My psychotherapy patients often ask me why so many children have emotional difficulties. The answer is complicated and multifaceted, but it has become clear that a significant aggravating factor is the inflexible, rigid and vicious culture of cancellation that has swept through our education system and the country. Children cannot thrive in environments like this.
From a developmental point of view, adolescents are very sensitive to harsh criticism. It seems to be hard-wired into the brain: A neuroscience article published in Nature observes that regions of the brain involved in “social reward processing, emotion-based processing, regulation and mentalization of others” are underdeveloped during adolescence, which the authors define as “about 10-22 years old.” This helps explain “sensitivity to online rejection, acceptance, peer influence, and emotionally charged interactions in media environments” in adolescents.
As a therapist, I see a lot of young people who are deeply perfectionists and self-conscious about themselves, both online and in person. Because social media is everywhere, teens are constantly on a high alert for any criticism or rejection, and online communities are amplifying this beyond what some are biologically capable of handling.
Canceling the crop makes the problem worse. One of my patients told me the story of her student daughter who made a tasteless racial joke at the expense of a friend. She immediately regretted it and the friend quickly forgave her. But another student heard the joke and reported my patient’s daughter to the dean, who took her out of a student leadership position and told her she would be kicked out if she told another bad joke.
It got worse. The eavesdropping student posted 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 brutal treatment was necessary for her to learn the lesson from her mistake.
School-sanctioned humiliation and free social media bullying leave teens and young adults constantly walking on eggshells, fearful of voicing heterodox opinions in class, among peers, or in their homework. Making mistakes and learning from them is an important part of youth development. This is how they grow up to accept themselves and others, if their peers and people in positions of authority show them empathy, tolerance, patience and kindness. Terrorizing young people is not a 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,” out October 19.
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