A recent study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, a top-tier refereed psychology journal, says the percent of adolescents reporting symptoms of major depression increased 52% between 2005 and 2017; the increase for young adults (18-25) was even greater at 63%. The study also found significant increases in general psychological distress, suicidal thoughts, and suicide-related outcomes in this young population. Interestingly, the study found no corresponding increase during the same time frame among older adults.
Obviously, there are multiple factors that could be responsible for these findings, but Jean Twenge, senior author of the study, thinks cultural trends, notably digital media, likely play a prominent role. This hypothesis is nothing new. For years, dating back to the early days of “surfing the net,” psychologists have presented data suggesting that exposure to social media can cause, or at least reinforce, psychological dysfunctions like social withdrawal, depression, loneliness, and deficient interpersonal skills
The growing presence on the internet of hate groups, cults, and terrorist networks, all trying to recruit vulnerable young people who are searching for an identity and understanding from others, has led many to call for government regulation of predatory social-media sites.
That’s fine, but let’s note that focusing on regulating the content of social media obscures something very important. Let’s take a medical analogy. When we’re concerned about the dangers of a harmful virus, the first course of action is usually not to try and change the virus itself, but instead to develop a vaccine to inoculate potential victims and make them immune to infection. Perhaps that’s the approach we need to take in dealing with harmful internet content: Vaccinate, psychologically, our young people. That is, we must not focus our efforts exclusively on internet content; we must also concentrate on making our young people psychologically resistant to internet messaging.
Who should deliver this vaccination? I hope it’s obvious that the answer is PARENTS. Not the school, not the church, not the coach, not the peer group, not the government. Sure, those agents can reinforce what the parents instill, but in the final analysis, delivering effective psychological vaccinations boils down to the parents.
Communication, love, trust, confidence, security, openness, honesty…When these conditions exist between parent and child, the temptations of the internet, peers, predator adults, and other nefarious elements of society are diminished. When young people are secure in their family identity, they have less need to turn to hate groups, cults, and others dedicated to indoctrination of their malleable minds for perverse purposes.
Predators design their messages for the young mind that is adrift, insecure, and frightened. The mind that knows it has a reliable and supportive home base always present when needed is relatively immune to the predator’s messages.
When kids know they are loved and valued, they are better able to exercise adult strategies of critical thinking about internet messages; better able to evaluate the reliability and validity of such messages; better able to discern if the message is geared to indoctrination, or to education. They are also better prepared emotionally to handle hateful, bullying messages from peers, and more likely to reach out to trusted adults for support and coping strategies to deal with such messages.
Yes, internet content must be regulated better. But, let’s not forget the other side of the equation: The human brain that is confronted with that content and faced with evaluating it. When it comes to immunizing the young mind against infectious internet messages, parents are certainly the key component to the vaccine. This analysis for the young mind, however, begs the question: “Who is going to vaccinate the adult mind against blindly accepting cunning, deceitful, and indoctrinating social-media messages?”
How about you? Have you been vaccinated?