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"I worry about our kids"
Nude selfies aren't the only problem with social media. Naked emotions can be a huge problem, too.
Summarizing a lot of anecdotal observations and statistics, KARE 11 in the Twin Cities quotes Dr. Madeleine Gagnon thus: "There are all the usual aspects around the pandemic, school shootings, cultural tensions -- layer that on top of all the academic achievement stressors, social media, I worry about our kids". Any capable observer of events over the last couple of years has undoubtedly noted that a lot of people are burning themselves out emotionally and psychologically. It's showing up in incidents on airplanes, outraged flame wars on social media, and in surveys that suggest more than a fifth of kids are having behavioral or mental-health problems related to Covid-19.
■ Unquestionably, there have been a lot of social stressors leading to frayed emotions and likely contributing to some consequential outbursts. But there's also a strange new factor affecting us: The very ubiquity of people spilling their emotional conditions all over the Internet, for their friends (and often the world) to see.
■ We need more and better spaces for privately containing and expressing our emotions, because clearly the present offerings aren't doing enough. The public square is no place for wailing and rending of garments, and yet social media quite often form the "public square" for many people's social and emotional lives. It hasn't helped that quite a lot of us have been unusually isolated from other people for much of the last two calendar years.
■ There's a very brief rush to be had from getting something off your chest, and from getting instant reactions. Complaining about a difficult boss, lamenting the loss of a beloved pet, or venting frustration with some jerk in line at the grocery store are all excellent ways of getting other people to react through their "like" buttons.
■ But strong emotions demand strong methods of containment and self-examination, and if adults aren't well-versed in how to do those things and well-practiced in actually doing them, then it's going to be hard to transmit those practices to the next generation. It's no wonder there is so much talk about "fragility". A lot of people are, indeed, expressively fragile.
■ In her insightful "Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read", Philippa Perry wrote these valuable words on children's emotional development: "We cannot protect children from the inevitable bereavements and calamities that life will throw at us and at them, but we can be alongside them and feel with them and help to contain their feelings when, inevitably, calamities happen." That word -- "contain" -- is particularly weighty. It's not that feelings should be repressed or dismissed. It's that they need to be bounded, most of all for the well-being of the person having them. One doesn't have to become a cartoon Stoic, dismissing all feelings as inevitable and unproductive -- but learning to address feelings as both valid and worthy of careful response is a practice that matters a lot to mature well-being.
■ Strong emotions have always been with us, but it wasn't that long ago that we had much slower ways of processing them: Hand-written love letters, carefully-expressed sympathy cards, telegrams of apology. Those old ways took time, were private, and imposed self-reflection on the person expressing the emotion. There are no such obstacles when a Facebook rant is merely a thumb away.
■ We're not better off repressing ourselves, but the corrective to too much repression isn't too much public expression. As is so often the case in life, the answers are found in the middle. The philosopher Maimonides wrote, "The virtues are states of the soul and settled dispositions in the mean between two bad states [of the soul], one of which is excessive and the other deficient." We would do well to acknowledge that strong feelings are a part of human life -- but also that humans need to process those feelings with deliberation (and often some circumspection). It's too easy to be tempted into anger and impulsiveness when the tools sit in front of us all the time. And if we're truly worried about the mental and emotional well-being of children, then we ought to think about the tools they have and the lessons they see in the adults around them.