Today’s social media have enhanced human propensity to embrace fear and hysteria. Recent research by Britain’s University of Warwick Department of Psychology reveals a contagion of panic can occur even in the face of balanced, unbiased information. Here the researchers analyzed 154 participants on social media, dividing them into 14 chains, “with the first person in each chain reading balanced, factual news articles, and writing a message to the next person about the story, the recipient writing a new message for the next person and so on.”
“In every chain, stories about dreaded topics became increasingly more negative, and biased toward panic and fear as it was passed from person to person—and crucially, this effect was not mitigated when the original unbiased facts were reintroduced.”
Evidence of possible mass delusion, particularly in the realm of culture and politics, is all around us. A large number of people believe climate change will wreak havoc on the human race in the next decade. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, poster child of the climate change movement, has spent most of her life sick with fear that the Earth is in its last days. Does that belief reflect reality or is it a form of hysteria? Some accuse President Donald Trump of being a racist and a fascist. Is that viewpoint based on evidence, malice, or delusion? A few parents are encouraging their adolescents and teenagers to undergo gender change procedures. Are their motives sincere or are they caught up in a wave of hysteria?
Fueled by perceptions of personal and political catastrophes, anxiety among Americans has exploded in the last decade. What should strike us as extraordinary about this anxiety epidemic is that the economy is booming, violent crime and murder rates have plummeted, and we are engaged in no major wars. Yet American stress levels are among the highest in the world, with a good portion of that anxiety fueled by politicians, our progressive mainstream media, and so-called “social justice warriors.”
And this anxiety is infecting our young people.
Suicide rates for teens and young adults have surged and are now at a 20-year high. Depression among young people is also increasing. Experts blame various factors for these sad statistics, from lack of sleep in the case of depression to social media bullying as a cause of suicide.
But what about the effects of our culture at large on our emotional state? Americans once looked with pride to their past and with hope toward the future, yet today’s students hear a drumbeat of negativity, that the past was a swamp of evil and oppression, and that the future promises only trouble and darkness. Even in elementary school, the optimism of youth is all too often buried by such pessimism. And if you’re a parent with a toddler, odds are someone has said to you, “The world’s a terrible place. I sure wouldn’t want to raise a kid today.”
But is the world so terrible? And if so, compared to what?
Let’s go back a century, when our great-grandparents walked the earth.
A Visit With the Past
In 1919, World War I had just ended, leaving in its wake 17 million dead. In 1918–1919, an influenza epidemic killed another 50 million people worldwide. Death during childbirth and infancy far exceeded the rates of our own time, as did deaths from such treatable conditions as blood poisoning, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and a multitude of other diseases.
In 1919, many Americans were without electricity or indoor plumbing, few owned a refrigerator, and radio and television were nonexistent. A minority of young people attended college. Most worked on farms or labored, often in dangerous conditions, in factories.
Were Americans in the 1920s stressed? Did they live in constant fear? Certainly they had just cause.
But when we read the history of that era, or look at its magazines, or listen to its music, we don’t have a sense these people thought the sky was falling. Soon they would face the Great Depression, World War II, and the ramifications of the atomic bomb, but even in those circumstances they seemed more buoyant with hope than do we.
So how can we keep ourselves and our children from becoming part of what Charles Mackay calls “the herd” in his book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”? How can we teach them to resist the fear and hysteria of our times?
Optimism, Gratitude, Serenity
Here are some suggestions:
We can teach our children that most fears are groundless, that only a small percentage come into being, and that we waste time and limit our opportunities when we give way to groundless fear. That monster under the bed is just dust bunnies and a toy.
We can instill in them a sense of optimism. We can show them by word and by example to see difficulties and problems as challenges to be overcome.
Gratitude. Here is the best weapon against the panic and occasional hysteria that sometimes casts so wide a net in our culture. If we find reasons for gratitude—everything from being alive on this planet to Grandma’s offer to pay for the braces on our teeth—we push despair from the table. Gratitude and despair can’t inhabit the same house, much less the same room.
Finally, we can lead them to this old prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
If we provide our children with such tools, we strengthen their ability to resist cultural delusions.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.