Thanks for this informative post.

I wrote a post with a possible "happy ending" for the social media generation. Here's an excerpt:

"Still, I think it would be highly unfortunate if in our discourse we condemned the “social media generation” to an inevitable and permanently higher prevalence of misery and “stupidity” by assuming this is their fate and repeatedly telling them so. In fact, it would not surprise me if, contrary to all assumptions, this generation emerged into maturity with a greater sense of both reality and resilience. Perhaps they will discover at a much earlier age the value of the stoic approach–––we can’t control most events, but we can control our reaction to them."

Full post below (short, 1,000 words) about my own personal experience as a child and a parent of now adult children. In case anyone has an interest.

Title: My Youthful Distractions, American Teens and Social Media, Marcus Aurelius on Binge-Watching


Expand full comment

Nice post! One small nitpick: I don't know if "less bullying" is the correct conclusion to draw from the CDC data. The only category they give as green is "bullied at school" where the rates drop from 19-20% for 8 years in a row to suddenly 15% in 2021. I'd assume that is a pandemic effect of not being *at school*, and might revert to the extremely stable 2011-2019 trend.

Expand full comment

Jason Pargin has talked/written somewhere about the shift that occurred to websites such as his Cracked.com in 2012 with the advent of smartphones. The shift is, of course, complete collapse and panic and severe constraints on the type of content which is successful on social media platforms as opposed to websites.

Marshall Mcluhan would be fascinated by the tribalizing effects of moving from the detached contemplation of a screen to a tactile environment you control with your finger. A profane, sequential world of specialists to a discontinuous mosaic of communally created content designed to incentivize deep involvement and participation.

As a palliative measure I would suggest “Art & Games” in the Mcluhanian sense of providers of exact information of how to rearrange one's psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties.

That is, the artist can show us how to "ride with the punch," instead of "taking it on

the chin." It can only be repeated that human history is a record of "taking it on the chin".

Expand full comment

This is a good reason for having multiple kids, not too far apart, and encouraging strong ties between them, so even if they're isolated from the world they have each other.

Expand full comment

It is a truth universally acknowledged that email is one of the Cardinal Evils of Our Times. This doesn't seem to match my own experience; am I just very lucky, or am I missing out on some core (horrible) use of email? In case the demographics are relevant, I'm 36F, married with a preschooler and a dog, have a PhD in math, work in tech, and have moved around in the past but live in the suburbs of Minneapolis. My uses of email are (sorted, approximately, from most to least pleasant / useful):

* At work (on the entirely-separate work account): a mixture of relevant, somewhat relevant, outright corporate spam, outright external spam. Typically easy to sort out which is which. Entirely circumscribed to working hours.

* Personal communication, formerly known as letters but few people I know are willing to hand-write those anymore. Not a large fraction of my inbox, because there's few long-distance friends who like the format.

* Coordination of in-person or online activities, split between email and text. The most inconvenient feature here is that it's split, meaning I might have to search two different places for details that didn't get propagated into the calendar immediately.

* Newsletters that I read (including this one).

* Tickets, confirmations, appointment reminders, charity receipts, etc.

* Some notes to self; admittedly, not an ideal place for them.

* Spam that I (usually) don't read, typically easy to identify on the rare occasions that Google doesn't filter it out for me. Emails from Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, "someone liked your comment," store advertisements, etc. fall into this category.

This is undoubtedly a slightly rosy picture of my inbox, but I don't think it's grossly distorted, and it doesn't seem especially unhealthy (even when email is present on the phone). What universal, horrifyingly bad experience of using email am I missing?

Expand full comment

I don't think everything generalizes outside US/developed countries [I speak from Brazil here]. We do, however, have a serious issue with smartphones and social media. I also have 3 kids, but my eldest is already 13. He is pretty much the single kid in his group at school that does not have social media. My middle child is 6; she complains to me that all her friends have tablets and phones and she doesn't; the little one is 3 and is blissfully unaware of any such things.

I think part of the problem is, yes, our generation and the generation before. Most people my age [30-50] are what used to be called "extremely online"; they are usually checking their phones, scrolling social media. It is unavoiadble for that behavior to be passed on to their kids. Now, the previous generation, my kids' grandmothers? They not only use their phones all the time, but stick the bloody thing in front of the kids! Candy crush and photo apps and whatnots! I would be surprised if I didn't grow up watching TV every morning and every night and having zero supervision on the kind of games I was allowed to play.

Expand full comment

Doom scrolling is a big problem. There should be a way on social media to dial in a minimum amount of positivity in what you read: "I want my feed to be at least 85% positive messages" or "keep negative messages confined to weekdays between 7:00 and 8:00 PM". Identifying positive vs negative posts is something AI can help with. Similarly everyone posts about the best days in their lives and it makes it seem like you are losing the game of life. There should be a way to put a control on that. If we give people more videos of puppies playing and less videos of people verbally attacking each other we can create more positivity and reverse the drift towards depression.

Expand full comment

It's always kinda weird when all the blogs I read put out posts at the same time about the same topical topic...which is +1 for "no I don't miss out on Big News for not using MSM, trust me I'll hear about it anyway". Naturally this was the most rigorous of the takes.

I've always followed a version of your Ten Phone Commandments...the devices just aren't that interesting to me, there's not much to get addicted to in the first place. 95% of "phone usage" is just to play music*, the rest is incidental/being too lazy to do something The Old Fashioned Way on laptop. (Totally agree with you that gating some essential apps and services to mobile-only is a terrible practice - this makes it more acceptable to slack off on quality web design since Everybody Knows you gotta optimize for mobile instead...so even stuff that nominally works on a PC works less well in general. Beware Trivial Inconveniences.) But, boy, trying to convince someone who didn't start with such apparently-rare disposition is hard...it's very much like weaning someone off an actual drug habit. Years of patient debate, showing friends I'm advocating cause I care about them, not out of misguided Luddite tendencies. "This seems to make you unhappy, have you tried Doing Something Which Is Not That? I'm not living some weird hermit life, it's fine!"

But of course that approach doesn't scale, and I really do worry about the network-effect collapse for someone already not-doing-well. Social media might be a shitty simulacra for actual human socialization, but if it's all someone has...so much better to not get hooked in the first place. It's such a perfect collective action problem, really. I used to joke with a former boss that we'd have a much more productive workplace if we could install some cell signal jammers around the building (likely true!), and yet. (Ironically, of course, the best way to scale modeling a social media-free life...would be by being an influencer for such on social media. Are there similar approaches? Why haven't comedians and famous celebrities managed to pull this off already - lack of critical mass?)

*I think quality does matter here, as with the other Acceptable Uses. Aesthetics are a whole confounder, but in general opting for Absorbing Content that discourages low-effort multitasking is probably good...so like, music that one gets lost in, not BGM For IRL. Anything where the experience would be cheaped by also scrolling at the same time. The beat just absorbs all the space: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DcJFdCmN98s

Expand full comment

The thing about books vs. tv. vs. social media gets me thinking along the lines of the whole "the medium is the message" thing. The structure of information delivery itself shapes the information that is delivered. A lot of books are worthless, but something about the effort required to read a book, and social expectations around books leads there being an accrual of quality over time. The exact opposite is true of social media, where the structural incentives just promote the delivery of bad memetics and accrual of nothing of value.

I don't know how to escape the current Molochian paradigm, but I doubt government regulation would help a lot. One observation I've made is that YouTube has a better (not nearly perfect, but better) garbage : useful ratio than most social media, and the incentives are better aligned. Part of it is that the expectation for a "good" YouTube video it will last 5 to 30 minutes and be skillfully edited. This is in stark contrast to TikTok or Instagram content which is expected to last 30s or less. So, creating incentives for companies to shift their models towards a YouTube-like paradigm might be helpful at the margins.


Expand full comment

Extremely naive question, driven by seeing that the '90s cohorts were struggling too. (This is NOT mutually exclusive with the phones hypothesis, to be clear).

Is it possible that there's something about the Silent Generation - Gen X - Gen Z sequence that doesn't apply to the Greatest Generation -- Baby Boomer -- Millennial sequence in the same way?

I'm aware that maybe I'm just letting correlation/bucketing drive causation here, and that generations are messy buckets at best, but honestly, look at the _set of names_ that we have for the latter sequence. You start off with a generation that, in the words of the Ninth Doctor, had "Lots to do. Save the world. Beat the Germans. And don't forget the welfare state!" Then you get the Boomers that grow up in the peak of American confidence and self-deal themselves every benefit they can (e.g., Prop 13). The Millennials don't get as great of a deal, but they grow up before things start to feel really constrained.

By contrast, you have the generational sequence that is unbeloved by American history and society in every way. The Silent Generation doesn't even get a memorial for the Korean War until 15 years after the Vietnam War memorial opens. Gen X that grows up in the end of history in a society built on a myth of endless frontiers. Gen Z gets, well, a future that (even if better) feels awful.

Maybe kids growing up after 2011 have the bad luck of being in the relatively traumatized family generational sequence, instead of the relatively happy one.

Expand full comment

I think that we might be in the midst of a positive change in social media habits with the growing popularity of twitch + discord. Small streams with <100 people feel intimate and like hanging out in a way that social media almost never does. I think this will trickle down to teens eventually, and make hanging out come back.

Expand full comment

This is really a great summary, investigation and essay. Thank you.

I think if you wanted to explain the 90's misery bump along the same lines as the more recent bump, you could in fact add in the "end of the world" narratives that were cropping up. I remember the late 80s and early 90s being a time of real "we need to act to save the world!" starting to become more common in TV. Stories about how the world was doomed due to global cooling/warming with claims about everyone dying in a few years unless people act now were becoming common, and taught in school, for instance. I remember a lot of people who took that at face value. Not as much as today, but the ubiquity was ramping up, combined with more serious application of mass media TV and cable. Along with that catastrophizing was an increase in "look how good your life could/should be" type shows, although I don't know how much of an impact that had.

(I was outside the cable bubble, as we didn't have access to the 4 broadcast channels till my parents got a satellite dish in '99, but I recall my friends watching very different shows, and some of my cohort seeming to watch a LOT of tv while the rural kids like me had options along the lines of "Golf tournament, or go do something else.")

I recall though that by the time I was in college around the turn of the century, people didn't care as much about catastrophes and were more excited about online possibilities and doing stuff together. I don't remember people bringing up e.g. climate stuff much at all then. All the woke stuff seemed to bubble up more seriously by the late aughts and early teen's, but I might just not have noticed as much.

Expand full comment

My guess for why the "Youth Risk Behavior Survey ... collected every two years among a nationally representative sample of U.S. high school students" fails to contain stats on completed suicide attempts has to do with the notoriously low survey response rates among people who have previously killed themselves.

Expand full comment

To add to your theory re: video games in the 90s/2000s: online games were starting to come...online right around 2000. I was already playing MUDs as early as '97 but they were always extremely niche. The first non-MUD online game I really got into the community around was Tribes: Aerial Assault on PS2 c. 2002 and by then stuff like Everquest was also already out. Original Xbox was 2001 and the most gaming I did with strangers in high school was Halo LAN parties in some dude's basement c. 2004. Definitely feel like you could make the case that gaming became much more social right around the year 2000.

otoh video games broadly were still kind of niche; I don't think anyone else in my main high school friend group was into games, though I also had several random other friends who were. There's also a lot to be said about how various forms of matchmaking that started to become in vogue in the mid 2010s tended to dampen forming new communities and friend groups around games. I personally find it hard to enter into new communities spontaneously (although this is especially difficult with an adult schedule now) and my regular group of "gaming friends" are a group of guys I played WoW with for a few months in like 2006 that happened to stick.

Also, Occupy Wall Street was late 2011, which is the point where I'd argue social justice went mainstream and the modern iteration of protest culture took off. If I knew more about the Tumblr trend of if-you're-not-mad-about-thing-of-the-week-you're-literally-the-worst I'd add in some speculation there as well. My internal reference for this was a couple SSC posts from around 2014 so it was already a thing by at least that point. #Kony2012 was 2012.

Expand full comment

> …and make concerted efforts to see people in person as often as possible

I'll be in New York around the end of Passover (around April 12-21), let me know if you want to meet up around then

Expand full comment

I've lost track of the number of times people on ACX and related places have asserted that things are "objectively better" today than in the past, by which they mean certain economic metrics have ostensibly improved, and everything else is irrelevant.

Expand full comment