Tumbling Downhill

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Jonathan Haidt and his colleague, Greg Lukianoff, believe that the enormous increase in mental health issue for young women who are identified as liberal” has to do with going through a sort of reverse CBT process. CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is one of the most effective tools for combating depression and a process that greatly helped Lukianoff recover from his own difficult bout with the dark clouds. CBT, in short, helps an individual to regain their sense of agency over mental processes like catastrophizing or intrusive thoughts.

Haidt found that the culture that had its origins on Tumblr about a decade ago went against the mechanisms on which CBT works. Therefore, those who were a part of that culture tended to have some of the emotional health problems that CBT is designed to help with mitigating.

Phelps-Roper interviewed several experts who all pointed to Tumblr as the main petri dish in which nascent ideas of identity, fragility, language, harm, and victimhood evolved and intermixed.

One of the reasons this analysis fascinates me so much is that I tend, at least some of the time, not to self-conceptualize as a resilient person, in respect to managing criticism. I’m not exactly really thick-skinned. So, I can somewhat identify with some of the cognitive and behavioral patterns mentioned here, which partly explains my concern with this phenomenon. Although, I never liked this particular aspect of Tumblr culture, which is one of the reasons I rarely visit that site.1 It seems to invite and even to breed problematic outlooks.

Since Tumblr has lost a lot of users over the years, the mindsets popularized on that platform have been popping up elsewhere. Haidt mentions users migrating to Twitter, but now Mastodon is a primary online hangout where you can experience this culture. For example, a couple of weeks ago, two people were arguing on Mastodon about a tech company’s trustworthiness. Someone quickly stepped in to suggest reporting the person who was disagreeing about the company not being trustworthy to the instance moderator. The person who was actually in the argument declined to do that, but the issue of harm was brought up. Again, this was over a discussion about a tech company.

By many measures, the very people who are experiencing depression are actually pretty well off. Due to the mental frameworks they’ve constructed and perhaps their overexposure to the internet and social media, though, they don’t feel that way.2

The irony here is that it may be these very programs that are causing liberal students to feel disempowered, as if they are floating in a sea of harmful words and people when, in reality, they are living in some of the most welcoming and safe environments ever created.

I think we need to keep asking ourselves what is driving these problems, particularly to the extent that they are manifest in young people.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash


  1. In addition, I find Tumblr’s tech and documentation to be really sloppy.↩︎

  2. It shouldn’t surprise you that Jon Haidt is strongly against children using social media and has a whole Substack exploring the link between social media usage and mental health.↩︎

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