The continuing demonstrations on college campuses and the frequent conflicts over alleged “microaggressions,” the need for “trigger warnings,” and the lack of “safe spaces”—all and suchlike have generated a steady stream of commentary, much of it focused on the seeming psychological fragility of students. Observers cite college counseling service reports and student surveys showing rising levels of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and other manifestations of struggle. They worry about students’ lack of emotional regulation and resilience, their low tolerance of disappointment, and their hypersensitivity to any perceived slight. In a widely circulated September 2015 article in Psychology Today, “Crisis U,” Hara Estroff Marano argued that more and more students “know no middle psychic ground: Mere frustration catapults them into crisis.”
Some people have been skeptical. Last fall, New York magazine senior editor Jesse Singal aired his suspicion that all the talk about the growing fragility of young people was a “myth.” He cited the lack of “solid longitudinal evidence” demonstrating “increasing amounts of anxiety or depression or suicidality (or other symptoms)” over time.
But even Singal has done an about-face. Recently, he announced that he had found a psychologist with evidence showing that since the 1930s, young Americans “have reported feeling increasingly anxious and depressed.” Why exactly this is so was not clear, Singal noted, though he drew his own conclusions from the psychologist’s broad conjectures: “Modern life needs to do a better job of connecting people to one another, and encouraging them to adopt the sorts of goals and outlooks that will make them happy.”
Intentional or not, Singal’s thin counsel sounds a theme common in much of the contemporary literature on fragile students. Psychologists and other observers typically frame the problems that youth experience as matters of faulty thinking. Conspicuously lacking is any discussion of the institutional changes that might have contributed to the making of such fragile young people, changes that have revised the very meaning of childhood and how it is lived. Diagnosing an epidemic of “distorted thinking,” psychologists then prescribe “critical thinking skills” as the treatment.