Why are liberal girls so depressed? Many are asking this question after the Centers for Disease Control released data earlier this year revealing that mental health has declined dramatically among young girls, especially progressive ones. The most popular explanations have been psychological and technological: young people spend a lot of time on social media, which is toxic for their mental health. On top of this, their teachers and parents have encouraged them to view the world in a cognitively distorted or unhealthy way, malforming their psychology and depriving them of a sense that they control their own lives.
These explanations may be valid, but they miss something important: This loss of agency is not only psychological but philosophical. It comes from failing to teach young people to think in practical moral categories of judgment and action. This leaves them ill-equipped to navigate the decisions they face, making far too many wonder how life can be lived well and whether it is worth living at all.
The State of Teen Mental Health
This past February, the CDC released the most recent data in its biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey. As the Wall Street Journal observed, perhaps the most notable statistics were that 57 percent of high-school girls “reported experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the past year,” compared with 36 percent in 2011, and that 30 percent seriously considered attempting suicide—an increase of more than 10 percent in ten years. For young men, these rates were lower and had barely increased, if at all, with 29 percent reporting persistent sadness, up from 21 percent, and 14 percent reporting suicide attempts, up from 13 percent.
In the weeks that followed the CDC report, the psychologist Jonathan Haidt and others examined bodies of work looking at mental health outcomes, gender, and political affiliation. The first study they looked at, by policy analyst Zach Goldberg, found that mental health diagnoses are more prevalent in women compared to men, the young compared to the old, and liberals compared to conservatives—and that these three interact together. In fact, a majority of young liberal women reported being clinically diagnosed with a mental health condition.
The second found that before 2012 there were few differences in reporting depression between men and women and only a small one between liberals and conservatives. After 2012, the rate of depression among liberal girls began to rise and rose the most of all categories, outstripping male liberals and conservatives of both stripes. The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg pointed to 2012 as the year when Facebook acquired Instagram and selfies became common practice. Jean Twenge’s book Generations supports this diagnosis, reporting that liberal girls are the most likely to say that they spend five or more hours a day on social media. All the more reason, Haidt concludes, to put the blame on social media for making those girls more depressed.
Journalists Matt Yglesias and Jill Filipovic are inclined toward a more psychological explanation. When mental health patients catastrophize, or fixate on the most negative possible outcome when it is highly unlikely, psychologists help them separate their internal reactions from the external actions of others, so that their mental state aligns better with reality. Yglesias worries that “progressive institutional leaders have specifically taught young progressives that catastrophizing is a good way to get what they want.” This is exactly what mental health professionals counsel against. Filipovic elaborates:
I am increasingly convinced that there are tremendously negative long-term consequences, especially to young people, coming from this reliance on the language of harm and accusations that things one finds offensive are “deeply problematic” or even violent. Just about everything researchers understand about resilience and mental well-being suggests that people who feel like they are the chief architects of their own life—to mix metaphors, that they captain their own ship, not that they are simply being tossed around by an uncontrollable ocean—are vastly better off than people whose default position is victimization, hurt, and a sense that life simply happens to them and they have no control over their response.
As Haidt observes, decades of research back up Filipovic’s claims: people with an internal locus of control (the feeling of agency) are happier and more productive, while those with an external locus of control (the feeling that others determine the course of one’s life) are more passive and depressed. Based on their research, Haidt and Goldberg argue that Gen Z has become more external in its locus of control, and Gen Z liberals more self-derogating. For them, the main culprits are toxic cultural dynamics on the internet and in institutions, especially schools and universities.
Teaching Moral Freedom
Haidt et al.’s diagnosis about what has externalized Gen Z’s locus of control is persuasive. But it misses a more fundamental philosophical problem: young people are unhappy because parents and teachers have not taught them how to think and act in ways that make them happy. It’s not just that many have been taught that the wrong things make them happy, and that their deliberation leads to choices that make them miserable—though that does happen in many cases. Far too often, they have not been given enough tools for moral thinking and acting at all.
We see this kind of student at the beginning of Benjamin and Jenna Silber Storey’s Why We Are Restless—the high-achieving young woman who needs to decide what to do with her life after graduation or her first job. The world is her oyster—perhaps more so than ever before for women like her—but she wonders what a pearl looks like, and where to find one. In the Storeys’ words, her “years of steady progress have culminated in a strange and restless paralysis.”
This paralysis becomes apparent at different stages of the decision-making process. Sometimes students have a clear end in mind but don’t know which path will get them there—which of three internships they should do as they pursue their degree in computer science, for example. But the real crisis comes when students are forced to determine which ends to pursue. Do they forsake a more prestigious career to return to their hometown? Should they pursue the intellectual life, with all of academia’s problems, or go into more lucrative but less intellectually rewarding careers? Whom should they love, and how should they find that person? Will having children give them joy or crush them—or, more realistically, both?
To put it more simply, many students lack a sense of what makes something good, what things add up to a good life, and which good things matter more than others when we are forced to choose between them. They lack this because their parents and teachers have been very careful not to give them tools and categories for making moral judgments about goods, or to tell them that some things are goods at all. When sociologist Christian Smith and his co-authors spoke to emerging adults for their 2011 study Lost in Transition, 34 percent of their interviewees “said that they simply did not know what makes anything morally right or wrong. They had no idea about the basis of morality.” They further note that many of “these stumped interviewees could not even understand our questions on this point. No matter how many different ways we posed them . . . our very questions about morality’s sources did not or could not make sense to them.”
Some years ago in an article on education and the restoration of moral agency, Public Discourse editor-in-chief R. J. Snell captured how this loss of moral vocabulary has led to the same externalized locus of control that Jonathan Haidt bemoans. Snell recalls that once a “student told me that she struggled to understand the questions about life’s purpose I asked, because her parents, schools, doctors, and therapists had given her ample means not to wrestle with the existential drama of being a free moral agent. She knew, in a soul-crushing way, that everything depended on her when it came to success, but she felt resigned to a kind of determinism when it came to the point of life, unequipped to deliberate or choose. She not only didn’t know what to do, but she had been trained not to understand the question.”
The solution, Snell suggests, is not to hand students an oversimplified cheat sheet with “God” or “family” at the top and a ranking of life’s goods below, or to give them the Bible, the Summa, or the Nicomachean Ethics as sure manuals for a happy life. Rather, teachers, parents, and professors should be unafraid to propose authoritative accounts of human life and its goods, and encourage students to judge and decide as free moral actors: “Authority should help students recover the moral space, agency, and ability to calmly take a stand, to act, to be responsible in a reasonable way, and to do so in the full range of human and personal acts—not just as producers or credentialed graduates but as persons.” Students don’t need indoctrination; they need morally serious education.
Indoctrination in Social Morality
In fact, indoctrination is all too often how we are currently educating our students. Young people are not given pure relativism but a kind of selective moral absolutism. There may not be a clear moral code for pursuing a good life, but there is a hyper-moralistic one for pursuing a just or righteous life. This code is highly judgmental, with strong and clear knowledge of right and wrong, saint and sinner. It makes totalizing judgments, capitalizes on the negative, calls out inherent flaws, and gives little absolution beyond continued acts of abjection and repentance. Its categories and criteria are self-evident; only someone who is prejudiced would question the dynamics of privilege that surround race, sexuality, and the other markers of social location.
Socially moral judgments are a matter not of thinking for yourself and deliberating according to principles, but internalizing a code of praise and opprobrium and enforcing it on others. The landscape in which this moral activity happens most acutely is social media, whose most frequent users are that code’s most devoted enforcers. And as cultural critic Kat Rosenfield observed, much of our public morality is structured around cultivating and remedying female self-loathing. It’s therefore no surprise that progressive girls are bearing the brunt of the misery produced by this exacting political morality.
So, taking a step back, we can ask again: why are young liberal girls unhappy? Social media and bad psychology play a role, no doubt. But so does our current way of educating young people, which inculcates them against moral deliberation about personal choices and social questions. In the end, after all, sound psychology and philosophy share the same goal: helping us to perceive ourselves and the world around us accurately, and to act for our flourishing and that of others. In order to help young people do that, we should eliminate policies and structures in our institutions that encourage cognitive distortions and protect young people online. Cornell University’s rejection of trigger warnings and Utah’s Social Media Regulation Act serve as concrete examples of this. But we must go beyond that. Young people—male and female, conservative and liberal—need to see moral deliberation practiced, and learn to practice it themselves. They need adults to teach them that life is worth living, and that they should consider living it in particular ways.