Maybe iGen really IS fragileDid social media's troll frenzies trigger the campus war on ideas?
Twenty-four-year-old fashion blogger Scarlett Dixon thought she knew Instagram, a “friendly” app owned by Facebook since 2012 and used for posting pictures of family and friends. She posted a picture of herself having breakfast, “looking flawless on a freshly made bed flanked by heart-shaped helium balloons.”
The orcs burst suddenly through the virtual gate:
The sponsored post – for Listerine mouthwash, a bottle of which is visible on the side of the shot – was swiftly reposted on Twitter. “F*ck off this is anybody’s normal morning,” wrote Nathan from Cardiff. “Instagram is a ridiculous lie factory made to make us all feel inadequate.” His post, which has garnered more than 111,000 likes (22 times as many as Dixon’s original) and almost 25,000 retweets, prompted a wave of criticism, with the more printable comments ranging from “Fakelife!” and “Bunny-boiler” to “Let’s pop her balloons” and “Who keeps Listerine on their bedside table? Serial killers, that’s who.” Alex Hern, “Instagram is supposed to be friendly. So why is it making people so miserable?” at The Guardian
Hern thinks that some users went full Twitter mob against Dixon because Instagram encourages a “curated” view of the world: Our own lives are the usual slog but everyone else’s life seems to be a carefully chosen selfie.
Jean Twenge, professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, has been trying to raise awareness about the segment of the population most affected by the turmoil, iGen, the generation born after 1995 that grew up with social media and smart phones*:
Around 2012, I started to see some sudden changes in the big national surveys – depressive symptoms and loneliness started to go up, and (after going up for 20 years) happiness started to go down. Other sources – like national screening studies on depression and statistics on teen suicides – showed the same pattern, with increases after 2010-12.
But why? The recession was over and no big war had started.
Then two things happened. I found the Pew Center’s data showing that the end of 2012 was when the percentage of Americans owning a smartphone crossed 50%, and I found (as others have among young adults that teens who spent more time on screens were less happy and more depressed. So this was a suspicious pattern: A sudden rise in mental health issues when smartphones became ubiquitious, and a link between screen time and mental health issues.
Could a resulting sense of vulnerability to sudden attacks and unfriendings account for the huge demand on campuses today for safety from anything that feels like a challenge to one’s attitudes, values, or beliefs? Resulting in a market for trigger warnings, safe spaces, complaints about micro-aggression, campus protests, disinviting speakers, identity politics, “speech as violence,” and witch hunts against teachers?
Many people who graduated decades ago would not recognize their alma mater today, in the sense that the remembered flow of lively ideas is now choked by an enormous bureaucracy around feelings hurt and offense taken. And we wonder, why?
Attorney Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt discuss the apparent connection between trolls and trigger warnings in their new book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,
By 2011 or so, most teens could check in on their social media status every few minutes, and many did. We’ll explore Twenge’s data and arguments in chapter 7. For now, we simply note two things. First, members of iGen are “obsessed with safety,” as Twenge puts it, and define safety as including “emotional safety.” Their focus on “emotional safety” leads many of them to believe that, as Twenge describes, “one should be safe not just from car accidents and sexual assault but from people who disagree with you.” The second point we want to note about iGen is that the campus trends that led us to write our original Atlantic article— particularly the requests for safe spaces and trigger warnings— started to spread only when iGen began arriving on campus, around 2013. The demands for safety and censorship accelerated rapidly over the next four years as the last of the Millennials graduated, to be replaced by iGen.
This is not a book about Millennials; indeed, Millennials are getting a bad rap these days, as many people erroneously attribute recent campus trends to them. This is a book about the very different attitudes toward speech and safety that spread across universities as the Millennials were leaving. We are not blaming iGen. Rather, we are proposing that today’s college students were raised by parents and teachers who had children’s best interests at heart but who often did not give them the freedom to develop their antifragility. (Kindle Locations 581-595)
The only solution for universities, obviously, is to decide that their business is ideas, not feelings, and stick to their goals. Otherwise, the very internet that made social media possible will deal a death blow to expensive campuses now that people can learn at home without inadvertently “triggering” anyone.
But, more broadly, limiting the constant use of social media should be a priority of etiquette today. Along those lines, the British Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), which rated Instagram the worst social medium for 14- to 24-year-olds based on a 2017 UK-wide survey, is sponsoring scroll-free September, challenging the public to either limit or eliminate use during the month.
Will scrolling intently while in social gatherings come to be seen as socially offensive, such that people are asked to move into a separate room if they would truly rather interact with persons other than those present? Who knows, scrolling in public might even come to be seen, like smoking in public, as a career limiting move.
See also: Smart phone 10 Conversation 0 We need to be more honest about the addictive nature of the device, for some.
Twitter doesn’t just seem out of control. It actually is.