* loneliness and depression through pretty straightforward mechanisms, especially excessive self-focus and mistrust.
One possible explanation for the rise in rates of depression among millennials around 2015 is dating apps. For example, Tinder had 90,000 subscribers at the beginning of 2015, 900,000 at the beginning of 2016, 1.8 million at the beginning of 2017, and 3.4 million at the beginning of 2018 (scroll down to the "Tinder quarterly subscribers" chart here: https://www.businessofapps.com/data/tinder-statistics/). Fortunately, I met my spouse without a dating app, but I've heard from my single friends that they can cause a lot of negative emotions. And even after someone meets a partner on the app, I worry that knowing that there are hundreds of other potential matches out there can weaken a relationship. It's harder to commit if you think there's a chance you could slightly optimize over your current partner, and I suspect that this relational instability can also make people more prone to depression.
I’m working on a children’s book. I honestly don’t think I could have written this book if I didn’t delete my Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts. After deleting them I started to find my voice, clarity of thought and feelings, a sense of hope and wonder. I wish I was exaggerating. I do socialize and meditate regularly and am very proactive about my mental health which is what gave me the courage to delete my accounts.
The rise in depression and anxiety is strongest for liberal teen girls (https://twitter.com/ZachG932/status/1248823584111439872). Girls are much more successful in school than boys and, in many cultures, women and girls seem to internalize authoritative cultural messaging more comprehensively — see, for example, the widespread tendency for women to be more religious, which is usually culturally normative (https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2016/03/22/the-gender-gap-in-religion-around-the-world/). What happened around 2011-2012, then, was possibly that several generations' worth of anti-traditional cultural messaging in education and media reached a critical mass in uptake, especially among young liberal women — the demographic most likely to internalize dominant messaging, and now the one most committed to the emancipated, tradition-skeptical values of the liberalism that's hegemonic in educational institutions.
The problem is that these values robustly predict poor well-being (https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2023/03/how-to-understand-the-well-being-gap-between-liberals-and-conservatives/), in part for the reasons that Haidt and Lukianoff argued for (reverse CBT), but also because they make it more difficult to achieve a smooth trajectory through the life course. For example, liberals are much less likely to get married and have children than conservatives, less likely to be embedded in holistic, multigenerational ("general-purpose," in Roy Rappaport's terminology) communities such as religious congregations, and more individualistic and anti-institutional.
I don't mean this in a crass sense, but it's important that these traits have a negative impact on fitness. Conservatives and religious believers are far more likely to leave behind progeny or to know what it's like to bounce grandchildren on their knees than liberals are. Since (biologically speaking) mood and affect are something like the first derivative of one's likely fitness over time — that is, our emotions are partly there to tell us how we're doing in a biological sense — it isn't surprising that young people who find themselves stuck in a social niche that seems to offer poor fitness prospects for the mid- and long-term future would feel depressive and anxious. This would correlate with social media and smartphone use, because the dominant messaging in those spheres is anti-institutional and anti-traditional — that is, progressive/liberal.
In short, young girls are quicker to assimilate to morally normative cultural messaging than young boys, and throughout most of human history, that messaging has been religious. Around 2010, American cultural authority moved decisively into a "negative world" vis-à-vis Christianity, replacing the old hegemonic religion with a new hegemonic moral worldview transmitted largely through public schools, media, and the internet. This is what Goldberg calls the Great Awokening, and it's real. Young liberals, and especially liberal girls, have assimilated to the new dominant worldview as *native inhabitants.* But this worldview is not as good at coordinating solutions to the basic problems of life — forming families, moving through the life stages, finding meaning in suffering — as the religion it replaced. Young liberal girls are, then, the vanguard of an entirely new hegemonic worldview, and as such they're raising the curtain on the the future. It doesn't look good unless we quickly find a better worldview to compete with it.
My guess is that for Millennials a lot of things were bubbling up for a while--polarization, social media, decreases in face-to-face socializing--and they finally reached a tipping point in 2015. I'm a Millennial, and I wonder if the fact that Millennials are not digital natives means that we had more resilience to the harms of social media than Gen-Z (for example, many of us Millennials didn't get smart phones and social media until our brains had matured without those influences). But that resilience only goes so far when you face the daily bombardments from your phone. Eventually everyone gets worn down. I also think the "Great Awokening" has had a huge impact on social relations and, by extension, feelings of loneliness and connection. Censorship, "cancellation," and subsuming every single facet of life into politics arose with the "Great Awokening." If you're in a liberal social sphere (which I am), there is huge pressure to self-censor because if you say the wrong thing you risk ostracism. That hardly leads to feelings of connection and solidarity; it's quite isolating. I don't know if the pressure to self-censor is as great among conservatives, and I wonder if Millennial depression varies by ideology, much like with teens. That would be an interesting question to look at.
I'm not a social scientist but my intuition is that the Great Awokening and time spent online are feedback loops focusing almost entirely on anger, outrage, criticism and a whole host of emotions centred around unhappiness and despair. Throw in anxiety, from the risk of being seen as an insufficiently stalwart ally of minorities and the need to keep performing that support.
Imagine that you don't know how younger people feel, but you see what the online discourse and most accessible media is like. How would you predict people would feel, exposed to - and often participating - in all of that.
I'm 61 and in the first 47 years of my life I felt like coming to blows with someone over politics once. After joining Twitter in 2009 (which I finally torched last year, I wanted to punch someone or other every day.
Being hypernetworked in an outrage culture is behind all this, would be my guess.
Perhaps it took millennials longer to be negatively affected by the various harmful things coming from the Internet and in society in general because by age 25, their brains are more fully developed and less vulnerable than teenagers and young adults in their early 20s. It ultimately still hurt them, but because their brains were not in a vulnerable, developmental phase, it took longer for their mental health to be negatively affected.
Your research, observations, and theses are both fascinating and tremendously important. Thank you for your work. As to your closing question, I'd put forward what we might call the Mitigation-of-Maturation thesis. As a general rule, most external factors that impact humans (or other organisms), whether for good or ill, tend to have greater impact on the younger and less developed. For example, lack of adequate nutrition can harm humans at any age, but generally will have far swifter, stronger, and more enduring impacts upon the young. Or, for another example, ingesting lead can be harmful at any age, but again, its impact will accrue more quickly and to greater ill effects in the very young. Of course, the way these impacts (both their speed and their severity) play out varies by situation/etc, but, generally, older and more mature humans will be less vulnerable to their impacts than the young and less developed. My hunch is that spending significant time on screens carries negative impact for any human -- and for a combination of reasons that include the content being absorbed (i.e. violence, fear, comparison, rage, FOMO, etc); the vital elements of health being displaced (i.e. sleep, exercise, time with others, time outdoors, etc); and the ways high-stimulation technology steadily rewires the brain. However, the less-developed one's body and mind (and the more plastic one's neural network), the more swift and deep the impact will be. If that's true, we would expect to see the impact of smart phones, social media, and other tech most swiftly and deeply in the young, but also to see those impacts begin to steadily spread into older people over time.
Appreciate this update as I've long suspected Gen Z problems were just earlier manifestations of a crisis that would in time hit all people, to varying degrees, no matter the age.
I've been a student of these issues for the last decade as part of my work — first for 7 years at Google focusing on trends in the industry, and then ever since as it directly informs my work in marketing.
That said, I want to understand why the focus is on social media use rather than the consumption of any and _all_ digital media. Given the business model on the web is that of monetizing attention, and as attention is most easily won through sensationalism and fear, it's only a matter of media platforms "running the numbers" on what works for winning attention.
The result is the media slamdunk for eyeballs: catastrophize everything. I'm reducing by suggesting it's only catastrophization that is the problem — because there are clearly other ways to win attention that are more nuanced (and play to the desires of people). The point is: Social media can be blamed for being most excellent at catastrophizing, and then elevating the most attention-winning topics, but media — i.e. news — does the same thing. And in fact, with media outlets, it becomes especially perverse because headlines that can be interpreted by one audience as especially frightening will win that audience's attention. Because media managers see all attention as _good_ attention, it only goes to follow that media outlets will produce increasingly sensationalist headlines — sensationalist to the OTHER political perspective.
These headlines then get normalized by the advocates of these media outlets, a sort of whitewashing effect. The cycle repeats and iterates until all is sensational and everyone is convinced "the other side" is absolutely evil incarnate.
A recipe for disaster and depression.
TLDR Hope the work here expands to focus on more than social media.
Would it have anything to do with the shift away from a focus on reading, writing and arithmetic in schools, and more a shift to social justice? 2016 was the start of a decline in personal mental health. Still am unable to grasp how it's a reprehensible thought to think a man cannot be a woman. Yet my government changed the definition, by fiat, to have nothing to do with the physical body. And outright lies...stating physical advantages of males is due to stereotypes. As well being shunned and shamed by close friends. Now it's hard to know who to trust.
The “Social Justice Movement” as it is has very little to do with justice and much more to do with unbridled cluster b personalities feeding their narcissism and accruing power over people who are too emotionally weak to question the narrative. I used to be an uber lefty ~*trans*~ SJW and the community was so toxic and cultish that I almost cut my healthy breasts off. They encouraged my victim mentality and used hierarchies of oppression to take advantage of my lack of a backbone. Being entrenched in identity politics made me a bitter, deeply unhappy person and I’m thankful I finally woke up and left that life behind.
As another poster pointed out, the fear of being shamed, of having to very carefully construct thoughts and words, the need to "market" yourself, the constant focus on victimhood must have been extremely difficult, and I'm sure in many circles still is. 2015 is the year you were no longer allowed to be your genuine self. It wasn't good enough. When we were younger (GenX), we were all about being our true selves. No one gave us a list of supposed "acceptable" traits. We were actually hard-wired to try to be better than our parents, and we wanted to be. (More responsible, I can do this by myself, I don't need or want help, respect for self was highly valued). What GenX did wrong was over-correct for our parents when raising our offspring sometimes. Still, I feel sad for Millinials and some of GenZ because they never got to learn what an authentic self is. They were given boxes and told to check them or being discarded. And, I blame part of my generation for letting the kids do this to themselves.
If you remove people from reality and face-to-face relationships, you break what makes them fundamentally human. It only makes sense that this applies to people across all age groups. The question is, how do we get reclaim our humanness? It will not come from any governmental or administrative level, but rather from re-establishing 'IRL' relationships around our kitchen tables.
A theory for something else: the age at which people become disenchanted.
Maybe that isn’t the right word or maybe there is a more graceful term that captures the concept better, but I’ll explain what I mean. I grew up with a challenging childhood, I was never protected from the realities of life. As a member of Gen X, I saw all my sheltered friends slowly but surely discover ugliness in the world. For each, the more sheltered and idyllic their childhood the more crisis this discovery caused. For a few friends who experienced this disillusionment in college, the discovery was very close to traumatic. I have heard much about the extent to which millennials have been coddled and protected, perhaps this “bubble popping” has been delayed along with other indicators of adulthood.
My own husband, who had a safe and protected childhood did not feel the sting of reality until about 2015, where he had to finally confront that there are still problems in society that aren’t just going away on their own, in addition to seeing family member’s more clearly when politics became so polarized/polarizing. Each year since that, he has been a little more nihilistic, even going so far as to say if he had it to do again, he wouldn’t have children. Universally, I hear from those around me that things are getting worse… which objectively is just not true. As it always has been, some things get better, and some get worse, and we won’t know how things will turn out until they actually happen.
I know that I am fixated on the problem of Trump, but I think you may be bypassing his influence on 2015 too quickly. Trump is a symptom, and his presidential campaign was a shock, but it was a shock because we realized how divided we already were. For me, this realization began in 2015, as I began to realize how deep the grievance was on the right. Birtherism, for example, long preceded Trump's campaign, but it showed how fundamentally differently some of us were experiencing reality. It wasn't just stupid, it was popular. I don't think we have yet recovered from the realization that such polarization is politically viable--and, again, the 2016 campaign was only a result of that shock. The groundswell occurred earlier.
"why would a focus on social justice lead to more depression? Wouldn’t coming together with like-minded people for a cause lead to less depression?"
"A focus on social justice" doesn't necessarily mean *coming together*. Often it can just be "slacktivism" - sharing (or just *consuming*) ever angrier and pessimistic posts on a social-media platform of choice, rather than getting together and protesting. Rather, the contemporary view of social justice seems to go together with the Hellscape Narrative: you view the present world as so lacking, in comparison to your ideals, that depression is the logical and reasonable response. In my experience of the social-justice viewpoint, it leads people to believe that not merely their material conditions but their happiness are determined by external circumstances. That seems like the kind of viewpoint that encourages depressive cognition.