Three Doctors’ Common Antidote to Social Media

The noted psychologist and author Dr. Leonard Sax recently visited our youngest daughter’s school for a talk with parents, focused on his recent book, The Collapse of Parenting. Sax is a leading proponent of treating boys and girls differently, and educating them separately; previous titles of his are Girls on the Edge (2005), Boys Adrift (2007) and Why Gender Matters (2005). You can get a sense of how he feels from these titles.

Because Sax was speaking with a group of parents at a coed K-8 school, he spent time talking about the different challenges girls and boys have. As he was talking about the use of social media by adolescent girls, Sax mentioned how, until only a few years ago, girls used to keep diaries. They were private affairs, often kept secret under lock and key. Younger brothers, of course, were the big danger, and could never be allowed to read the diaries—an occurrence that often has led to sitcom hijinks.

These days, of course, 13-year-old girls don’t keep diaries. What once was a top-secret, handwritten reflection on the days of their lives has become the exact opposite—short, public posts on social media sites like Instagram, most often involving selfies. The girls are smitten with seeing themselves on the Internet and tallying the likes, follows, comments and reactions. And they worry if there are no likes, or if there are negative comments. For them, social media is immediate, addictive, dangerous, and self-centered.

As Sax puts it, “The more Facebook friends you have, the more pressure you feel to post something every day. Facebook pushes kids—especially girls—to value acquaintances above close friends.”

Because girls at this age have no grasp of privacy risks with mobile technology, they do not realize that these “acquaintances” often aren’t even who they might think they are.

For Sax, therefore, who has seen the ravaging effects of social media on girls (and of violent video games on boys), the solution for parents is simple, yet hard—set rules and focus on teaching kids humility, which he calls the “most un-American” of the virtues. Here’s his definition, from Collapse of Parenting: “Humility simply means being as interested in other people as you are interested in yourself. … You’ve heard it before: humility doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself. It just means thinking of yourself less.”

This is not a new reflection, but it is one that bears repeating often so more parents hear it. And Sax ties this humility to something else—a focus on the meaning of life.

“Without meaning, life has no point,” Sax told parents. “The result is anxiety, depression, and disengagement. Your job as a parent is to educate desire: to instill a longing for things higher and deeper.”

This double sense of humility and meaning echoes what the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote in his masterly 1946 book providing observations after three years as a prisoner in Auschwitz, Man’s Search for Meaning.

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.

Sadly, younger generations are far removed from the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, even though they have newer, also sad and reflective, milestones, like the terror attacks of Sept. 11. Schools need to keep this in mind and make sure to pass along the many stories of the heroes among the horrors.

As I was listening to Sax give his talk, a book I recently read came to mind, Walker Percy’s 1962 National Book Award-winning novel, The Moviegoer.

 Percy—a medical doctor turned novelist—tells the story of a young man who is infatuated with, among other things, going to the movies. The protagonist, Binx Bolling, lives in New Orleans and is trying to make sense of life in the midst of a personal search for something higher. At one point, Binx reflects on what he calls “certification” via moviegoing, where a person sees something on the screen he has experienced in life—a street scene where a film was made, for example.

He writes: “Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.”

Percy repeats the theme 20 years later in Lost in the Cosmos, reflecting how when Johnny Carson would mention a city, audience members from that city would spontaneously applaud—recognizing that they live “Somewhere, not Anywhere,” as Percy puts it. They have been certified like 13-year-olds on Instagram, but the term we would probably use now is “validated.”

We all want to live Somewhere, and be seen as Someone, don’t we? Social media allows us to do that on a daily (even hourly) basis. The danger, as Percy mentions in Lost in the Cosmos, is that once we sacrifice privacy we cannot get it back, and that can lead to what’s now called “imposter syndrome,” the feeling that we’re not who we really present ourselves to be, and the fear of being found out. Percy equates this with stage fright.

In The Moviegoer, Binx is on a search for meaning—but the real hero is his half-brother Lonnie, who suffers from multiple health problems, uses a wheelchair, and keeps an ardent faith and positive attitude, wanting to suffer more and thinking of others. His family does not want him to fast during Lent for example, as he had two bouts of pneumonia and weighs about 80 pounds. He wants to fast, he said, to combat a “habitual disposition” to envy. As the book ends he passes away, shortly after turning 15.

I recall an interview with Walker Percy in his later years. The reporter was surprised to see Percy arrive driving a battered old pickup. He could not in any way be deemed pretentious and self-centered; in fact, Percy was a Benedictine Oblate so one can assume he would have had the humility thing down pretty well.

As I think of social media addiction, I think of Percy. What would he tweet? Nothing. No selfies of him sitting on his porch, sipping bourbon. If he saw kids with their faces in their smartphones or taking selfies, this man who loved to poke gentle fun at fashions of the day would have smiled and filed the image back in his mind for future use. He’d certainly wish kids today were taught humility and the meaning of life, the prescription that seems to make the most sense to Doctors Sax, Frankl, and Percy.

K. E. Colombini

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K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in the National Catholic Register and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and two grandchildren.

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