Sad Kids Need More Than Woebots
Plus: the Superhero Ideal, Billionaire Taxes, and a Vibe Check
The more I write the more I write (funny how that works) so these round-ups are getting longer and more involved every week, which is very fun for me! I hope you enjoy, please share it with your besties if you do. 🐌
The Kids Are Sad
Like very, very fucking sad, and also anxious. They are dying deaths of despair at alarming rates. Derek Thompson at The Atlantic thinks it’s because their screen time is replacing their face time, the world is very stressful now, and the news media bombards us all with constant overwhelming doomer vibes.
The “screen time bad” thing is sort of an overgeneralized cliche at this point, but I do agree with Thompson’s conclusion that when it replaces things in your life like spending time with loved ones or, you know, sleeping, that’s a problem. Apparently, Gen Z spends half their waking hours watching videos on their devices!!! And parents are now suing social media companies for their children’s suicides.
There’s something else going on here though, something deeper in our culture. Psychologist Sally A. Heran recently put out an interesting study on what she calls the “Superhero Ideal”.
It’s the pressure to achieve and be the best, which has been correlated with more feelings of distress (and which wealthy, English-speaking countries experience the most).
Theran thinks this Superhero Ideal gets in the way of our ability to authentically connect with each other. We are always hiding our true, flawed selves out of shame, which leads to loneliness, depression, and despair. Social media exacerbates this:
"The very nature of social media encourages internalization of the superhero ideal while discouraging authenticity, but bolstering authenticity and critical thinking skills can help combat the negative repercussions of the superhero ideal."
I don’t think the answer is throwing our phones away and living in the woods, but being more discerning about what we let through the windows to our soul.
My recent retreat from social media tanked my anxiety dramatically, and when I started posting and scrolling again, I noticed an almost immediate return of fear and worry. It’s too much knowledge, too much awareness. We are not supposed to know so much about the world, or each other, all at once.
Don’t disengage, just pick a cause you care about deeply, find purpose in that thing, and stop indiscriminately scrolling the information firehose of doom! Also, remember, everyone is flawed, everyone has limits, and perfection is boring but also, completely impossible.
How Do We Be Real?
Speaking of authenticity, Gen Z apparently hates Instagram because it’s so fake!
A new app called BeReal that forces you to take an impromptu selfie with your front and back camera once a day is getting popular on college campuses, but Izzy Copestake at Vice thinks it sounds a wee bit dystopic, and I am inclined to agree with this 20-year-old she interviewed:
“Say you take the Pav (Orr’s college student bar), everyone’s having a nice time. Then we all get the BeReal notification and you can just look around and see how many phones are taken out for poses. I suppose it takes away from the conversation you are having at the time.”
Others report the app gives them major FOMO by revealing that their friends are hanging out without them. And this doesn’t really sound very real:
“We all just sort of churn out these boring and dispassionate posts for each other,” he said. “I scramble a little bit to manufacture the most interesting thing I can during the two-minute countdown I’m given, but at this point, I don’t even care about being late.”
This does sound real, but not in a good way:
My friend’s feeds looked like mine — constant shots of Google Docs and YouTube videos.
And maybe that, dear reader, is the problem? Because if we are really being real, we would admit that curating ourselves online merely placates some deep dissatisfaction we have with the soul-suckery of life under late technocapitalism, and maybe if we did less performing, we could do more world-changing?
Woebots for White Women Do Not Equal Access Make
The Guardian reports that more teens are using Woebot, a CBT therapy chatbot that’s been around since 2017 but has seen a surge in demand because of the pandemic. There’s a lot of hype around these kinds of apps — people say they’re “revolutionizing” mental health care, and “increasing access”.
Woebot was actually created for and tested on young people (specifically 22-year-old white women enrolled at Stanford) as Emma Bedor Hiland finds in her book Therapy Tech. (Have I told you about this book before? I think I have. It’s very good.)
In one chapter, she goes to a conference where everyone is super stoked about their “revolutionary” mental healthtech:
When I pressed interviewees for information about who uses their mental health applications, it became clear that they are technologies of responsibilization intended primarily for — and used by — young, white women. Jordan shared, for example, that the median age of his app’s user is twenty-eight, and that roughly 80 percent of the application’s users are female…
When I asked Don during our conversation why the guided meditations his application offered were provided by voices that sounded white and female, his response was that he did not “think that was part of any conscious choice”…
This reflects Simone Browne’s description of “prototypical whiteness” in technologies, wherein tools are created for imagined users who are presumably white.
(“Technologies of responsibilization” refers to the neoliberal idea that we are all responsible for our own health. These apps, then, are tools we are implored to use in order to do our duty as responsible citizens and manage ourselves.)
Access is the magic word that these therapy app developers love, but Hiland writes that these apps don’t really increase access to mental healthcare for people who didn’t have it before — they just make it more convenient.
Truly increasing access would mean closing the digital divide — the gap between those who have smartphones, laptops, and internet access, and those who don’t.
These apps just help people who already have all of that access therapy from the comfort of their devices:
If technological accessibility is a prerequisite for receiving mental healthcare interventions, then Woebot is incapable of fundamentally changing the status quo. Equitably accessible infrastructure must exist prior to creating infrastructure-reliant innovations.
Brain Scan Studies Are Probably Mostly Wrong
A study in Nature last month claimed that brain scan studies are too small to really tell us anything reliable about human behavior:
As a result, the conclusions of most published ‘brain-wide association studies’ — typically involving dozens to hundreds of participants — might be wrong. Such studies link variations in brain structure and activity to differences in cognitive ability, mental health and other behavioural traits. For instance, numerous studies have identified brain anatomy or activity patterns that, the studies say, can distinguish people who have been diagnosed with depression from those who have not. Studies also often seek biomarkers for behavioural traits.
“There’s a lot of investigators who have committed their careers to doing the kind of science that this paper says is basically junk,” says Russell Poldrack, a cognitive neuroscientist at Stanford University in California, who was one of the paper’s peer reviewers. “It really forces a rethink.”
Yes, it sure does. Much of this work has not been replicated, and researchers are incentivized to only publish their positive findings, which journalists are incentivized to report on sensationally for the clicks. They also do something statistically shady called p-hacking, and if you don’t know what that is, this piece explains it pretty well!
Something Worth Being Mad About:
If you have intrusive fears about fucking up your taxes like me and I assume, most Americans, based on all the “I hope I don’t accidentally commit a felony” memes I’ve seen lately, this new report in Propublica might make you feel both better and also worse!
They took all the highest earners in the US and made a SPREADSHEET showing how much they made and how much they paid in taxes. The journalism we need!
It is, predictably, quite upsetting:
A majority of workers actually pay more in taxes for Social Security and Medicare than income taxes. These payroll taxes are automatically deducted from paychecks every month.
The rich, meanwhile, tend to pay proportionally little of these types of taxes because wages are a small portion of their total income.
Because payroll taxes hit low- and middle-income workers disproportionately, they can wipe out the progressivity of income taxes. It’s common for wage earners to pay a higher rate of personal federal taxes than even the highest-earning Americans.
Rich people have all these stock-dividend-unrealized-gain-other-fake-money-words-I-don’t-understand loopholes that allow them to amass a shitfuckton of wealth and pay almost nothing on it!! Our country is broken!
What’s not broken, though, are the motion graphics in this article. I love this interactive scroll-activated data visualization trend and I hope it keeps growing because it really helps make complex information much easier to digest, and these are the kinds of really boring but extremely important things the public needs to know the most.
Apparently, Biden put forward a proposal that would close these loopholes and result in the top 10 (TEN!!!) earners in the US owing $215 billion:
Goooood luck passing that shit in an oligarchy, though.