Like every other reasonable person in our society, I’m worried sick about the phenomenon of gun violence, and I’m especially concerned about what it reveals regarding the status of young people, particularly young men. Time and again, disgruntled, angry, depressed, self-hating men, boys really, are the perpetrators of these awful crimes. As I write these words, images of Robert E. Crimo, the twenty-one year old who has confessed to killing seven and wounding dozens more in Highland Park, IL, are circulating on social media, and his face has rather burned itself into my mind. He just looks so lost—physically, psychologically, and spiritually.
Now, I fully realize that Crimo is exceptional and so I don’t intend to extrapolate from him to all young people, but evidence has been piling up for some time that youths, especially boys and young men, are suffering badly in our society. To give just one example, Derek Thompson’s article in the Atlantic, from April of this year, reveals that from 2009 to 2021, “feelings of sadness and hopelessness” among American teenagers rose, astonishingly, from 26 percent to 44 percent. And the increase in depression was consistent across all major categories: male, female, black, white, LGBT, etc. In Thompson’s words, “Since 2009, sadness and hopelessness have increased for every race; for straight teens and gay teens; for teens who say they’ve never had sex and for those who say they’ve had sex with males and/or females; for students in each year of high school; for teens in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.” Houston, we have a problem.
What is causing this drastic increase in unhappiness? There is, obviously, no one answer, for the issue is multivalent and complex, but Thompson hazards four suggestions: social media use, a related decrease in real social contact, the stressfulness of the world to which contemporary media are giving young people far greater access, and modern parenting strategies. All are interesting and worth exploring, but I would like to focus on just one of his explanations and then offer a rationale of my own.
Social media are making a lot of people—but especially young men and women—crazy and sad. Period. This is the case, first, because social media produce an obsession with body image, looks, and popularity, and on the flip side, they give rise to a uniquely toxic atmosphere of judgmentalism, accusation, and criticism. Spend just a few minutes in comboxes and chatrooms on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, or God help us, Twitter, and you’ll immediately see what I mean. And what makes all of this worse is that the devices that communicate social media were designed to be addictive. As a result, even those who admit that Instagram and Facebook are making them sad cannot stop themselves from logging on.
A closely related problem is that social media are so dominant in the lives of kids that they effectively supplant activities that rather naturally bring joy. The average young person spends five or six hours a day on social media, and as a consequence, Thompson says, “compared with their counterparts in the 2000s, today’s teens are less likely to go out with their friends, get their driver’s license, or play youth sports.” Moreover, as sociologist Jean Twenge has shown, there is a tight correlation between screen time and depression, and for obvious reasons. One of the surest firewalls against feelings of sadness is steady contact with other human beings, but the social media preclude this, locking young people into a virtual world. I know this is oversimplifying a bit, but contrast the image of a young kid playing a lively game of baseball with his friends and that of a young kid hunched alone over his iPhone.
As for my own explanation of the phenomenon of teen depression, I would emphasize a theme that I have been harping on for years: the culture of self-invention. It is now a fundamental orthodoxy of the culture that values—epistemic, moral, and aesthetic—are generated from within one’s own subjectivity. In a word, each individual determines what is right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful or ugly for her. There is no “truth”; only my truth and your truth. There is nothing that is objectively beautiful, only what I think is beautiful and you think is beautiful. But this attitude is disastrous both psychologically and spiritually, for it essentially locks a person into the narrow confines of his own range of experience. It prevents her from moving outside of the tiny ambit of what she can imagine or hope for. The best moments in life, in point of fact, are those in which objective values—real truths, real moral absolutes, real beauty—break through the carapace of one’s own subjectivity and lift one up to the contemplation of something new, something that stands wonderfully beyond what one even thought possible. More to it, objective goods connect us to one another. As long as we are under the tyranny of subjectivist relativism, we are each locked in the prison of our own psyches, perhaps tolerating one another from a distance, but experiencing no real bond. However, precisely because they stand outside of anyone’s private experience, objective values can bring a plethora of people together in a common love and devotion. Once again, contrast two images: the first of an angry, isolated teen insisting that the world respect his private conception of truth, and the second of a group of teens, joyfully giving themselves together to a common purpose, a common good.
In addressing the plague of gun violence in our country, I do indeed think that sensible legislation is called for. But there are far deeper moral and cultural issues that have to be addressed, most notably that of depression among our young people. Two simple suggestions: we should set limits to the amount of time teens are spending on social media, and we should introduce them, any way we can, to the world of objective values.