April 23, 2024


Review: Social Media, Mental Health, and “The Coddling of the American Mind”

By: Aaron White

Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.

 — Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind

I recently attended the Los Angeles premiere of  The Coddling of the American Mind, produced by Ted and Courtney Balaker, based on the book of the same name by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.

The film, following the book,  is a thought-provoking exploration of the challenges facing modern society, particularly in the realm of mental health and education. 

While the book offers valuable insights into the phenomenon of “coddling” and its potentially detrimental effects on young people, it is the film that makes the problem real, following the lives of several former students who dealt with mental health challenges as a result of social media and its political chilling effect. 

“The Coddling of the American Mind,” is the first film to be distributed on Substack, an interesting experiment for the company, reflecting a recent change towards embracing video. 

It is useful to contrast the film and the book to better understand them both. 

Being Anti-Woke Doesn’t Mean What You Think it Does

Lukianoff and Haidt’s analysis of social media’s impact on mental health is compelling and timely. Together, they make the case that platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and more recently TikTok,  can contribute to a culture of constant validation-seeking and comparison, leading to increased depression, social isolation, and anxiety among users. 

Ironically, social media drives antisocial behavior. 

Younger audiences, in particular, are more susceptible to negative mental health outcomes from social media. A Yale health study, since replicated, has found a direct line between the amount of time spent consuming social media and negative mental health. 

Haidt and Lukianoff further highlight studies demonstrating the negative effects of excessive social media use on mental well-being, including heightened levels of loneliness and decreased self-esteem.

In the film, we follow Saeed and Kimi, among others, many international students and students of color, who, through media consumption, began to experience depression and anxiety. 

While both come from different backgrounds and political ideologies, the result of social media’s insular echo chambers, by algorithmic design, produced the same effect, a stifling of speech and a growing anxiety of how they were perceived. 

“Woke,” is often used pejoratively by online trolls, people who are deliberately provocative or offensive online, to refer to liberals. However, “woke”, is no different for anyone who has wholly bought into an ideology, though they may prefer a different term, whether die-hard Stalinists or back-to-the-land White Nationalists. 

Being woke often just means being too heavily immersed in a singular or simplistic worldview. 

Technology is built in binaries, society is too complex to be. 

Trade-offs: Online Communities for In-person Ones 

Social media, in spite of its many drawbacks, also contains many opportunities. Social media allows people to connect with other individuals around their interests, traditions, and other beliefs. This is important, especially in communities where your ideas, religious beliefs, or community may not be well represented.

The important point to remember is that much of the interaction between individuals online is made chaotic and angry by design, anger and fear drive engagement more so than the occasional happy meeting of the minds. Technology is built in binaries, society is too complex to be. 

Many of the stories in the film show that the answer is to limit social media in favor of social interaction. This is easily framed but not always easy for folks to carry out. And now, with generations raised in front of the screen, the very nature of relationships has changed. However, the change to these relationships remains unexplored in the film. 

DEI: The Death of Everything Instructive?

By and large, the largest criticism of the film is similar to that of the book, a heavy focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), as an insidious ideology at the root of our social ills. That’s not to say that certain framings of DEI aren’t problematic, they are. 

There is a trove of articles, essays, and data points on the efficacy of DEI programs that show mixed results both in the short and long term. However, it may not be the program that is entirely to blame. Many times the blame can be laid on biased practitioners or an uninformed practice (business). 

Lily Zheng, in the Harvard Business Review, writes that too many companies initiate DEI programs without having identified challenges first. Or, that biased practitioners create or push content and strategies that undermine the outcomes they seek to achieve. 

“The Coddling of the American Mind,” here lays too much blame on DEI itself without concern for its intentions or in identifying where DEI can work. In the stories the film follows, a heady mix of social media and socialism under the guise of DEI is the bogeyman for whom we must beware. 

Coddling is a Balancing Act

While “The Coddling of the American Mind,” works to address social media and its challenges, it does so with a slight political bias. This is the tightrope upon which the film walks, in danger of falling in either direction, to the political abyss. 

The assault on DEI alone is too simplistic and, at times, comes across as such. Pragmatism stands opposite politics. 

It is saved, however, not by its facts or its implied narrative, but by the students it follows. The students find happiness not in politics but in real human interaction, a focus on what’s tangible. 

Ultimately, the film is one that many can relate to, especially those whose most formative and developmental years, are now being partially stunted or shaped by social media. 

One answer, the answer provided by the film, is to stand tall and try to avoid the siren’s call of imaginary clout. You are asked to tune out the whistles and vibrations in your pocket, small dopamine hits after the desire for attention. 

With over 2 in 5 Americans using TikTok as a search engine, and a majority of younger people getting their news and information from social media, the question remains, for how long can we resist the temptations of digital socialization?