More than just survival
“Social media has created a culture of shame, where everything from wearing the wrong clothes to accidentally daring to use the wrong pronoun can result in a person experiencing the online equivalent of being tarred and feathered in the public square.”
By: Ilan Preskovsky
Over the past decade or so, renowned cognitive psychologist, linguist, and public intellectual, Steven Pinker, has received a fair amount of attention for daring to suggest that the world is actually getting better, not worse. By virtually every metric of well-being, he argues, the numbers show that there has never been a better time be alive. There’s less war, less illiteracy, more democracy, less disease, less bigotry, less poverty, and much, much longer life-expectancy than in any other time in human history. Which is surprising considering that I’d be willing to bet that most of us don’t actually feel this way. And certainly not our children who seem more anxious, more depressed, and more pressurised than ever.
After talking to kids, parents, teachers, and therapists – as well as reading, listening to, and watching both fiction and non-fiction about the lives of adolescents today – well, I’ve never been happier that I came of age in the 1990s, back when cellphones were used only by yuppies and FBI agents and the internet was made up almost entirely of nerdy discussion groups and, um, less kosher material. There has been a rise in depression, anxiety, and suicides in teenagers over the past fifteen years or so, especially in the “developed world”, that has shaken the world of psychology and psychiatry to its core. A study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 2019 (crucially, before COVID-19) found that between 2009 and 2017, the rates of depression among kids ages 14 to 17 increased by more than 60%. And the numbers weren’t a whole lot better in adolescents who were slightly younger (47% for kids ages 12 and 13) and slightly older (46% for those aged 18 to 21).
Studies into suicide, suicidal ideation, and anxiety found similarly sharp increases (around a 50% increase), with suicide rates for teenage girls being especially alarming, as they rose roughly 13% a year between 2007 and 2019 for girls aged 10 to 14 and 8% for those ages 15 to 19. For boys, the same age groups saw an increase in suicide and suicidal ideation by “only” 7% and 3,8%, respectively. There have been several reasons given for this, but by far the most compelling are those offered by the likes of social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge. They noticed that there was a rather significant societal change in the mid to late 2000s that have played an out-sized part in shaping the mental health of adolescents and even younger kids.
The iPhone, the first of the modern smartphones, was first released in June 2007. Facebook was founded in 2004 but only became available to the general public in 2006 and surpassed MySpace in 2008. Twitter, meanwhile, was founded in 2006 and Instagram in 2010. That a mental health crisis in young people started around 2006 to 2010 was no coincidence. Nor was the fact that girls experienced a steeper rise in suicide than boys as they spent far more time on social media than their male peers, who spent most of their screen time playing video games. These video games, especially violent ones, have long been target #1 for reactionary parenting groups who blamed them for most youth delinquency. But Haidt points out that though there are certainly issues with kids playing video games for hours, they also teach kids co-operation (in the case of multiplayer games) and help funnel pent up aggression into something essentially harmless.
Social media, on the other hand, is much more destructive. British journalist, author, and podcaster Jon Ronson literally wrote an entire book called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed on why this is, noting that social media has created a culture of shame, where everything from wearing the wrong clothes, to a severe case of acne, to accidentally daring to use the wrong pronoun, to failing to take part in a dangerous and stupid “social media challenge” can result in a person experiencing the online equivalent of being tarred and feathered in the public square.
Haidt, Twenge, and others are, inevitably, trying to control some of social media’s worst effects by trying to increase age limits on these sites and raising parental awareness, but even they would also admit that Pandora’s box has been opened and there’s really no coming back from it. The most powerful tool we have, then, may well be something that is innate to all humans and is so prevalent, both consciously and unconsciously, in today’s kids that we adults can learn a thing or two from them in our own perceptions of the world.
This tool is resilience.
We Shall Overcome
Resilience, as I’m sure I don’t need to spell out, refers to a person’s ability to cope with whatever difficulties, challenges, tragedies, even horrors that life throws our way. The question, though, is where does this resilience come from, do all people have it, and is there a way to strengthen it on a day-to-day basis? And, very crucially, are we helping or undermining Gen-Z kids and whatever the post-COVID generation will be called, in strengthening their resilience?
The latter question is more complicated, but the answer to whether resilience is innate to all people is really rather obvious: of course it is. All people have some level of resilience wired into them from birth. It’s why babies don’t just stay down after taking a tumble after their first tentative steps. It’s why, for all of our justified anger, sadness, and frustration with loadshedding, we have found a way to live with 9 hours of blackouts a day – something that may well be inconceivable to those living in developed, less mismanaged countries. It’s why there are survivors of cancer, holocausts, serial abuse, war, oppression, and any number of calamities that befall millions upon millions of people every year. This is why there’s a new push in psychology to not try and teach resilience, but to help patients – especially teenagers – access what the resilience they already have. This process is known as “innate health” or “health realisation” and was developed in the 1980s by Roger C. Mills and George Pransky, who based it on ideas developed by philosopher and author Sydney Banks. It’s been around for a while but has really taken hold in recent years – and has been embraced especially in the Jewish world.
Feeling Your Feelings
Tova Goldstein works as a social worker who both consults on a one-to-one basis with and runs seminars for teenagers and their parents, and she bases her whole approach on innate health – or as it now most commonly known, the three principles – as well as a related psychotherapeutic method called dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT). At the heart of the three principals, Tova explains, is the basic idea that “everyone has innate health, wisdom, and resilience”. With the understanding that human beings are hard-wired to be able to cope with negative emotions, the main innovation of the three principals is that whereas most schools of psychology emphasise transcending these negative emotions, it emphasises being able to accept and live with those emotions and to grow from them.
“From a young age,” Tova explains, “we are taught to run from our negative emotions. When you’re a kid you’re told to go to your room when you’re feeling anxious or angry and to only come out when you’re feeling better.” As a result, by the time a person is a teenager, it’s so ingrained in them that they should feel certain emotions and not others, that they start doing whatever they can to escape from the harder, darker, more complicated feelings that come with being a teenager by looking for escapes in drugs, alcohol, and pornography. Tova, who works a lot with addiction in young adults and teenagers, admits that from this point of view, she totally understands why kids would, for example, turn to weed when so much of their sober life is caught up in feeling lost, anxious, angry, and any other number of emotions that, paradoxically, they are told they’re not supposed to feel.
When Tova counsels young people who come to her for help, she tries to help them to come to terms with those emotions, not by fleeing from them, but by embracing that they’re feeling them. “We are human,” Tova would tell them, “We’re supposed to feel everything there is to feel. If you’re feeling anxious, feel anxious. If you feel like you’re struggling, accept that it’s OK to feel like you’re struggling. These emotions are just a moment in time. They do not define you.” Tova expands on this by saying that the three principles work through a psycho-spiritual framework to show that along with these feelings, no label actually defines you. Not good labels and not bad labels. Or, as she emphasises, “Labels are for jars, not people.” Rather, who we are at our core is a soul – and what is a soul, she asks, but pure, unlimited potential? From this point of view, all the negative emotions, insults, labels, and whatever else the world wants to attach to us are fundamentally superficial – are not who any of us actually are. So feel them, be hurt by them even, and then move on from them.
That said, Tova does admit that this approach can only work if the negative feelings are not so overwhelming that they can barely be contained let alone accepted, and it’s here that DBT comes in. DBT is a form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that specifically deals with intense emotions – it was actually originally developed to treat borderline personality disorder: a mental disorder that is defined in large part by an inability to regulate one’s emotions – through the development of four skills: emotional regulation, mindfulness (being present), distress tolerance (acceptance of things out of our control), and interpersonal effectiveness (better relationships with others).
Resilience in Schools
While Tova tackles resilience on a therapeutic level, there is an ongoing effort to teach it in schools. iHeart, which was developed by an educator named Terry Rubenstein in London in 2016, takes innate health into the classroom – and for that matter, into the boardroom. iHeart literally stands for Innate Health Education And Resilience Training, and its mission is to teach young people, as well as adults, how to access their inner well-being and resilience.
Since last year, the King David schools have started implementing iHeart training as part of their curriculum. While Tanya Krain oversees it across the schools and teaches an age-appropriate version of it to primary schoolers at King David Linksfield, Beverly Miller teaches iHeart in her life orientation class to grade 9s at King David Linksfield, building it directly into the syllabus. Beverly did the course over Zoom during COVID, which lasted for a whopping one-hundred hours from October 2021 to January 2022, and implemented it in her life orientation class that same year. “I had already included mental health components in my LO class for that grade,” Beverly admits, “so I was able to mix that with iHeart training and it slots perfectly into the syllabus.” Across 11 sessions, that starts with the theory behind iHeart and becomes increasingly interactive, students are taught how to deal with the many issues that they face. “It’s an instruction manual on how to live your life. It explains to children how their mind works. To show them where there thinking comes from, how their feelings happen. The premise is that everybody has well-being; that we’re born with it. And it’s what happens to us, what we attach our well-being to as we grow that changes the way we behave and see life. Your well-being may be covered up but it’s always there. The aim is to give kids the tools to be able to take control of their own lives; to deal with the challenges they face head on by understanding their feelings. Yes, there are times when they will need external help when those problems are so severe and the feelings are so intense that they can’t be overcome – we all need help sometimes – but the goal is for them to not rely on external help most of the time, but to manage things themselves.”
A Word of Caution
While iHeart and innate health are undoubtedly only two of many different approaches to developing resilience in younger people – it’s a whole field in psychology after all – the fact that they are both so proactive and that they work off the assumption that resilience is something built into people from birth, is truly heartening. Especially because there’s another trend that seeks to undermine this resistance – though, fortunately, it does seem to be more prevalent in places like the US, the UK, and Canada than it does here. This trend, which is outlined, once again, by Jonathan Haidt in a previous book called The Coddling of the American Mind that he co-wrote with Greg Lukianoff, is that concepts like “safe spaces”, “trigger warnings”, “de-platforming”, and the policing of “proper”, politically correct language in schools and universities has the precise opposite effect of what people like Tova and Beverly (and obviously countless other mental health professionals and educators) are trying to achieve.
Putting aside the political and free-speech concerns of what’s happening in American educational institutions, Haidt believes that by treating young people as these terribly fragile, brittle creatures who will fall apart the minute they hear an opinion with which they disagree, these institutions will ensure that a whole generation will be wholly and entirely unprepared to deal with the often tough realities of adult life. It’s a truly alarming concern, but for our community at least, it’s beyond heartening to know that, despite the old cliches of over-protective Jewish parents, voices of resilience and empowerment seem to be ringing loudest.