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Are Kids Really So Fragile? What Trigger Warnings Get Wrong

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Are Kids Really So Fragile? What Trigger Warnings Get Wrong

Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He is the bestselling author of The Righteous Mind and The Happiness Hypothesis, and is also the co-author, with Greg Lukianoff, of the recent Next Big Idea Club Finalist, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. Jonathan recently sat down with Next Big Idea Club Editor Jeremy Price to discuss why free speech and healthy debate are under threat, and what steps we can take to create an emotionally and intellectually resilient society.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full version, click the video below.

Jeremy: How did the idea for your book first come about?

Jonathan: Greg Lukianoff, my friend and co-author, was the first to notice that something strange began happening on college campuses around 2014. Students began saying, “That book is dangerous. Don’t teach it,” or, “Give us a warning if you’re going to teach it,” or, “This speaker is dangerous.” They were acting like words were physically harmful to them.

Now, Greg is prone to depression. In 2007 he was actually hospitalized, and when he was released, he learned cognitive behavioral therapy. In CBT, you learn to recognize catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, black-and-white thinking, all these cognitive distortions. So when he sees students thinking this way, he calls me up and says, “Jon, if colleges are teaching students to think in this distorted way, isn’t that going to make them depressed?”

I thought this was a brilliant idea, because I had begun seeing signs of this in students, and I had been reading about trigger warnings and safe spaces. So I joined Greg in writing an article, and we submitted it to The Atlantic magazine. After it came out, the issue of students demanding protection from words, speakers, and ideas had become a much bigger issue, so we ended up turning the article into a book.

Jeremy: You mentioned some of these cognitive distortions. Can you tell us more about what the most prominent ones are, and how they play out on college campuses?

Jonathan: Sure. One is mind reading, assuming that you know what people think, without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. On campus, students would request safe spaces or trigger warnings, but not for themselves. It wasn’t, “I will be traumatized”—it was, “Vulnerable people will be traumatized.” But did anybody check with them? Not necessarily.

Another one is catastrophizing, believing that what happens will be so awful, you won’t be able to stand it. So let’s say a student had been sexually assaulted, and there’s a Greek myth that involves rape. There was this new idea that students are so fragile that if they hear something that reminds them of their negative experience, they will have a full-scale attack of PTSD, so we’ve got to protect them. That is catastrophizing—it’s just not the way PTSD works. I don’t know of any cases where a student had a PTSD attack and had to be hospitalized because of a book.

Students had somehow accepted the idea that we’re all fragile, and that the world is a dangerous and oppressive place, even in the most protective, progressive environments. So they demanded changes that I think have really sucked the life, the trust, and the fun out of higher ed. And for what purpose? It isn’t clear that this has helped anyone.

Jeremy: So you’re saying that people are now equating words and phrases with acts of physical violence. And as a former literature major, I can say that people like me do like to use this metaphor of “words as weapons.” But how did that metaphor become so literalized?

Jonathan: So when Greg and I wrote our article, we thought that this was caused on college campuses. Everybody was saying that there was a rise of mental health problems on campuses, and two or three years later, there was a ton of data showing that it was happening—but it wasn’t just on campus. This was happening to all American teens—rich and poor, black and white, male and female. So this problem did not start on campus.

[In fact,] we’re going to have to [talk about] childhood. Kids born in 1996 and later had really different childhoods from the kids born before them. If I may ask, how old are you, Jeremy?

Jeremy: I’m 25, born at the end of ‘93.

Jonathan: Okay, so you’re the very end of the millennial generation, and millennials tend to love the book. A lot of people talk about millennial snowflakes, but actually, you millennials had no problem with a controversial speaker. You didn’t speak out and try to shut it down. That really begins when Gen Z arrives on campus in 2013 and 2014. That’s when this new morality [comes into] place. What did we do to our kids to make them vulnerable in this way?

Back in the 1990s, the Cold War was over, the fear of nuclear war was gone, the [United States] ran a surplus, the crime rate plummeted—and the music was pretty good, too. The risks kids were at from diseases, car accidents, and crime were all plummeting. It was the safest time ever.

But because of changes in the media environment, we were divorced from reality—we got a steady diet of stories about childhood abductions. Almost nobody gets abducted in the United States—there are about 100 true kidnappings a year in a country of 350 million people. It almost never happens, but each time it happens, especially if it happens to a middle-class white kid, there’s constant coverage.

So in the 1990s, just as childhood was the safest it had ever been, we freak out. We say, “If you ever take your eyes off your kid, he’ll be kidnapped and killed.” So we don’t ever take our eyes off our kids. [To make matters worse,] as a country gets wealthier, and as they have fewer children, they invest more in their children, and then they worry about them more.

I do this demonstration all over the country: I ask the older people [in the room], “At what age were you let out [to play unsupervised]?” Everybody was let out at the age of six, seven, or eight. That was the universal across the country, and in other countries. But then I ask Gen Z, and they say 10, 11, 12, sometimes even 13 or 14.

So we deprived kids of that main period of childhood—when kids go have adventures unsupervised, when they learn to be independent, when they learn to manage risk for themselves: “Hmm, I’m going to climb up that wall. Oh wait, maybe I’m going too high.” You make that decision for yourself, rather than saying, “Well, my mom will tell me if I’m going too high.”

Kids are anti-fragile. If we raise them in a bubble, their immune system doesn’t develop, and in the same way, if we protect them from teasing, exclusion, and everything bad socially, their social strength doesn’t develop. Kids need free play, and independence, and experience, but millennials are the last people in America who got unsupervised time. We really weakened Gen Z.

Then as they’re growing up, we get the Columbine shooting, and we put on anti-bullying policies. So now you can’t tease in school—that’s considered bullying. My kids go to New York City public schools, and often there’s no running at recess, because someone might get hurt. If anyone cries, the guard comes over: “What’s going on, kids?” Kids don’t have the chance to work conflicts out for themselves.

Then this same generation is let on social media way too early. We overprotect them in the physical world, but [with social media,] we say, “Hey, here’s this new way that you can all be connected, and we have no idea what you’re doing. You can punish each other, humiliate each other, whatever you want!” Between 2009 and 2011 is when American teens go from mostly not on social media every day, to mostly on social media every day. And in 2012 is when all the curves start spiking upwards for depression and anxiety, especially for girls. The suicide rate for teenage girls in the United States is now up 70%, which is way more than older women. The boys’ suicide rate is up about 25-30%, though that’s actually in line with older men. The US, Canada, the UK— it’s happening in all the English-speaking countries I’ve looked at.

So [following this] combination of overprotection, anti-bullying policies, and early shaming on social media, Gen Z shows up on campus in 2013 and 2014, and they don’t have the normal social abilities that previous generations had. What is dangerous to them? Nothing physical. What’s dangerous to them is now words.

“I don’t know of any cases where a student had a PTSD attack and had to be hospitalized because of a book.”

Jeremy: So it’s the environment of social media where Gen Z encounters danger of any sort, right? That’s where they don’t have any supervision, so that’s where they experience pain, and humiliation, and ostracization [through words]. That’s their reality and their concept of danger.

So what happens when Gen Z students move from the campus into the business world? How does that play out?

Jonathan: I work in a business school, so I meet a lot of business people. I always ask, “Do you have any recent college grads? How’s it going?” And what I hear is that it’s often very difficult. I hear things like, “My God, it’s like some of them come in looking for conflict.” They grew up in a call-out culture.

Here’s the thing about a call-out culture: You get prestige by pointing out that someone else has done something wrong—somebody has used words inappropriately. A real hallmark of a call-out culture is that it’s usually not an idea—it’s usually about a word, a single word or phrase that somebody thinks is insensitive. And they [call this person out] publicly.

Now, there’s research on this, and if you actually want to change [someone’s mind], you should go talk to them privately. But if you shame them publicly, they’re going to hate you, and they’re going to hate your cause. Call-out culture backfires—it’s toxic, and it hurts your cause.

But [many people] don’t care about their cause as much as they care about their own prestige. So if social media puts you in a prestige economy, in which shaming and attacking others gets you points, well, that’s what you’re going to do. And when companies hire members of Gen Z, what I’m hearing is that there’s so much time now spent on the fact that somebody said something.

Now, anytime you’re working with human beings, there’s conflict, politics, misunderstanding—that’s always the case. But let’s suppose that typically 5-10% of all productive hours in an office are burned up by stupid, unnecessary conflicts that don’t lead to anything good. Well if it suddenly goes to 10 or 20%, that’s a huge hit on productivity. It’s a huge hit on how much fun it is to work in an office.

At universities, we’re now more on eggshells. We have to self-censor more. We can’t trust each other as much—and I think that same [phenomenon] is coming into companies.

“If you actually want to change [someone’s mind], you should go talk to them privately. But if you shame them publicly, they’re going to hate you.”

Jeremy: I’m so glad that you touched on this point about public shaming, and how it indicates that those groups care more about their personal prestige than they do about their cause. A related point I wanted to ask you about is this almost druglike appeal of moral outrage and righteous indignation. It just feels so good to be like, “I’m right, and this person is wrong, and they’re bad.” There’s this very human instinct to want to fight against something, anything, even if that means tilting at windmills.

You see that in the stories that we’ve been telling for millennia—in our myths, legends, and religions, all the way up to the movies and books that we consume nowadays. It’s always this struggle of good versus evil, and the hero always triumphs—and it just feels so good to place yourself in the role of the hero.

Would you say that that’s true? Do you think that the appeal of righteous indignation is a part of what’s happening here?

Jonathan: You’re right that just about every culture that has writing has left us a major epic that’s a hero’s journey. The hero goes through various stages, and becomes stronger, and then goes and vanquishes evil—so that’s very deep in the human mind. But what we’re seeing on social media and what we’re seeing with Gen Z is not exactly that, because it’s not an individual hero. There are very few individual heroes, and very few individual activists who are becoming known. It’s group versus group. It’s tribalism.

[For a while we had] Hitler and Japan [as our enemies,] and then we go to the Soviets and communism. But once we were deprived of an external enemy in the 90s, we were desperately looking for one. We tried drug dealers, we tried Islamic terrorists… So it is very deep in the human mind to do “us versus them.”

My last book was called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion, and my argument is that we evolved to do small-scale religion—not big religions with sky gods, but small-scale religion, where we worship something sacred that binds us together, and then we’re ready to fight another group. If you look at a college football game and all the rituals that go on beforehand, it’s great fun. You bind the group together, you do battle, and then you can go home and forget it.

But as formal religion is fading out, as young people are increasingly choosing the designation, “spiritual but not religious,” there’s a huge crisis of meaning among young people. There’s this sense of emptiness, and a huge hunger for meaning. So if new political doctrines come along, if a new crusade [begins], [that could] become your religion. And that’s going to affect you—it’s going to warp your thinking, and prevent you from actually solving the problem.

So I think that political causes are going to loom much larger for Gen Z. And look, they’re growing up in a completely insane time, so they’re right to be upset about what’s happening in this country. But I think they’re going to be drawn into the [notion] from the 60s that the personal is political—which is a terrible way to live. It’s terrible for your happiness, and it’s not good for your activism, either. But I think that young people, Gen Z, will be drawn into it.

“There’s this very human instinct to want to fight against something, anything, even if that means tilting at windmills.”

Jeremy: That makes total sense. And it seems to me that there’s also this conflation of political disagreements with moral disagreements, where the political becomes not just personal, but also moral. So [has the political always truly been moral], and we’re just now recognizing it? Or is that something that we’re imposing on the discussion?

Jonathan: Politics has always been moral—our left-right dimension goes back to the French Revolution. And it wasn’t like, “Oh, we disagree on policy, but we’re friends.” No, they were killing each other. So politics has always been about morality, but it varies in the degree to which it is about moral purity, sacredness, and good versus evil. [Sometimes it’s intense enough to] require me or us to destroy you, versus a milder form in which they’re our opponents, but not necessarily our enemies.

There’s good data on political polarization in the United States, and it shows that Republicans and Democrats always had a slightly negative opinion of each other, but it wasn’t hatred. It’s only around 2004 that the numbers began [showing a sense of,] “I really hate these people.” That began rising in the early 2000s, and it has kept rising up through 2019.

When you really hate other people, you dehumanize them, and they have no ideas that are worth listening to. If someone’s on the right, they’re all racists, and if someone’s on the left, they hate America. So far there hasn’t been a lot of actual violence, but I think we’re getting closer to that.

The other thing that I’m finding is that young people are much more likely to make arguments that are ad hominem or guilt by association. When The Coddling of the American Mind came out, we were expecting a lot of really smart people to argue against us, and I can point to three to five places where someone made a good argument that we might have missed something. But overwhelmingly, the argument is that we’re straight white men, and that we’re bad people. That is what you do in a religious war, not in a classroom or debating society.

Jeremy: I’m noticing that a lot of what we’re talking about here—political polarization, being fearful of kidnappings—seems to stem from the rise of sensational, attention-grabbing media, which we’ve become addicted to. Would you say that’s a fair comment?

Jonathan: That’s basically right—I’ll just add some nuance. Throughout history, there have been innovations that link us closer together, and whenever that happens, there are all kinds of unforeseen effects. Take the automobile—people can move around, so it changes sex life, and dating, and marriage. The automobile, the telephone, the airplane—all of these things have effects on society, and it takes decades for that to work out. But with social media, we’ve never had something come in so fast that was so transformative in changing social relationships.

“The argument is that we’re straight white men, and that we’re bad people. That is what you do in a religious war, not in a classroom or debating society.”

And the problem is not the internet, and it’s not screen time. Research that I’m collecting shows that it’s not time spent watching Netflix, and it’s not even time on the computer. It’s specifically social media that has pushed us over the edge, and I think it is a major cause of the rise of depression and anxiety, [especially] for girls.

Had Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter never been invented, I do not think our politics would have blown up. I do not think Donald Trump would be president. I do not think Brexit would have happened. I do not think that our democracy would be as imperiled as it is. Of course, Facebook and Twitter do a lot of good things, too, but the downside is so severe that I’m beginning to worry that social media is incompatible with a functioning democracy.

Jeremy: I totally hear that. Just last year I did an interview with virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, and he came out with a book called Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. In his opinion, finding a new, better way to do social media is an existential issue, because we’re starting to enter such radically different realities from one another.

Jonathan: That’s right. Democracy is always fragile—Plato said that it was the second-worst form of government, because it inevitably decays into tyranny. “Democracy” literally means “rule of the demos,” the people, the crowd. And Plato, like the Founding Fathers, knew that the people are easily led astray by a demagogue, by a person who inflames their emotions. And we’re seeing that all over the world—in a lot of countries, demagogues are rising to power.

It’s always been pretty tough to have an effective democracy. Madison [may have been] right when he said that democracies have ever been cauldrons of anger and discontent, and are inevitably as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

So now imagine putting a Bunsen burner underneath our huge, diverse democracy. “Let’s make everyone really angry, and see what happens! We had three television networks and some really respected newspapers, but let’s rip it all up. To hell with it—let’s just shred the social fabric. Now we’re separate communities, full of hatred, and all moving in different directions.” That is basically, I think, what has happened to America since about 2009.

Jeremy: Wow, I wish that metaphor weren’t so perfect, and yet it really is.

Finally, we’ve talked about these issues on such huge scales—the country, the world. But what would you say that each of us can start doing right now, to start encouraging these values of free thinking and healthy debate?

“We need to get more off social media, more connected to people, more morally and intellectually humble.”

Jonathan: For one thing, I think everybody who interacts with other human beings needs to read Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. We need to remember these basic social skills of how to start conversations and how to avoid arguments.

Two, I think we need to spend less time on social media. People are still pretty reasonable and decent when you meet them offline, so we need to get more off social media, more connected to people, more morally and intellectually humble. There are all these forces acting on you to make you overconfident, angry, and moralistic, so we need to drain a lot of the passion and the moralism out of our social interactions.

In terms of technology guidance, I would suggest three simple rules: One, all screens out of the bedroom at a certain time every night, because a lot of kids get distracted overnight, and it interferes with their sleep.

Two, no social media until age 16, [or at least not] before 13. Preteen girls have by far the largest increases in depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide, and I think the evidence is showing some causality here. So keep kids off social media as long as you can.

And then the third rule is to work out a time budget with your kids. Watching videos is not nearly as bad as social media, but these things are always going to be more interesting than going outside and seeing if there’s someone to play with. So if you don’t have a time budget with your kid, [screens are] going to suck up six to eight hours a day, and then there’s no time for anything else. So work it out with the kid—don’t just impose it.

And actually, one thing I love about Gen Z is that they’re actually pretty realistic—if you talk to them about device use, they know these things are messing them up, and they want help in having a healthy relationship with technology and with each other. A lot of them are very lonely. A lot of them want to connect. But you can’t connect at school, because even in between classes, the kids are [on their phones,] so you have no chance to talk. If you bring them into the conversation, they have a lot of good ideas about how to make things better.

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