Are you concerned about teens and social media?
I am. That’s why my ears perked up when I heard that Seattle Public Schools decided to sue social media companies over the harmful effects they are having on school children in their district. According to NPR, the suit targets:
"...TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat, seeking to hold them accountable for the mental health crisis among youth. Seattle Public Schools filed the lawsuit [in January] in U.S. District Court. The 91-page complaint says the social media companies have created a public nuisance by targeting their products to children. It blames them for worsening mental health and behavioral disorders including anxiety, depression, disordered eating and cyberbullying; making it more difficult to educate students; and forcing schools to take steps such as hiring additional mental health professionals, developing lesson plans about the effects of social media, and providing additional training to teachers."
I found their approach to be interesting—and promising. This comes two years after the revelations of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen in 2021. She released reams of internal research by the social media giant into the way Facebook products were impacting teens’ mental health in negative ways. Some social media company executives have long understood how harmful their services are for teens, and yet they seem to refuse to change the way they operate. Maybe lawsuits will apply the pressure needed to shift things?
This news comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just announced the results of a new survey of teens this week—one with very troubling findings. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey for the decade ending in 2021 showed that nearly 3 out of 5 high-school girls in the US reported feelings of persistent sadness or hopelessness. That was an increase of around 60% over the past decade. Both girls and boys said they have mental health challenges, but girls reported much more sadness/hopelessness (57% in girls vs. 29% in boys) and serious consideration of suicide (30% in girls—that is 1 in 3 girls—and 14% in boys) than boys. Overall, 41% of girls reported poor mental health in the previous 30 days, and 18% of boys did.
Social media was not the focus of this study in particular—but it did find that girls were almost twice as likely as boys to be electronically bullied via text and social media. In the survey, 20% of girls reported being cyberbullied in the past year (and 11% of boys). Clearly this is one factor affecting our teens, and teen girls especially. It’s extremely sobering.
The survey included over 17,200 respondents and led to calls for more help from schools to support students’ mental health, and to improve “connectedness” with school communities. The federal researchers said that teen girls in particular are “engulfed in a growing wave of violence and trauma,” according to The Washington Post.
This situation is all the more real to me because of my own daughters’ relationship with social media, especially Instagram, which is very prevalent among their peer group. My older daughter took a stand against Instagram a couple times, first as a young teen when she deleted the app because of all the distractions it caused. In her high school years, she felt she needed it to keep up with school, club, and student athletics news and with some of her friends and peer group.
But again last month, she deleted it from her phone once more, after explaining to me how detrimental the app is for teens. Top among its faults: The app’s constant pull towards social comparison, and a panoply of competitive achievements of one’s peers flashed right before your eyes.
If you think about it, what are two of the most judgmental places in the world? High school and social media! Combining these two together makes for an ultra-toxic environment. As my daughter pointed out, people showcase a very small sliver of their existence, which is meant to look exciting and amazing and enviable, and is often quite fake. On the other hand, those teens who try to show a bit of their “real” selves get really negative responses in the comments, simply because they post an unpolished video, or a share a creative project.
To top it all off, I’ve recently learned about incidents in our school community of cyberbullying, including body shaming, the use of stereotypes and defamatory language, and starting negative rumors about students. It’s all very worrying to see what’s happening with our teens online.
Here we should recall Marcus Aurelius’ words in the Meditations: “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.” Food for thought.
As the Seattle lawsuit points out,
"Defendants have successfully exploited the vulnerable brains of youth, hooking tens of millions of students across the country into positive feedback loops of excessive use and abuse of Defendants' social media platforms," the complaint said. "Worse, the content Defendants curate and direct to youth is too often harmful and exploitive ...."
But it’s hard to quit, and not just because the platforms are intentionally addictive. In a sense, we NEED to keep up with social media because of how reliant people at my kids’ school and local organizations are on social media to get the word out about everything from e-waste collections to sports team tryouts.
In the past two years, I have learned much more about my daughters’ campus and what’s happening there from the Instagram accounts of the student newspaper, clubs, and the athletics department than I have from reading any number of emails I receive. The news is fresher, pithier, and more clear, and I feel obliged to check Instagram stories to find out about school events and news.
My younger daughter is now in high school but hasn’t yet downloaded social media apps, by her own choice. She has to ask ME for information about her school sports teams because she literally does not get the updates they are sharing via Instagram. So I send her screenshots from social media! We have determined together that she may have to get Instagram soon, just to read these announcements… but with mixed emotions.
Is there a better way to get the information we need from our schools and activities? Without these money-making platforms that have super negative effects on student mental health and well-being?
Going back to Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen: She recently diagnosed the problems that develop the more time that teens (or anyone) spend on social media well in a recent roundtable discussion, summarized here:
"What we have seen from Facebook's own research is that Facebook knows that the products it makes are very engaging. They're designed to be engaging," she said. "Unfortunately, in the case of children and young adults, that can lead to very high rates of what we call 'problematic use.'"
Facebook's algorithms are not neutral, Haugen explained. Content that gets a reaction from people gets distributed more widely. That's how an innocent search for "healthy recipes" on Instagram might lead a teenager to eating disorder content instead.
Haugen said Instagram's algorithms can lead to addiction in its young users by creating "little dopamine loops." In the first ten minutes on Instagram, people will see content from their friends or pages they follow, she says. As they stay longer on the site, the algorithm will reach further to show them new and engaging content in an effort to keep them there.
"Once you get an hour or two in, Facebook's algorithms are the main thing that's choosing what you're focusing on," she said. "Now you're in the zone where you really are just putting yourselves in the algorithm's hands."
Do we really want our kids in those hands?
My daughter and I recently read and chatted about an article focusing on a “Luddite club” formed by high school students who decided to give up their smartphones and return to paper books and drawing pads, and to chatting together at the local park. She thought it sounded idyllic.
In a Stoic sense, I hope my kids will continue to question their impressions about social media and its impact on themselves and their peers… and that they will use their own judgment to guide how they use their time and where they get their dopamine—not rely on that of an algorithm on a money-making social media platform.
What do American parents care about today?
I am always interested in research about my fellow caregivers, so I just read a discussion of a new Pew Parents Study in a New York Times newsletter with interest. The study was summarized by opinion columnist Ross Douthat. My response here is not to the study itself, which you can find here, but to Douthat’s discussion of it—which focuses on what he calls “workism.” In fact, he has grimly titled his newsletter article “Is ‘Workism’ Dooming Civilization? Notes on the New Pew Parents Study.”
“When you ask [American parents] to give weight to professional aspirations versus personal ones, to compare the importance of their kids being ‘financially independent’ or happy in their work to their getting married or having kids, finances and jobs win out easily—and by an extraordinary margin, in fact. According to Pew, 88 percent of American parents rate financial success and professional happiness as either ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ important for their kids. Only about 20 percent give the same rating to eventual marriage and children.”
Douthat goes on to highlight “the general fertility decline” in the world and to decry the possibility that parents think “the essence of a valuable adulthood rests in work and money.” That’s the worldview he says is called “workism” by Derek Thompson.
Let me just say: This interpretation is myopic. The commentary above comes from a perspective completely outside the everyday struggles of today’s American parents. So let’s talk about the real question: Why do we, as parents, care so much about our children’s eventual jobs and work?
The answer is obvious: Because living in the US—as people, but especially as parents who are raising children—is incredibly expensive, and it’s only gotten worse in recent years. Naturally, if we want a good life for our children, given what we are experiencing, we want them to not just survive, but to be able to build a life without constant financial worry and precariousness, and that means finding decent jobs and work.
This has nothing to do with having bad values, or not caring about character, or our kids’ eventual happy family lives, etc. It’s just the reality on the ground!
I’ll paint you a picture of the financial concerns and risks plaguing parents—ones that I often think will be even tougher on our children as they grow into adulthood. Note: I will get to a few Stoic parent reflections at the end!
1. Childcare. Our kids’ lives start with sky-high childcare costs in the US. Where I live in California, it literally was going to cost me more to pay for my children’s full-time daycare than the income I would make from working full time. I pulled back on work during my kids’ younger years in order to try to balance both being a full-time mom and a part-time professional—working as a freelancer and consultant in evenings and during naptimes, and during part-time, part-day preschool, while actively parenting almost all of the time. I still did not make much income then, but I was fortunate my husband made more. This is a very difficult calculation for all the families I know! And many folks have to give up on work because of the cost of care, creating financial worries. (That’s not to even mention the dearth of paid parental leave nationally for new moms/dads caring for their infants!)
2. Education. Our elementary and secondary education systems have a range of problems, but here, let’s focus on higher education. For ambitious students who want to reap the rewards of the US’s top paid or most desirable jobs in many fields, our education system culminates in an insanely expensive college and/or grad student bill. Even public colleges are much more expensive than they used to be; I recently spoke with a man in his 70s who told me his family paid just a few hundred dollars for his whole education at the University of California. It’s mind blowing. A few students currently get free rides at universities for various reasons, and the competition for such benefits is fierce. But for most students, the education bills are so high that that virtually no one except the very wealthy can afford to pay. That means students and parents must shoulder loans, or students alone must take on loans; and someone will have to pay eventually. It creates decades of financial instability.
3. Health care. Health care is outrageously pricey in the US, and can cost a fortune even if you have a medical insurance plan. It is insanely costly (banktupingly so) is you don’t. People live in fear of getting really sick or needing surgery. Want mental health care? Hope you have a high paying job to afford to see a therapist. Many psychologists are not covered by insurance. The strain on parents supporting families with healthcare is high, especially if their children (or anyone in the family) has significant health needs.
4. Housing. In the US today, housing costs have gone through the roof. Rents are high; buying is prohibitive for many, scratching their “American dream” of home ownership. Alongside paying for other consumer goods that have risen in price with inflation, many families can’t afford their bills, and lots of parents have to hold down multiple jobs to make it work.
5. Lack of a safety net. There is little social safety net if folks fall off the path financially today. Can’t afford rent or mortgage for a couple months? We’ve all seen the tent cities in our major metropolitan areas. In today’s climate, we parents can imagine our kids struggling, without a home, if the worst happens. And that is mortifying. Community groups try to fill the gaps but the problems are huge. By the way, since adults are also struggling to save for retirement, we parents can’t necessarily keep supporting adult kids either—everyone is lacking a net to fall back on.
An important note on the safety net: During the pandemic, the American child tax credit was temporarily raised to provide relief to families with children. The child tax credit expansion increased payments to $3,000-3,600 per child for many. Some said this change was on track to cut child poverty in half in the US. But in late 2021, Congress failed to extend this legislation. The credit is now back down to $1,500-1,800, and poverty has increased again.
So….given all this, is it surprising that people want their children to grow up to get decent jobs and become financially stable? As parents we know how difficult it is to live without the income such jobs provide. We know how little tangible support there is for child rearing in general. Sure, we all love kids, but when it comes to the financial side—you’re on your own, folks! Maybe that’s why parents are hesitant to say that they insist that their kids to follow the same marriage/family path they did. (Or possibly, they also want their kids to choose their family lives for themselves! Again, independence and self-sufficiency!)
To dig a bit deeper, we need to ask ourselves: On a societal level, what is freedom in the US today? It means—in part—the kind of freedom of movement and action and respect of the body and mind that having financial stability can give us. If we want to be self-sufficient and able to make our own choices, and as free as possible from oppression by others, we need to gain a financial grounding for ourselves. That’s not my choice, that is just how our market-based society is structured. That is what American parents are facing—and that’s what parents want for their kids. (Unless we all decide to abandon being pro-social and become Greek Cynics like Diogenes and live in the street without even a cup to drink from, that is.)
Given everything I outlined above, blaming parents for instilling “workism” in children as Douthat does is unfair. Instead, how about asking how we can create real efforts to support parents and kids (with more than just words)? This doesn’t necessarily have to be government based—it’s possible see an upswell of support from private organizations. Could we look for ways to reduce the burdens on parents by putting funds towards preschool and childcare, by supporting tax credits that lift folks out of poverty, and by striving to make education more affordable at every level? Could we improve access to and costs of health care and mental health care (mental health representing parents’ highest concern in the Pew study, with four-in-ten U.S. parents with children younger than 18 say they are extremely or very worried that their children might struggle with anxiety or depression at some point)? Could we find or build more housing for displaced families (which will be even more important if a recession sets in)?
In today’s world, and our current system, any good thing you want for your child comes with a price tag. And no matter how we feel about it, blaming parents and suggesting that financial independence should not be perceived as important really is not going to help.
One more thought is from a Stoic perspective. Stoics intend to become self-sufficient in all they do. That can include financial self-sufficiency, however you define it. It also relates to the question of our children’s ultimate success and happiness: In the end they are responsible for that. We’re trying to give them a proper foundation so that they can go out on their own, as humans, and find their own sense of human flourishing. Following a pro-social, clear-eyed, question-your-impressions Stoic approach, it would be short-sighted not to inform our kids about how the world around them works so that they can make their own choices for how they want to live. Ultimately, I hope my kids will find independence and self-sufficiency (not just financially but on every level!), as well as a sense of their own purpose and meaning, for themselves.
What Can I DO in Tough Times?
“Are we going to be OK?” I could see the look in my daughter’s eyes turn fearful as she lay on her bed holding her pillow to her chest, a distinct note of anxiety in her voice. So many things to worry about... so many concerns for a teen girl becoming a young woman to face. I felt sadness welling within me. I didn’t know how to answer, but I said, “Yes, we’ll be OK.” I needed to reassure her, though in truth I could use the reassurance myself. I, too, was struggling with how to move forward in a positive way.
It has been a tough few months—years, honestly—in the US. Whether I’m talking to my teen daughters as they look with concern to the future, reading the newspaper with its page after page of stories of violence (here and abroad), or having coffee with friends who are despairing about the direction of our country, it has been challenging.
In the wake of so much turmoil, I often wonder about this question: What can I do? How can my family and I make a difference when there are so many powerful forces at play and so many reasons to worry?
We all know that the dichotomy of control is fundamental to the Stoic world view. There are certain things that are in our power, and many, many others that are not. When it comes to political power structures in Washington, for one, individuals have frustratingly little influence. We should vote, of course, and we should encourage others to vote. We should support causes we care about, and try our best to protect our rights and our safety by raising our voices to our leaders.
In reality, we can only create change in the small ways that are available to us. So let’s talk about that. In some ways, I’m writing this post to help myself and my family find a path forward with meaning and virtue. I hope you’ll read it as an effort to make even the smallest of differences.
Here’s what I think we can do:
I turn back to my Stoic ideas to remind myself not to get swept along by fears and sorrows about current events. While I can’t dismiss all my feelings as mere impressions—I’m not a sage yet—I can take a deep breath and ground myself in the real here and now with my daughters and husband, with my community, and with those whose work I read and take inspiration from (both ancient and very modern).
Stoicism is an evergreen philosophy that takes us out of judgment and hatred and violence, and into virtue and action and practical wisdom. Let’s make it our guide as we fortify our minds and energies, and seek to make a world that welcomes and supports human flourishing for all.
Not Throwing Away My Shot
My younger daughter is obsessed with Hamilton, the modern musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda about the “founding father without a father” Alexander Hamilton. Nonstop I hear it in my house, both in recordings and on her lips.
It started with my older daughter a couple years ago when she began middle school, but now my younger child is the super-fan, reciting raps rapid-fire on the playground with a few other Hamilton-adoring kids. She said she learned to sing better from this effort and was excited to be cast as a lead in her school play, also a musical. She spent her special spending money ordering Hamilton t-shirts online. So yeah, it’s big around here.
There are some fringe benefits. I, too, love the mashup of hip-hop, rap, pop, jazz, big band, and dance hall music. After hearing the musical, my daughters and I have explored the history of this period further, learning more about the Revolutionary War and the foundation of the national bank, as well as the historical Hamilton. Both of my kids have aced a few history projects thanks to the inspiration provided by this Broadway production.
Now that my daughters have exposed me to the musical so much that I’ve memorized my fair share of songs, I can say that a number of the show's concepts support my life philosophy based on Stoicism.
Aaron Burr, the lawyer and politician who was Hamilton’s greatest rival, serves as the show’s narrator. In a musical about Hamilton, we expect to dislike Burr, but it’s far more nuanced.
In the song “Wait for It,” Burr delivers a number of Stoic ideas, most notably this line: “I am the one thing in life I can control.”
The whole song is about self-control, in fact. Burr, unlike the frenetic, constantly moving Hamilton, is willing to wait for success, to wait for his destiny. (Unfortunately that destiny left him known primarily as Hamilton’s killer and as the loser in a presidential race.)
Burr, like Hamilton, is also keenly aware that death is always lurking, unpredictably, for all of us, no matter our achievements or goodness:
“Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall
And we break
And we make our mistakes…”
The song creates sympathy for a man that you might otherwise despise. Burr is thoughtful, emotional, and very human, and he draws on Stoic ideas to stay balanced in a time of war and upheaval and impassioned rivalry.
Hamilton, too—though the most un-Stoic of men—is a very sympathetic and appealing character whose tremendous productivity is motivated by his impending sense of death and the potential for failure before he’s done. He puts it this way in “The Room Where it Happened”:
“God help and forgive me
I wanna build
Something that’s gonna
Hamilton’s character is summed up by the song “Not Throwing Away My Shot.” (Yes, there is a lot of irony there, given his final duel.)
Hamilton’s key idea: “Just act.” It’s not good to wait for someone else to make things right for you. Instead, go ahead and take action, and push for your point of view. You might just make history.
The script depicts Hamilton's main critique of Burr as centered around the idea that Burr lacks principles. He doesn't "stand for" anything, and politics has consumed him (I hear echoes of Epictetus' dislike of amoral politicians in this script).
Hamilton views Burr as an opportunist and supports another rival, Jefferson, for the presidency because "Jefferson has beliefs, Burr has none." That leads to their deadly last dispute.
Of course, Hamilton is also the story of a man who destroys himself because he lacks a specific virtue: Self-control.
He’s got a lot of courage and a keen sense of justice, but his wisdom fails him in a few important moments. The show demonstrates how his infamous extra-marital affair and angry sense of self-justification brings about his undoing in politics and in life.
Sucked in by bad passions and insults, guilty over his son’s demise in a duel after receiving his unfortunate advice, Hamilton is not able to recover the sense of honor that he has lost. He seems obsessed with proving his own righteousness to others, especially his fiercest rivals. With an almost suicidal intent, he enters the duel with Burr that he doesn’t survive.
Despite Hamilton's ill-fated end, we can take away a few key ideas to live our own lives better.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.