Today’s social media have enhanced human propensity to embrace fear and hysteria. Recent research by Britain’s University of Warwick Department of Psychology reveals a contagion of panic can occur even in the face of balanced, unbiased information. Here the researchers analyzed 154 participants on social media, dividing them into 14 chains, “with the first person in each chain reading balanced, factual news articles, and writing a message to the next person about the story, the recipient writing a new message for the next person and so on.”
“In every chain, stories about dreaded topics became increasingly more negative, and biased toward panic and fear as it was passed from person to person—and crucially, this effect was not mitigated when the original unbiased facts were reintroduced.”
Evidence of possible mass delusion, particularly in the realm of culture and politics, is all around us. A large number of people believe climate change will wreak havoc on the human race in the next decade. Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, poster child of the climate change movement, has spent most of her life sick with fear that the Earth is in its last days. Does that belief reflect reality or is it a form of hysteria?
Some accuse President Donald Trump of being a racist and a fascist. Is that viewpoint based on evidence, malice, or delusion? A few parents are encouraging their adolescents and teenagers to undergo gender change procedures. Are their motives sincere or are they caught up in a wave of hysteria?
Fueled by perceptions of personal and political catastrophes, anxiety among Americans has exploded in the last decade. What should strike us as extraordinary about this anxiety epidemic is that the economy is booming, violent crime and murder rates have plummeted, and we are engaged in no major wars. Yet American stress levels are among the highest in the world, with a good portion of that anxiety fueled by politicians, our progressive mainstream media, and so-called “social justice warriors.”
And this anxiety is infecting our young people.
Suicide rates for teens and young adults have surged and are now at a 20-year high. Depression among young people is also increasing. Experts blame various factors for these sad statistics, from lack of sleep in the case of depression to social media bullying as a cause of suicide.
But what about the effects of our culture at large on our emotional state? Americans once looked with pride to their past and with hope toward the future, yet today’s students hear a drumbeat of negativity, that the past was a swamp of evil and oppression, and that the future promises only trouble and darkness. Even in elementary school, the optimism of youth is all too often buried by such pessimism. And if you’re a parent with a toddler, odds are someone has said to you, “The world’s a terrible place. I sure wouldn’t want to raise a kid today.”
But is the world so terrible? And if so, compared to what?
Let’s go back a century, when our great-grandparents walked the earth.
A Visit With the Past
In 1919, World War I had just ended, leaving in its wake 17 million dead. In 1918–1919, an influenza epidemic killed another 50 million people worldwide. Death during childbirth and infancy far exceeded the rates of our own time, as did deaths from such treatable conditions as blood poisoning, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and a multitude of other diseases.