As progressive narratives and critical race theory infused ideas continue to leave collegiate campuses and permeate into the K-12 world, I am often asked why these dangerous, victim-centric, identity-laden ideas have seemingly captured the hearts and minds of so many middle and high school students. There are many partial answers to this, including overt activist educators and social media influencers, but a fundamental one is this: The decline of so many traditional institutions—religious organizations, marriage and the family, fraternal and communal groups—which previously helped structure so much of life, has created a void in the lives of many young Americans. Younger millennial and gen Z Americans have been socially dislocated as they come of age without these traditional structures, and this has in turn opened up space in their minds for narratives that feed on baseline feelings of victimization, inequality, identity, and harm.
Even with the promise of more connectedness with social media, recent years have seen a turn to a more individualist, polarized, and fragmented American society. Americans experience fewer social connections, lower levels of community engagement, greater isolation, and more loneliness. For sure, these tendencies are not universal, as certainly millions of Americans experience fulfilling ties, both personal and communal. But, as research over recent years has established, outside some of the country’s most religious communities, Americans’ social connections and community ties are in decline.
The “decline of institutions” narrative is not new, of course. Robert Putnam empirically chronicled the atomization and cocooning of society in Bowling Alone well into the end of the 20th century, and a half century earlier, Robert Nisbet argued in The Quest for Community that the post-war rise of the modern state had eroded the sources of community—the family, the neighborhood, the church, the guild. Alienation and loneliness inevitably resulted. But as the traditional ties that bind fell away, the human impulse toward community led people to turn even more to the government itself, allowing statism and authoritarianism to flourish.
What is new and extremely dangerous today, however, is the omnipresence of social media. Many younger Americans are developing into adults in a digital world of tiny socio-economic and ideological bubbles. Social media’s ubiquity has further sped up a general turn inward, away from various institutions and communities that previously helped socialize and enforce particular norms and beliefs around the nation. Instead of multi-layered institutions in real space with norms, values, and support, the nation today has isolated teens and twenty-somethings who regularly engage with Tik-Tok, Instagram, and virtual sources in search of connection and community, which they find in stories based on appearance, race and ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and various perceptions of harm. This is the language of the woke world, which thrives on messages of victimization and balkanization, intent to tear down old institutions without any roadmap to build up new ones. It is a language that reduces the complexity and beauty of a layered life and society.
This is a foolish way to think about the world. Viewing people as members of narrow and simplistic racial or sexual groupings foolishly suggests that one should be defined by simple attributes and little more. This is an absurd way to understand people and the human condition, dividing us rather than unifying us and finding common ground based on shared humanity and history, and it is the antithesis of what America has sought to be. Nevertheless, it is very appealing to younger millennials and gen Zers when there is little else around and anxiety levels are high.
One recent report found that gen Z Americans are notably more anxious than their older counterparts. Some 40 percent of gen Z reports feeling anxious at least a few times a week or more often, while barely half as many boomers (22 percent) and silents (18 percent) feel the same way. A quarter of gen Z’s parents—gen X—report feeling anxious on a weekly basis or more often. Moreover, just over a quarter of gen Zers (26 percent) report feeling that they have no one that they can count on—notably more than their gen X parents (19 percent) or their boomer (16 percent) or silent grandparents (17 percent). These older generations likely still have connections and relationships through traditional institutions, which are so powerful that just being a member of a religious institution, for instance, significantly changed one’s sense of isolation and loneliness during the pandemic lockdowns.
In short, while the toxicity of social media on the mental health of many is a no secret, the danger is not just on one’s self esteem, which is a popular narrative in the press today. The endless justice initiatives—environmental, racial, sexual, and social—being promoted within social media are even more powerful when significant numbers of younger Americans have weak networks and are not connected to the institutions that have both constrained and elevated society for centuries.
Social media simply did not exist when Putnam and Nisbet were writing, and civil society is in far greater danger today, facing this powerful and far reaching technology. If society wants to see these woke impulses slow among the young, then we as a nation must renew and rebuild our institutions as fast as possible.
Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.