Since the 1990s, we’ve seen two broad social changes that few observers would have expected to happen together.
First, youth culture has become less violent, less promiscuous and more responsible. Childhood in the United States is safer than ever before. Teenagers drink and smoke less than previous generations did. The millennial generation has fewer sexual partners than its parents had, and the teen birthrate has traced a two-decade decline. Violent crime – a young person’s temptation – fell for 25 years before the recent post-Ferguson homicide spike. Young people are half as likely to have been in a fight than those a generation ago. Teen suicides, binge drinking, hard drug use – all are down.
But over the same period, adulthood has become less responsible, less obviously adult. For the first time in over a century, more 20-somethings live with their parents than in any other arrangement. The marriage rate is way down, and despite a high out-of-wedlock birthrate, U.S. fertility just hit an all-time low. More and more prime-age workers are dropping out of the workforce – men especially, and younger men more so than older men, though female workforce participation has dipped, as well.
You can tell different stories that synthesize these trends: strictly economic ones about the impact of the Great Recession, critical ones about the infantilizing effects of helicopter parenting, upbeat ones about how young people are forging new life paths.
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But I want to advance a technology-driven hypothesis: This mix of youthful safety and adult immaturity may be a feature of life in a society increasingly shaped by the internet’s virtual realities.
It is easy to see how online culture would make adolescent life less dangerous. Pornography to take the edge off teenage sexual appetite. Video games instead of fisticuffs or contact sports as an outlet for hormonal aggression. (Once it was feared that porn and violent media would encourage real-world aggression; instead, they seem to be replacing it.) Sexting and selfie-enabled masturbation as a safer alternative to hooking up. Online hangouts instead of keggers in the field. More texting and driving, but less driving – one of the most dangerous teen activities – overall.
The question is whether this substitution is habit-forming and soul-shaping and whether it extends beyond dangerous teen behavior to include things essential to long-term human flourishing – marriage, work, family, all that old-fashioned “meatspace” stuff.
That’s certainly the impression left whenever journalists try to figure out why young people aren’t marrying, or dating, or in some cases even seeking sex. (From The Washington Post this month: “Noah Paterson, 18, likes to sit in front of several screens simultaneously … to shut it all down for a date or even a one-night stand seems like a waste.”) The same impression is left by research on younger men dropping out of the workforce: Their leisure time is being filled to a large extent by gaming, and happiness studies suggest that they are pretty content with the trade-off.
The men in that research lack college degrees, which is particularly telling. It wasn’t so long ago that people worried about a digital divide, in which online access would be a luxury good that left the bottom half behind. But if anything, the virtual world looks more like an opiate for the masses. The poor spent more time online than the rich, and it’s the elite – the Silicon Valley elite, in some striking cases – that’s more likely to limit the uses of devices in their homes and schools, to draw distinctions between screen time and real time.
The keenest critics of how the internet shapes culture, writers like Sherry Turkle, are often hopeful that with time and experience we will learn better management strategies, which keep the virtual in its place before too many real goods are lost.
Such strategies may work for individuals and families. But the trends in the marketplace – ever-more-customized pornography, virtual realities that feel more and more immersive, devices and apps customized for addictive behavior – seem likely to overwhelm most attempts to enjoy the virtual only within limits.
My mother, Patricia Snow (yes, even columnists have mothers), in an essay for First Things this year, suggested that any effective resistance to virtual reality’s encroachments would need to be moral and religious, not just pragmatic and managerial. I never could induce her to read Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” but her argument made me think of the science-fiction novel’s “Butlerian jihad” – the religious rebellion against artificial intelligence that birthed Herbert’s imagined far-future society, which has advanced spacefaring technology but not a HAL or C-3PO in sight.
“Jihad” is a more fraught term these days than when Herbert’s novel first came out. But we have a pacifist community within our own society that’s organized around religious resistance to advanced technology – the Old Order Amish.
The future probably doesn’t belong to the Pennsylvania Dutch. But the Amish impulse is one to watch, as we reckon with virtual reality’s strange gift – a cup that tastes of progress but might have poison waiting in the dregs.