Becky is depressed
Jonathan Haidt and his team say teenage girls are depressed because they use social media too much. It could also be that girls are depressed because the outlooks for girls have deteriorated
My favorite psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, has started an interesting Substack: After Babel. The point of it is to try the ideas of a future book about the link between teenage mental health issues and social media use. Haidt and his team reason that it is better to get all possible criticism before the book is launched than after. That is clever, I think. Everybody should do like that.
Haidt's hypothesis is that the rise of social media is to blame for the rise of self-reported depression and suicidal thoughts. He means that the trend is most of all visible for teenage girls. While there is limited overall correlation between social media use and mental health problems among teens in general, that correlation is very visible among girls.
In a later post called Academic Pressure Cannot Explain the Mental Illness Epidemic, Haidt's research partner Jean M Twenge clarifies that it is most of all girls with lower grades in school who both have the most mental health problems and spend most time using social media. That is, girls who do not belong to the minority that compete for the very few places at top colleges. That way, Haidt and his team also rule out academic pressure as a cause.
A brave project
Establishing a link between two separate phenomena with only graphs at one's disposal is a brave project. I like such bravery and I'm often guilty of it myself. Bold thinking takes thinking as such forward. Thereby I'm almost feeling a bit bad for questioning Haidt's project: Obviously, social media use was not the only thing that changed during the last ten years. Pointing that out feels almost nitpicky.
Still, since Haidt specifically singles out girls, and among them girls who are not doing very well in school as the main victims, I think he has a particularly important confounding factor to deal with: Gender. Haven't gender relations changed quite a bit during the last ten years?
The idea that gender relations can cause mental health problems in girls and young women is hardly new. We have the now mostly forgotten Marcia Guttentag, a psychologist who noticed a sharp increase in depression and suicide rates of young women in the early 1970s. Guttentag explained the problems as the result of a female surplus on the dating market that appeared when the baby boom generation came of age. Since it is customary for females to date males a few years older, increasing birth cohorts means a marriage squeeze for young women. Guttentag thought that men's numerical advantage led to looser sexual norms and fewer stable relationships. Young women felt less desired and became increasingly depressed as a result.
Since the 1970 there has been no lack of feminist writers explaining the bad feelings of young girls by disadvantageous gender roles. Already as a teenager I read Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls and I fully agreed: How could anyone feel good in this superficial society that values females mostly for their looks?
Apparently, rather many young girls did. By the time I was a teenager, around the turn of the millennium, teenagers' mental health was much better than now. Haidt's statistics are American and I didn't grow up in America. But I can easily find a Swedish report that says more or less the same thing as Haidt and his team: Girls' self-assessed psychological problems have sky-rocketed since 2009. (Team Haidt recently announced a plan to launch a series of posts that will show that the epidemic of mental health issues is a phenomenon encompassing all Western countries, especially the most individualistic ones. Stay tuned.)
How were the good times?
I'm a bad witness of those good times for teen mental health, because I was not a mentally healthy teenager. But I should have witnessed plenty of comparatively mentally healthy teenage girls around me in the small South-Swedish town where I grew up (and which I still live nearby). How were they?
Well, they were… normal. Being normal was extremely important. At sixteen, everyone except the very uncool people drank alcohol on some weekend nights. That resulted in occasions to do crazy things and have casual sex. Having casual sex drunk was seen as kind of acceptable, if the offense wasn't repeated in a systematic manner. Males and females were judged surprisingly similarly at such occasions.
People also formed couples. Most were single, but once in a while a girl and a boy could be seen holding hands. I especially remember the happy faces of some seemingly ordinary girls who had boyfriends already at age 15 or 16. Toward the end of high school, more and more people found each other. Also some of those very uncool people, who had until then mostly socialized in gender-segregated and sober groups, found each other when approaching adulthood.
Few people had opinions. Opinions about anything important were seen as geeky and strange. Especially girls were supposed to be a bit bland. Only caring about what to wear, how to get through school and how to find something to drink for the next party was kind of an ideal.
The future never comes
In the early 2000s, young people were supposed to drink, flirt, get attracted to each other, occasionally make mistakes and end up in bed with the wrong person, brush it off and go on with what they were doing. In other words, living the wild life of youth. But they were also, eventually, supposed to grow up and start grown-up lives. Those outlooks were not always happily anticipated. I remember that during our last year of high school, a girl in my class predicted that she would end up with seven kids and a beer-drinking man.
That particular girl did her best to avoid what she considered a default fate for the careless: She moved away to a bigger city as soon as she could. Those who remained, however, mostly did so because they didn't want the new freedom society offered my generation. People who stayed here continued forming rather stable couples, buying (rather cheap) houses and having their two kids per couple.
Eternal youth celebrated
However, for those who weren’t content with being normal, new opportunities were opening up in the cities. There was no need to be heterosexual. No need to be monogamous. No need to settle for one partner. No need to have kids.
For those who wanted, there was no longer a strong stigma against continuing the teenage culture of week-end drinking in mixed-sex gatherings, flirtation, hook-ups and flings. For a rather significant share of my generation, becoming an adult didn't mean settling down, getting married and raising kids. It meant continuing doing what they were doing as teens, but better: Clubs instead of lawns. Cocktails instead of those smuggled cans of beer and cider. Total strangers to hook up with instead of that girl you would have to bump into in school on Monday.
When I grew up, this was something rather new. It was something to opt into, for those who really wanted. The default was still marriage and kids. But gradually, the prolonged youth culture has developed into a new default. For those who are teenagers today, partying, dating and having casual relationships into their 30s is not a rebellious option. At least in progressive circles, it is the norm. Among progressives, marrying and having kids early will raise many more eyebrows than dating until 30.
Since I was a teenager in the early 2000s, adult life has become much less different from teenage life. With one exception: When I was young, adults half-heartedly tried to put obstacles in the way of young people's alcohol-based socializing and irresponsible sexuality. They tried to replace the teenage culture created and upheld by teenagers themselves with a sanitized, sober version supervised by paid adults. Most of the days, they definitely succeeded: Five days a week, teenagers went to school and did what teachers told them to do. Still, adults didn't manage to kill off all larger-scale socializing organized by teenagers for teenagers.
Just a decade or two after my teenage career the adult world seems to have succeeded in suppressing teenage culture, or at least sanitizing it. All things naughty has decreased among teenagers: they drink less alcohol, they don’t get pregnant as much and they have less sex. Finally, teens became more of the docile creatures society always wanted them to be. Sadly, the docile creatures are depressed and suicidal like seldom before.
Smartphones and social media might have helped in the pacification process. Adults always wanted teenagers to remain children for longer, while the teenagers themselves wanted to be adults as soon as possible. Smartphones that allowed teenagers to dream about grown-up life instead of living it might have made teenagers easier to persuade into tranquility. They just didn't make them happier.
The other side of incels
One of the clearest signs that young people have replaced reality with the internet is the decline in sexual relations between young people. When I was young, getting drunk and making out with someone of the opposite sex was considered the normal thing to do. Nowadays teenagers have many years to form their opinion over what they really desire sexually and romantically, once it becomes their turn to choose among real-life specimens of the opposite sex.
The decline in sexual relationships for young people is mostly described as a problem for young males. The self-proclaimed incels say they are being ignored by females, because all females worthy of them strive for higher-status males.
The question is how this could be a new phenomenon. Everyone, both males and females, have always strived for the best partner they could get. Why has this instinct wrecked the partner market only for the last decade or two?
Incels often picture themselves as an antithesis to feminism. But in fact, I think they are themselves victims of their own feminist thinking. Feminism taught women that they should be allowed to do the same things men do. They were to be allowed to work like men, to enjoy casual sex like men and so on. Conversely, young men have got the impression that they should be able to do what women do. If women can have sex just through smiling in a bar, they expect it too. When women never offer themselves to them the way they offer themselves to women, they feel discriminated against.
No one told those men that in fact, women don't like casual sex as much as men do. Individualist feminism suppose them to, but in reality they don't. This is something new. Previous generations of men were taught that if they wanted sex, they would have to pay for it. That payment has looked very different in different societies. In Western society, men traditionally make themselves sexually attractive to women of similar mate value through channeling their resources to one specific woman and the children he gets with her. The men had to compromise with any desire for additional mates, however poly they were feeling.
Such sacrifices make entirely ordinary men desirable for entirely ordinary women. In return, those ordinary women are most often eager to make themselves attractive, to invest a lot in their relationships and to become hard-working mothers.
As long as society recommended its members to get together in high-investing, monogamous couples, most lower-status men managed to make themselves attractive enough for women who were attractive enough for them. The system was adapted to them, rather than to the highest-status men. If the latter wanted to cash in the full sexual advantages of being higher status, they needed to cheat and break the rules of the system (they often did).
In the new system, where society stresses that no one owes anything to anyone and that everyone should always follow their feelings as long as they deal with consenting adults, high-status men who want it all have finally become the most well-adjusted citizens. They can get all the benefits their status gives them without needing to cheat or be ashamed of anything. The victims of the system are instead all those people who are not high-status men and can no longer find a partner willing to invest in them.
It is described as a male problem, because those who express explicit discontent at the situation are mostly young males. But behind those involuntary celibate young males there must be a similar number of young females who are either also celibate or who have to date men who have no intention of ever entering a life-long relationship with them. Incels say young women should be happy with the situation because they have more power to choose. But clearly, young girls and women are unhappy with something. Otherwise their rates of depression wouldn't have more than doubled since 2009. And the fact that academic low achievers, probably a rough proxy for low status, are the most unhappy, is telling.
No more roses for Becky
In fact, almost every statistic Haidt and his associates present point to the fact that the most depressed teenagers are those that incels would call Beckies (or future Beckies). In incel terminology, a Stacy is a highly attractive, higher status woman. A Becky is an only moderately attractive woman of only moderate social status. Incels accuse Beckies of striving for the highest status men while ignoring men on their own level.
When I was a teenager, I often noticed the ordinariness of the girls who made it and became the girlfriends of boys with high social status. There was no way I could predict who would become a high status girlfriend, once I had sorted out the very uncool, the freaks (like myself) and the least attractive third or so. Misogyny definitely existed 20 years ago. But I think no one would have gotten the idea to invent slurs for entirely ordinary young women. Girls could be looked down on for being unusually ugly, unusually fat or unusually freakish. But not for being averagely attractive. Everyone agreed that young women were attractive in themselves. People still believed in love a bit, so there was an expectation that every reasonably attractive girl would sooner or later catch the attention of a young man, who would appreciate her particular qualities.
It could be that the moderately attractive girls, with moderate outlooks for social status, get depressed because they spend too much time glued to their phones. It could also be that those girls are staring at their screens out of malaise, because ordinary girls aren't much appreciated anymore. Those girls know they are ordinary and have few realistic hopes of becoming something else. So they are killing their time through watching screen media.
Becoming just a woman
I think the graph above, taken from Team Haidt's collection of data, indicates that young girls above all use screen media out of a lack of better things to do. No matter what passive media teenage girls consume: Social media, the internet, television: It is roughly equally associated with depression. That suggests that there could be an important causality the other way round: Girls who feel a lack of agency fill their time with whatever entertainment they can find. Academically ambitious girls still have some sense of agency, because they are making a future for themselves through their education. But for girls with lower academic ambitions, outlooks have deteriorated during the last 20 years.
20 years ago, a rather large share of all girls I met really had no higher ambitions than becoming girlfriends, wives and mothers. They would have jobs too, but that was not their main ambition. Decades before that, gender equality had given girls the opportunity to rise in social status on their own. It allowed ambitious and studious girls to rise in social class and to become eligible partners for men of higher status. But only two decades ago, many girls didn't take that chance. I went to school with many such girls. Girls who didn't strive to enhance their social status and their marriage prospects. Girls who were only girls, hoping, rather realistically, to be appreciated as such. The main point in life for those girls wasn't any particular career or any particular achievement. It was to get married to the right man.
I think those girls still exist. I'm sure there are still many girls who are not feeling very inspired to enter the rat race of higher education and career work. But today, the prospects of those girls are much worse than 20 years ago. 20 years ago most of the not-so-ambitious girls had a value just through being girls. Today, they are mere Beckies.
The existence of those girls is seldom openly recognized. We can't talk about them without talking about the limited success of gender equality. For decades, gender equality has been an option offered to everyone. But everyone didn't choose to take that option. Many people preferred to continue organizing their lives based on their sex, although they are in no way obliged to.
Jordan Peterson says to young males who do nothing useful in life that they are actually not at all great just as they are. Instead they should work on becoming what they want to be. Who says something similar to young females? Who tells young females that right now, they are not good just as they are because they do not achieve anything, but with persistent hard work they can achieve something? I think no one does, for one simple reason: Young women never became useful mainly through their own labor and strivings. Young women were useful in themselves as attractive girlfriends and future wives and mothers. What was required of them was most of all not to make themselves ineligible.
By this I don't mean to say girls were, or are, lazy, or get everything for free, as some incels claim. To the contrary, girls tend to be docile and dutiful to a higher extent than boys. When I was young, girls without high ambitions got through school, they took jobs and expected nothing else. After becoming mothers they worked hard to raise and provide for their children. Still, that hard work wasn't what made their life histories. They weren't self-made women. Instead, what shaped their lives was most of all which man they came to marry. Being a man is traditionally centered on achievement. Being a woman is much less so. Women get appreciated for being attractive, loyal, caring, motherly and so on.
Also, women's high workload tends to come more after marriage, while men are supposed to work also before. This is reflected in the age gap that is still common between spouses in Western society. Men match with women who are, on average, a couple of years younger. That makes sense, because women's hard work as mothers is supposed to come after marriage, while men's hard work as providers can easily be prepared before marriage.
A generation ago, there were ambitious men and women who were busy rising in social status. There were the not-so-ambitious young men who nonetheless worked on making a decent living. And there were the not-so-ambitious young women who conformed to expectations and hoped for love to arrive. Today, ambitious people are doing more or less what ambitious people did two decades ago. Non-ambitious men are doing rather similar things too (if they aren't totally caught up in computer games), but they are less happy with it, because the reward for being a dutiful young man is no longer as self-evident as it was.
Non-ambitious women, however, are doing different things than twenty years ago. By then, they were doing what was expected of them, while they were waiting for the right man to come. Today they can't realistically hold such hopes anymore, because high-investment, trust-based relationships between men and women have become much less fashionable.
This is especially true for liberals. Social conservatives still value marriage and family. That way, they implicitly still value maleness and femaleness for the sake of it. For the socially liberal teenagers, those of my generation who flirted, partied and dated beyond 30 are now the adult role models. For socially conservative teenagers, those who chose a partner wisely and formed a family are the role models. Social conservatives disapprove of the most extreme social changes that have happened during the last 20 years. Thereby, life for liberal teenagers has changed much more than life for conservative teenagers. I think many conservative girls still have that sense of feminine self-worth that appeared so ubiquitous among teenage girls in 2003.
The custom of forming high-investing, stable romantic couples is increasingly being lost. Especially among liberal people. Whoever is at fault for that, it doesn't just affect the incels. It also affects the Beckies who are no longer appreciated for their simple, feminine virtues. The Beckies are as useless as the incels, and there’s not even a Jordan Peterson to tell them how to be less useless. So they have plenty of time to browse social media and watch television while they are doing nothing to improve their situation.
A lot more than social media has changed
I'm in no way prepared to acquit social media of the societal changes that have happened. Internet entertainment has helped adults to passivate teens, out of the real, potentially dangerous world, into their own rooms with entertaining screens. With those screens, teens can form exact pictures of what makes them sexually excited and what they fancy in a partner. Instead of eyeing someone of the opposite sex in school and getting a crush, they can choose from thousands of pictures how a sexual and romantic partner really should be.
This development has devalued both real-life males and real-life females. A culture of extreme individualism on the one side and the immense choice of the internet on the other side have created a culture that doesn't appreciate ordinary men and women. Extreme individualism taught us that our desires are always right. The internet supplied us with thousands of suggestions of what to desire. The result is that we no longer desire each other as before. Those who most of all live to be desired, young women without high career ambitions, are the hardest hit by this development.
The guilt of social media in this is self-evident. Still, I have no hopes that tech companies will solve the problem. I don’t even think they can solve the problem, even if they wanted to. Tech companies know how to create psychologically addictive apps, but they cannot change culture. For teenagers of today, social media is a window to the outer world. Removing that window will solve nothing if the door remains shut.
Young people were not perfectly happy two decades ago. They were just a bit less miserable. Life was rough, to say the least. Changing culture back to what it was then is not desirable, even had it been possible. What we need is an improvement of the current culture. Something that gives teenagers back their agency and helps them set reachable relational and social goals for themselves. A greater awareness of the perils of social media might be part of such an improved culture. But most of all, it needs to provide people with clues to what they are supposed to be doing together when they are not looking into their screens.
Related post: Why are all the ladies chasing the Chads?