My psychotherapy patients often ask me why so many children are struggling emotionally. The answer is complicated and multifaceted, but it’s become clear that one important aggravating factor is the inflexible, rigid and vicious cancel culture that has swept across our educational system and the country. Children can’t thrive in environments like this.
From a developmental perspective, adolescents are highly susceptible to harsh criticism. This seems to be hard-wired in the brain: A neuroscience paper published in Nature observes that brain regions involved in “social reward processing, emotion-based processing, regulation, and mentalizing about others” are underdeveloped during adolescence, which the authors define as “approximately ages 10-22.” That helps explain “sensitivity to online rejection, acceptance, peer influence, and emotion-loaded interactions in media-environments” in teens.
As a therapist, I see many young people who are deeply perfectionistic and worried about their image, both online and in person. Because social media is everywhere, adolescents are constantly in a state of high alert about any criticism or rejection, and online communities amplify this beyond what some are biologically capable of handling.
Cancel culture makes the problem much worse. One of my patients told me a story about her daughter, a college student, who made a tasteless racial joke at a friend’s expense. She instantly regretted it, and the friend soon forgave her. But another student overheard the joke and reported my patient’s daughter to the dean, who removed her from a student-leadership position and told her she’d be expelled if she told another bad joke.
It got worse. The eavesdropping student posted about the joke on social media, and other students bullied my patient’s daughter online so severely that she ended up in the emergency room with a panic attack. None of this brutish treatment was necessary for her to learn the lesson of her mistake.
School-sanctioned shaming and a social media free-for-all of bullying leave teens and young adults constantly walking on eggshells, afraid to express heterodox opinions in class, among peers or in schoolwork. Making mistakes and learning from them is an important part of young people’s development. It’s how they grow to accept themselves as well as others—if peers and people in authority show them empathy, tolerance, patience and kindness. Terrorizing young people is no way to teach them sensitivity and respect.
Ms. Komisar is a New York psychoanalyst and author of “Chicken Little the Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety,” forthcoming Oct. 19.
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Appeared in the October 14, 2021, print edition.