Let’s imagine that convincing evidence emerged that being vegetarian was significantly better for your health than eating a healthy, balanced omnivorous diet. I’m talking significantly better here: extending life expectancy by a good 2-3 years, not the click-bait ‘sausages may give you cancer’ headline stuff. How strong would that evidence have to be before you decided to become vegetarian? Or, even if you continued to sneak the occasional bacon sarnie, how strong would it have to be before you brought up your children as vegetarian?
As most people are probably aware by now, we’re currently seeing a surging mental health epidemic amongst young people. Young women are significantly more affected than men. There’s a strong suggestion that social media might be involved. And those with progressive (or ‘liberal’) political views are significantly more affected than those with conservative views(1). So here’s a paradox for progressive parents: which is more important, that their children share their political views, or have good mental health? We’ll be looking today at what potential responses to this might be.
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Being a parent(2) is about making choices under conditions of extreme uncertainty. Am I being too strict or too lenient? How much screen time is too much? Will letting them play in the woods alone build their confidence or get them eaten by bears? Should I ignore the latest iteration of ever-changing advice about whether or not to expose them to peanuts below the age of one? Should I do baby-led weaning? Do I get them vaccinated against COVID? Which school will be best for them?
Unlike a scientist researching the truth, or a politician making public policy, we can’t wait for more evidence to come out. Maybe we’ll have better evidence about baby-wed leaning in ten years’ time – and it’s great for future parents that scientists are working on that – but in ten years’ time, your little baby will be a hunking ten year old, and that better evidence isn’t going to do you much good. For other things, such as choosing schools, while there is some good evidence on what makes a good or bad school (most of us know to avoid the school with an Inadequate Ofsted rating where the children run riot in the corridors and hit the teachers with chairs), the difference between two perfectly decent schools may well come down to what is best for your child, as an individual. Good luck getting double-blind controlled, peer-reviewed evidence on that!
And so, we become experts – consciously or not – at making decisions under uncertainty. Sometimes we can assess certainty (scientists change their advice on what causes allergies pretty regularly, so I don’t have high confidence that this time we’re right) or look at baseline statistics (child abductions are still incredible rare, and have not shot up since the 70s and 80s). We look at how much of a big deal it is to change what we’re doing (avoiding beef in BSE would have been a big hassle compared to, let’s say, avoiding pomegranates). But we also can look at consequences, both positive and negative. For example, letting children play independently, or go places by themselves, has many potential positive consequences in terms of indepence, confidence and mental health, which can be set against the abduction/traffic risks. Or if the negative consequences are high, we may take precautions even if we may not know if we’ll ever need them (wearing seat belts).
The vegetarian example at the beginning was bunkum. Humans evolved to be omnivores and, while of course one can, with some conscious effort(3), eat a healthy vegetarian diet – or an unhealthy omnivorous one – eating a healthy balanced diet remains the gold standard. There is, however, a very real example of a phenomenon where the evidence is becoming stronger by the year involves the impact of mobile phones and, in particular, social media, on mental health.
The Mental Health Crisis and Social Media
It’s well known by now that the kids are not all right. The worsening mental health crisis is well-documented, by many different sources. It includes not just self-reported mental health, or referrals and diagnoses – which could reflect a changing culture around mental health – but objective measures such as rates of self-harm, eating disorders and attempted suicides. It has been observed by all groups that work with young people (by which I mean both children and young adults; i.e. those in their 20s) and I am not aware of any serious voices, in any part of the political spectrum, that say it is not happening.
The causes are still being debated, and many be down to a number of factors, but personally I have become strongly convinced by leading psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s thesis that social media is a major factor. Documented extensively on his website, he shows both how the crisis took off in 2012, at the time of increasing smart phone and social media penetration, and meticulously details multiple studies that show not just correlation, but causation. As his research collaborator Jean Twenge argues compellingly, a few years ago it was reasonable to say that the jury was still out on this – but now, we do know.
Of, course we don’t absolutely know for certain, in the way we understand the laws of gravity. Another leading psychologist, Peter Gray, disagrees that smart phones and social media are the cause, and things the leading cause is the decline of independent play; smart phone use is only relevant in so far as it crowds out play(4). So we are in a condition of uncertainty. Maybe in a few years, the researchers will have answered this question beyond doubt(5). But right now, as parents, we have to decide.
For my part, I’m sufficiently convinced by the evidence to take action on it. While we would always have been cautious about phone use, it’s now likely that we will be giving our children smart phones later than we would otherwise have done and being more restrictive on the use of social media, both allowing access to it at a later age and restricting it more (perhaps only allowing it to be used on the family computer, rather than on phones)(6). What caused this decision? Well, the evidence seems compelling, well-researched and rigorous. It fits with common sense – one can see causal pathways (e.g. cyber-bulling, dopamine hits from likes) as to why it might be so, and we have all experienced the addictive nature of social media at first hand. It fits with my prejudices to dislike new-fangled technology. And there are few downsides: if, it turns out social media is irrelevant, they’ll still end up playing outside more, or reading, or exploring other hobbies, well that’s all good too.
The Progressive Parenting Paradox
So far, so good. Hopefully most of you have been nodding along, approvingly. But now comes to the part where I lose half of my readers.
Because, as well as being potentially associated with smart phones and social media, there’s an unpalatable truth in the data which shows that progressives have significantly worse mental health than conservatives (or than centrists)(7). Here’s one of the key graphs:
Here’s a look at another indicator:
You may notice that this isn’t a small effect. Its standard to talk about the fact that women are suffering worse from the mental health crisis than men. But what we see here is that the effect of political ideology is even larger than the sex-based effect; such that, for example, progressive young men have worse mental health than conservative young women.
A few progressives have tried to argue that this is because modern society is a right-wing conservative horror-show and that the world is going to hell in a handcart. This fundamentally doesn’t make sense. Not only are there plenty of things about modern society that conservatives don’t like (hint: open any copy of the Telegraph or Daily Mail), the trend starts in 2012, the height of the Obama Presidence, and well after, for example, 2008 (the financial crisis) or 2016 (Trump’s election). It continued growing regardless of whether Obama, Trump or Biden are in the White House. Trump was a big deal, and any theory which says this is a reaction to conservative politics that is not impacted at all by Trump has some problems to it. But don’t take my word for it. As Michelle Goldberg (a progressive New York Times columnist) said:
Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012. In 2013, the Supreme Court extended gay marriage rights. It was hard to draw a direct link between that period’s political events and teenage depression, which in 2012 started an increase that has continued, unabated, until today.Michelle Goldberg, 2023
Leading Democratic political blogger Matt Yglesias is similarly unconvinced.
So what is the reason? There are several hypotheses that are at least somewhat plausible:
- The causality is the wrong way round. It’s not that progressives are more likely to suffer from poor mental health; it is that those with poor mental health are more likely to be progressive. Progressive politics tends to be more compassionate, calling for more support not just explicitly for mental health, but for groups of people who are associated with having higher levels of mental health, such as LGBT folk, the unemployed and so on. Of course these people are going to be more likely to be progressive.
- The causality is confused. Yes, conservatives have better mental health, but this is because better mental health is associated with some other factor – having married parents, attending religious worship, living in the countryside – and it is that other factor which leads to better mental health, regardless of political views.
- The causality is confused. Yes, progressives have worse mental health, but this is because worse mental health is associated with some other factor – using social media more, promiscuity, studying liberal arts – and it is that other factor which leads to better mental health, regardless of political views.
- The causality is correct. Conservativism typically emphasise an internal locus of control (for example, people’s success is due to their effort and hard work) whereas progressivism typically emphasises an external locus of control (for example, people’s success is due to their parents’ wealth and the amount of public spending on education in their area). Even if the reality is that almost everything is a mixture of both and public policy makers should think carefully about this, for an individual, you are more likely to be successful (which is associated with better mental health) and, regardless of success, to feel better and have better mental health if you believe and act as though your actions can meaningfully affect your choice.
- The causality is correct. Catastrophism is a core element of modern progressivism, whether that is overemphasising the damage global warming will do to the world, your likelihood of dying from COVID or that words are literally violence. Of course, if someone who cares about the environment believes that we’re making no progress at decarbonising, or if a trans person is told that someone who queries which category trans people should compete in sport literally wants to kill them, they’re going to feel more anxious and depressed.
- The causality is correct. It is all about wokeism. Being LGBT is strongly associated with low levels of mental health so what do you expect when you confuse children about what gender they are or teach them to hate their country? Telling young people they should feel innate, unavoidable, guilt about their race, or for things their ancestors did hundreds of years ago is never going to end well.
Importantly, these are non-exclusive. It is entirely possible that people with poor mental health are more likely to be progressive, AND that having married parents helps to cause better mental health AND that catastrophism and emphasising external loci of control harms mental health. For (2) and (3), while they are presented as being due to a third cause, this is not entirely correct – it is not exactly unconnected with their conservative views that conservatives are more likely to get married, or adopt certain approaches to parenting – even if some progressives also do these things. Both ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ (or ‘liberal’) also contain a wide variety of views, perspectives and lifestyles, which creates further uncertainty.
The hypotheses are also overlapping. Notably, while I only called the last hypothesis as ‘wokeism’, many people would associate ‘woke’ with elements such as the equation of speech with violence; concepts such as privilege clearly de-emphasise an internal locus of control. In addition, exposure to many of these concepts may be – almost certainly are – mediated by social media; for example, catastrophism, narratives of privilege and concepts of gender as disseminated rapidly by this route, even if they are also reinforced by schools and universities – and, of course, by progressive parents. This would help to explain why the gap has grown now, in parallel with the explosion of social media.
I don’t know which of these hypotheses is correct, and to what extent. Neither do you. Nor do the experts. My strong hunch is that it is a combination of many of these (including 1) – and I’ll discuss further below which I find more compelling, and why. But the truth is that I don’t know. No doubt some people will try to argue fervently that (1) is correct, and present detailed arguments as to why that is the case. I will ignore people who do that, because they are missing the point. The fact is, you don’t know – and if you are a progressive parent, you have to make your choices for your children now, based on that uncertainty. And if you are honest with yourself, that means not staking everything on a wishful hope that the most favoured hypothesis is correct, but acknowledging that there is a serious likelihood that some elements of the progressive belief system or behaviours are leading to seriously worse mental health amongst young people.
This, therefore creates the paradox of the title. Progressives believe – like everyone else – that their views, values and belief systems are better for human flourishing. But clearly, at least on this important measure, they are not. If their children adopt their world-view, they are less likely to be happy, and more likely to have mental health challenges – including severe challenges. Thus the dilemma: how far to bring your values into your parenting?
What to do? Can one abandon one’s beliefs for the sake of your children? Probably not – but it is a mistake to think of it that way. One need not start going to Brexit rallies and voting Conservative to nuance your approach to certain matters – whether that is setting clear boundaries in behaviour, or continue teaching that we should treat everyone equally, without serving it with a side-order of racial guilt.
As it happens, I have some experience in this. As an atheist married to a Christian, we agreed before marrying that we would bring up the children in the Christian faith, at least until they became old enough to decide for themselves – something we’ve kept to. While not totally thrilled about my children learning something that I don’t think is true, I also could see benefits, including the sense of community, a greater understanding of a part of historical British culture which they would not otherwise have received, and a set of morals and beliefs (including a peer group) that is, overall(8), more wholesome than the one received through mainstream society(9). To give a really practical example of potential benefits: I have a Christian friend who was bullied in school and, while that wasn’t great, his teenage life was a lot better than other friends of mine who were similarly bullied, because he had a great group of friends through church. At the same time, though, I had some red lines, notably around creationism: we were going to teach our kids about evolution and dinosaurs, come what may (and, indeed, have done so). Although the parallel isn’t exact – I wouldn’t have done this had I not married a Christian – the thought-process of finding benefits in something you may not fully believe in, but also having red lines, is similar.
So if you are a progressive parent and want to take this seriously, where should you start? One thing I am sure of is it shouldn’t impact how you vote. I think we can be 99.999% confident that which box you tick in the privacy of the polling booth won’t have the slightest impact on your children’s mental health(10). Similarly, I’m pretty confident that one’s views about the appropriate level of taxation, the nationalisation of the railways or the level of out of work benefits are unlikely to be relevant.
So what is? On one level, I’m not a progressive parent, so who am I to tell you what to do? And that’s right; everyone can make up their own decisions. But there are five areas below where it seems most compelling that progressive approaches to life may be having the most deleterious impact on mental health.
- The benefits of marriage are now extremely well established. Getting married, staying married, being part of a peer group and community that values these things all seem tremendously valuable. However, if you’re reading this, then this may be too late, one way or the other (though ‘valuing not splitting up’ hopefully remains relevant!).
- Traditional parenting, of the sort that establishes firm boundaries, acts consistently and cares about developing good behaviour and morals. The overriding zeitgeist is to worry about whether you are being too strict, or to not set yourself above your children, or to let everything be child-directed, so this is swimming against the tide – but crucially important. I would also emphasise the important of establishing an internal locus of control, emphasising effort, hard work, determination and perseverance and trying to cultivate this, though I think this is more widely held(11).
- Avoid catastrophism. Young people being dreadfully distressed about climate change, to the extent of citing it as a cause of ongoing distress, not having children or self harm is becoming increasingly common. At least one person has applied for assisted suicide in Canada because of climate distress (I think he was turned down). The truth is that it is a serious problem, but we are making progress and that under current IPCC projections, living standards in the west are forecast to continue getting better (though being worse than they would have been without climate change). It seems worth teaching it this way – and, more broadly, thinking twice about how thick one needs to lay it on with younger children. One can still teach the need to recycle and turn off the lights without saying the planet is going to burn. As an aside, while this won’t come again, I would observe that families I saw taking a catastrophism approach to COVID (in particular I mean going well beyond government rules, and wanting more lock downs) seemed to be much unhappier and the children more distressed than those who didn’t.
- Avoiding gender confusion. The very rapidly increasing number of young people experiencing gender confusion report very poor levels of mental health. While a very small number of people would always have been in this situation, and should be treated with compassion, massively increasing this number seems like a spectacularly bad idea. In practice, that means clearly teaching biological reality at home, not suggesting that gender can be chosen or actively promoting gender confusion and thinking twice about things that might lead to it, such as putting small boys in a dress. This need not mean any compromising on the idea that both men and women are equal, can do anything they want to and pursue any profession they wish to.
- Greg Lukianoff (co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind) writes compelling that we are performing reverse CBT on young people, a theme which Yglesias also addresses. Essentially, rather than encouraging people to see themselves as in control of a situation and able to act in change it, we are doing the opposite. We are teaching them to maximise the harm they see in words, or offence, describing them as literal violence, and encouraging learned helplessness and an appeal to authority where maximising the ‘harm’ done is key to success. This entire outlook, fuelled by the interwoven narratives of guilt, victimised and privilege embedded throughout so much of modern progressives seem to be likely to be doing untold harm to all involved. Of course, you may say they will be taught this anyway, and no doubt they will, but erecting a bulwark against the harmful tides of society has always been part of parenting.
And, of course, unconnected to political ideology, avoiding phones and social media, and making time for and encouraging lots of healthy unsupervised, ideally outdoors play.
Ultimately we are dealing with uncertainty here. We cannot know for certain the causality; all we can do is observe that the effect is both real and large – and respond accordingly.
If you read this piece and decide you’re going to ignore the second half of this piece – but are convinced about the phones and social media, well, I’ll still take that as a win. But it does really seem as if some parts of the current progressive world-view are actively harmful to the flourishing of young people. To the extent that these are taught in school, university and through society as a whole, these are everyone’s concerns – but as a parent, the choices, and the uncertainty, are much more immediate.
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(1) I will be using the word progressive here, rather than ‘liberal’, unless I am directly quoting a source, as liberal means something different in the UK to what it does in the US, where it effectively means ‘someone on the political left’. I will be using ‘progressive’ to mean that, and ‘conservative’ to mean someone on the political right. Neither is being used to indicate party affiliation or active political involvement.
(2) For the avoidance of doubt, I am a parent, with two children, a boy aged 9 and a girl aged 5.
(3) In particular, there is a complexity about types of amino acids, which means one doesn’t just have to eat alternative sources of protein, but a variety of alternative sources, as almost all vegetarian alternatives to meat don’t contain all the amino acids the body needs.
(4) Like Haidt, I agree with him that independent play is important, though Haidt has convinced me that social media also plays a distinct, additional role.
(5) Alternatively, maybe it will have been culture-warred into epistemic nihilism.
(6) Rather like alcohol, social media is so prevalent in adult modern life that simply banning to 18 doesn’t seem wise, as responsible use must be taught.
(7) Most of the most rigorous evidence here comes from the US. There is some evidence of similar patterns in the UK and, in general, US and UK politics and social trends have quite a high degree of cross-over, particularly now, in the modern social-media, 24 hour news fuelled world. But it is right to say this is a further degree of uncertainty, the extent to which this generalises to the UK.
(8) Though not in every area.
(9) Including, ironically, one that places a higher value on objective truth.
(10) Directly, that is.
(11) Ironically, for progressives this often seems to be motivated by the ‘don’t praise or acknowledge cleverness’ taboo, but it gets to a similar place.