Our national dialogue, if that’s what you can call it, has gone from coarse to vile. I appear on business television about once a week. Live TV is hard; the people are nice, and I’ve convinced myself it’s a good regular challenge. CNBC, Bloomberg, and CNN feel very much at home for me, as we mostly engage in violent agreement — my values mimic those of most media outlets, the conservative wing of the far left. I go on Fox regularly, as I want to get out of my bubble, and I like the people there. Stuart Varney is charming, and Neil Cavuto seems whip-smart. And it’s fun to be challenged (“You’re a socialist, are you not?”). I even think the parties — viewers, me, the host — come away with more empathy for the other side. #dreamon
I went on Fox last week, and the conversation turned to Facebook executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. I made some strong (or weak, depending on your view) statements about how the duo would be remembered. Nothing I haven’t said before. The segment was posted to the Fox Business channel on YouTube. The comments were rattling. Many of those that got an upvote were misogynistic or anti-Semitic. What could explain this?
— Fox viewers are more likely to be bigoted?
— Bad actors (bots and trolls) are drawn to Fox, as they feel it’s easier to wreak havoc there?
— All of us need to be more thoughtful about the line between provocative and incendiary, knee-deep in gasoline passing out lighters?
— All of the above?
Most people cite as culprits the tone set by our leaders and the media’s adoption of rage as a business model. No doubt. But I believe the real fire starter is the tobacco of our generation, social media, and the algorithms that have determined that the path to more engagement, clicks, and Nissan ads is paved in rage. The algorithms sense if you lean left or right, then begin shoving you to the poles and serving you increasingly provocative and extreme content you can’t turn away from, to scratch a tribal itch.
Social platforms did not realize that “connecting the world” could lead to very bad places, and they’ve been paid to ignore the problem. Some lowlights:
— On Instagram, a search for the word “Jews” displayed 11,696 posts with the hashtag “#jewsdid911,” claiming that Jews had orchestrated the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
— Cesar Sayoc, who was charged last week with sending explosive devices to prominent Democrats, appeared to have been radicalized online by partisan posts on Twitter and Facebook.
— In Brazil, Facebook’s WhatsApp was weaponized by pro-Bolsonaro actors, who spread false data about polling locations and times to suppress the vote among supporters of rival candidates.
— In Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers opened fire inside the Tree of Life synagogue, killing 11 people and wounding others. Just before the attack, Bowers posted about his intentions on social media site Gab, known for accommodating extremism.
— And on and on and on.
At what point does social media’s inability, or unwillingness, to stop fueling rage become a national security or health issue? I believe if YouTube were shut down for a week, due to public-safety risk, they would figure out a way (crisply) to dramatically reduce the problem. It would also, no doubt, dramatically reduce their profits.
NYU Stern colleague Jonathan Haidt has written a powerful book, The Coddling of the American Mind. He writes that in an attempt to sanitize our kids’ lives, we’ve used so many clean wipes that our children’s immune system is arrested. Our concierge parenting, clearing out all the obstacles, and protecting children from real-life experiences creates fragile adults who are then more prone to depression.
The rise in both digital media and mental health problems is correlated. The chaser is the introduction of social media, which, more so in girls, has created massive amounts of FOBLO (fear of being left out), the more hurtful version of FOMO. It’s one thing to hear about a party you weren’t invited to, and another to see it unfold real-time on your Instagram feed, alone in your room.
Teenagers are more “safe” than previous decades — they drink less, smoke less, are safer drivers, and wait longer to have sex. But other trends are less positive, even distressing: teenagers are less rebellious, less happy, unprepared for adulthood. The toxic cocktail: helicopter parenting plus the allure of screens. Teenagers are physically safer than ever, yet they are more mentally vulnerable than before the introduction of smartphones. In 2016 depression among teen girls shot up 20%, among boys 6%, and the suicide rate has doubled for girls in the last 10 years. Boys typically play out their aggression physically — they might shove or taunt each other. Girls, on the other hand, play out their aggression relationally, taking their revenge online, which is why social media has been particularly harmful to girls. (We make many of the same points in the revised paperback edition of The Four; the research is compelling.)
Kids are not as ready for college as previous generations and now ask for more protection against ideas they might oppose. Students at my alma mater, UCLA, have decided they need protection from people and ideas and have disinvited billionaire real estate businessman Sam Zell to speak, as some of his words aren’t just dated, but traumatizing.
I coddle my boys, and I know it’s wrong. My eldest was performing poorly at school — not studying, forgetting his homework. My wife lowered the boom: “What is this?” (yelling). “Did you even read the questions? Do you want another D? How will that make you feel when you get another D? Should we cancel soccer?” And then, the big gun came out: “Should we not let you play Fortnite?” Later that night I suggested she was too hard on him, he’d had a long day, and we should take it easy on him the rest of the weekend.
No such luck. First thing in the morning, after breakfast, sitting at the table berating him for the shoddy workmanship, “What is this? What. Is. This?” Painful. But here’s the thing, the immune system kicked in. He’s doing much better, not just in school, but he is doing better. Before, he was coming into our room and sleeping with us — he was probably stressed out knowing we would soon learn about a bad test result and needed reassuring. Since his grades have picked up, he’s sleeping like an 11-year-old should, in his own room, in his own bed. His mom is his motivation, and she is our family’s rock. Not afraid of the germs (yelling), knowing he needs the immunities.
I am too coarse professionally and coddle too much at home. So much personal growth needed, so little time.
Life is so rich,
P.S. This week on the Pivot podcast: the negative effects of cable news on society, my man-crush on Beto O’Rourke, and a taxonomy of love.