The Decline of Teen Hangouts

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Written By Pinang Driod

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

How much time did you spend with peers in adolescence, and what effect did that have on the rest of your life? (Anecdotes illustrating how you spent that time and in what era are especially welcome.)

Send your responses to conor@theatlantic.com or simply reply to this email.

Conversations of Note

Among Gen Xers, 60 percent say they spent most or all of their teen years hanging out in person with friends. The figure for Gen Zers is 40 percent. Among Gen Xers, 76 percent say they had a boyfriend or girlfriend at some point as a teenager. The figure for Gen Zers is 56 percent.

Those survey data are from a new American Enterprise Institute report on “Generation Z and the Transformation of American Adolescence.” Other data points of interest: “Gen Z is also significantly less likely than older generations to have regularly attended religious services, worked a part-time job, or consumed alcohol, pot, or cigarettes for at least part of their teenage years. Similarly, teenage participation in competitive sports and outdoor activities, such as hunting and scouting, is on the decline, though athletic participation among young women outpaces the oldest generations.”

The authors conclude that “Gen Z stands apart socially.”

The Role of Technology

Jonathan Haidt argues that technology is affecting girls and boys in Gen Z differently:

Back when I was focused on anxiety and depression as the dependent variables, the story of technology (as the independent variable) seemed to be a story that was mostly about girls. But once I read an early draft of Richard Reeves’s book Of Boys and Men, I realized that I had been focused on the wrong dependent variables. For boys and young men, the key change has been the retreat from the real world since the 1970s, when they began investing less effort in school, employment, dating, marriage, and parenting …

Zach Rausch and I have constructed a timeline of the digital revolution and shown how at every step—from the first personal computers in the 1970s through the early internet in the 1990s and the rise of online multiplayer games in the 2000s—the virtual world sent out a siren song that sounded sweeter, on average, to boys than it did to girls. Why? Among the most consistent and largest of all psychological sex differences is the “people vs. things” dichotomy. On average, boys are more attracted to things, machines, and complex systems that can be manipulated, while girls are more attracted to people; they are more interested in what those people are thinking and feeling.

In Persuasion, Freya India argues that Instagram and other social-media apps are harming girls. She imagines a hypothetical girl born in 1999 who was a pre-teen when Instagram was introduced:

Back then it was fairly benign: a platform to share pretty sunsets and candid pictures with friends. A few years in, the editing app FaceTune arrives (launched in 2014), and everyone on your feed starts to look perfect. You start editing yourself—smoothing your skin, reshaping your nose, restructuring your jaw. By the time you’re 16, your Instagram face is very different from your natural face, which you’ve come to despise.

And then the algorithms are introduced: your feed is no longer chronological but customized. Instagram now serves you not just photos of the friends you follow but of “influencers”—beautiful women from all over the world, selecting the ones that make you feel the most insecure. Soon you get ads to fix your flaws: Botox; fillers; Brazilian Butt Lifts! By the time TikTok comes out you’re 18, and your feed tracks you even faster. Hate your nose? Try this editing app. Not enough? Try this video editing app. Want it in real life? Nose jobs near you! Suddenly you’re in your 20s and you’ve transformed your style, your face, maybe even your body. And yet you are still insecure. You still hate how you look. And every day your feeds flash on with This is your sign to get a nose job!, The earlier you start Botox the better!, Get ready with me for a Brazilian butt lift! For many girls, this rewiring of their self-image, this pressure to alter their appearance, happened without them realizing it. It was gradual. Subtle. Drip-fed.

Make Walls Stone Again

In The Atlantic, Hannah Kirshner notes that concrete has a big carbon footprint and argues for greater reliance on an older method:

Reviving dry stone walling would be better for the environment—as well as preserve aesthetically and culturally valuable scenery. But building more stone walls would mean relying on traditional craftsmanship over modern engineering. I thought of stone walling as an expensive antique building method until I spoke with Reo Kaneko, a civil engineer who over the past 14 years has become an advocate for this time-tested craft …

A concrete retaining wall can last about 50 to 100 years, after which the degraded material must be hauled away for recycling or disposal … By some estimates, producing concrete releases nearly a pound of CO2 per pound of usable material; under the right conditions, stone for a wall can be gathered on-site or quarried nearby. The rocks can be used without cutting them into uniform shapes, limiting waste. And the life span of a dry stone wall is potentially hundreds of years, in part because a well-built wall can shift to some extent without buckling when it freezes and thaws, or even in an earthquake.

Join or Die

Prior to last night’s GOP-primary debate, Jim Geraghty of National Review offered advice to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley:

Another six weeks of attempting to trash the other is only going to increase the already-high odds of Trump’s becoming the nominee. So why not skip the mutually assured destruction-like dynamic, the fight to be the last non-Trump candidate standing, and work out a unity ticket?

The pair would probably work well together on a ticket and in a presidency. DeSantis–Haley, or Haley–DeSantis? Work it out amongst yourselves; as Dick Cheney can tell you, the vice presidency can be an extremely powerful office if you play your cards right. If you actually want to influence federal policy and let someone else be the lightning rod getting all the criticism, the vice presidency might actually be a more appealing office.


Provocation of the Week

The civil-rights-era hero Bayard Rustin has received overdue attention recently, partly thanks to a recently released Netflix biopic. On January 19, 1987, Rustin delivered a speech at Harvard University Chapel setting forth his views on how the struggle for Black equality should proceed. The nation did not take the approach he urged, but it still could. His analysis and recommendations, later published in The New Republic, included the following:

The old form of racism was based on prejudging all blacks as somehow inherently undeserving of equal treatment. What makes the new form more insidious is its basis in observed sociological data. The new racist equates the pathology of the poor with race, ignoring the fact that family dissolution, teenage pregnancy, illegitimacy, alcohol and drug abuse, street crime, and idleness are universal problems of the poor. They exist wherever there is economic dislocation and deterioration—in the cities, for example, dotting Britain’s devastated industrial north. They are rampant among the white jobless in Liverpool as well as among unemployed blacks in New York, And if the American underclass seems more violent, it is only because we, as a nation, are more violent.

The new forms of racism cannot be attacked frontally. Society will not combat the new racism, as has been naively suggested in the press, by asking people to be good or asking teachers to teach new courses on tolerance. Nor can it be attacked by adopting the strategy and tactics used so effectively by King in the 1960s. To combat bigotry and injustice today requires an analysis of structural changes in the economy … The technological revolution, automation, cybernation, and robots have taken jobs away from the poor and uneducated. And though some of these innovations create work, they do not create work for those without skills or, worse, those unable to attain them. Labor-intensive industries, which were prime vehicles for economic advancement for generations of white immigrants and black former slaves, have gone overseas, never to return.

To honor King we must look ahead, beyond the racial equality dream, to economic equity … The second phase of the revolution envisioned by King will require billions of dollars. But they are not dollars that will be spent on an exclusively black agenda. Continuing black economic progress and equal opportunity are not contingent on the government providing “special treatment” to blacks. Any preferential approach postulated along racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual lines will only disrupt a multicultural society and lead to a backlash. However, special treatment can be provided to those who have been exploited or denied opportunities if solutions are predicated along class lines, precisely because all religious, ethnic, and racial groups have a depressed class who would benefit.

Black economic progress is contingent upon the national economy performing well for all Americans. That can only happen if the federal government commits billions in resources to a comprehensive program that addresses this nation’s deteriorating economic position and the erosion of education and research and development. We need a national commitment to excellence in education and to federal vocational and job-training programs to help blacks and others enter an increasingly specialized and competitive job market, and to move on to new jobs when technological innovation eliminates old jobs.

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