The State of Our Union’s Children

Lobotomized by their devices, many of our youth drift along the superficial, never acting to create their own life.

Our country is a tribute to freedom and the human pioneering spirit. America is an idea as much as a country—the land of opportunity—the dream of building a better life for yourself. We believe in human ingenuity, strength of will, conviction, and that freedom is worth fighting for—or at least we did. Somewhere between storming the beaches at Normandy and posting a selfie of us storming Best Buy for a Nintendo Switch, we lost ourselves.

Our country is a tribute to freedom and the human pioneering spirit. America is an idea as much as a country—the land of opportunity—the dream of building a better life for yourself. We believe in human ingenuity, strength of will, conviction, and that freedom is worth fighting for—or at least we did. Somewhere between storming the beaches at Normandy and posting a selfie of us storming Best Buy for a Nintendo Switch, we lost ourselves.

  • Since 1970, the percentage of children and adolescents who are obese has tripled.1
  • Since 1980, obesity rates in teens age 12 to 19 have risen from 5% to 20.6%.2
  • Over 30% of high school students in the United States are either overweight or obese.3
  • A 2016 Harvard study predicts that of those ages 2-19, more than 57% will be obese by the time they are 35.
  • Between 2005 and 2014 there was a 37% increase in teenage depression.
  • An estimated 31.9% of adolescents had an anxiety disorder as of 2007.4
  • 49% of youth have a mental disorder and nearly 1 in 5 has a severe impairment.5
  • There has been a 100% increase in suicides for kids age 10-14 between 1999 and 2014.6
  • Between 2010 and 2014 suicides went up 31% for youth ages 13-18.
  • Prior to 2000, drug overdoses in America never reach 20,000. There were over 63,000 overdoses in 2016.7

America! Land of the buy one get one free. Home of the Big Mac.

“The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We’ve immersed a generation in distraction, smothered them in comfort, celebrated every mundane indicator that they are human, insulated them from adversity, blunted any form of authentic feedback, and created the expectation that the world will do the same. We’ve removed all pains, sanitized all risk, and entrenched them in patterns that virtually ensure they live a passive, unhealthy, and superficial existence.

We can complain about the kids today, but it is us adults who create them and it is us who must be different if we want them to be. First, let’s consider how this picture became our normal.

The 1950s: The Birth of Religious Consumption

There have been a few watermark transitions that brought about our current state. World War II turned us into the preeminent manufacturing giant. The war effort that employed all citizens behind a common purpose—that required all of us to ration gas and groceries, grow victory gardens, and either enlist or work on the production lines—this war left us the world’s capitalist superpower.

We felt compelled to keep pace by changing modern material expectations and deifying consumption. This transformation is spelled out for us by Marketing Consultant Victor Lebow in the Spring 1955 Journal of Retailing:

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, replaced, and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.

Over-consumption is perhaps the most distinguishable quality of modern America, adapting to take on as many expressions as commerce allows. Most literally normal Americans now consume previously inconceivable types and quantities of food.

For over 99% of the human experience, our diets consisted of real, whole foods available in nature. Industrialization brought new chemical combinations, but our staple meals remained largely the same. General Foods and the other food giants worked hard to change this, however, in the ’50s and ’60s.

By funding scholarship programs for prospective home economics teachers, they were able to shift the curriculums from a vital course in family nutrition, thrift, and home stability to indoctrination into consumerism. Betty Crocker was created to be the spiritual head of the convenience food movement. Pretty ladies were deployed all over America to promote the merits of the convenience kitchen: just heat and serve.

In 1999, the heads of all the major processed food companies met at Pillsbury headquarters to discuss the growing health crisis and the healthy changes it would dictate. Stephen Sanger, the CEO of General Mills, ended this fretful rumination with his defiant insistence that everyone should just keep selling as they always had.

Americans would keep eating. He was right. When Frosted Mini-Wheats were marketed as a means to help your child’s attentiveness, their sales increased substantially even after they were forced to take down the dishonest ads (and even despite the obvious connotation of the word “frosted”—it means they’ve added lots of sugar).

Today, sugar is infused into every low-fat option for calorie counters. For the rest, chemists hack our bliss point while chemically altering food to create the most addictive possible nutrient delivery. A new generation grows up in a world hardly able to conceive of meals without packages or a life without frequent fast food stops.

The 1960s: The Birth of Lawsuit Culture

The 1960s brought the counter-cultural movement. We exposed some bad values: racism, sexism, pollution, and the like. In an attempt to eliminate the possibility of these bad values, we created an environment where people were no longer entrusted with common sense.

In order to prevent any authority from abusing its power, we created overly complex legal systems that promote inflexibility, complication, and social isolation. By trying to remedy every minor short term pain, we invited a litany of far larger unintended consequences.

Lawsuit culture ran amok, as society tried to eliminate the possibility of anything bad ever happening. Every mishap required blame, punishment, and a pay-out. Seesaws, monkey bars, and sprinting became hazardous.

Physical education classes eliminated climbing rope and dodge ball. Teachers lost the ability to hold students accountable or dictate their own lessons. Human judgment was outsourced to complex rulebooks which only serve to add inertia and anxiety to every action.

The 1980’s: The Birth of Self-Esteem Culture

The confluence of religious consumption and lawsuit culture turned our society inward. Rather than consider the common good or the broader ramifications, we began to conceive that the point of life was to protect our children from any harm while providing excessively. Provide and protect swung to dangerous extremes that were only exacerbated by the failed self-esteem movement.

The goal of youth development became oriented around eliminating honest feedback and instead creating artificial pomp and circumstance for every breath a child took. Bulldozer parents, intent to clear the path of any challenge or strife, have become the norm. Of course, you can only fend off reality so long. These children eventually had to contend with their real capabilities in a world that never allowed them to grow from failure.

The 2010s: Smartphone Culture Throws Fuel to the Fire

All of these trends have been magnified to impossible extremes by the latest cataclysmic change: smartphone ubiquity. By 2015, 73% of US high schoolers had smartphones. This number only continues to grow, along with the number of elementary and middle-schoolers who have a smartphone. Walk down any high-school hall and you’ll pass silent droves of kids trudging by, headphones in, and eyes down, lost in the scroll.

It’s starting earlier than ever. Despite, the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, there is hardly a 3-year-old in America who can’t easily navigate games and YouTube on a tablet or smartphone. Car rides are quiet, as are family dinners, but that’s not a good thing.

iGen, as they have been dubbed, is the generation born around 1995. Coming of age immersed in smartphone use, they traded free-play for Snapchat. Social interactions were rarely practiced and uncomfortable situations were entirely removed as social pressure pulled them to an artificial world of commenting, posturing, and frantically scanning to “keep up.”

Young kids are less likely to go outside to play and teenagers, averaging nine hours of daily screen time, spend the entire school day sitting before sedentary evenings immersed in their screens.

Dr. Jean Twenge has been studying generational characteristics for over 25 years. Typically, distinguishable characteristics for any generation are already rising in the previous one. By charting character traits from generation to generation, she would see gently rising and falling slopes. All of that changed with Generation Z (iGen).

Around 2012, she noticed the newest generation was demonstrating drastic changes from the Millenials. In attitude, worldview, and life experience, these youths were a stark mutation from all those that preceded them.

Today’s teens are less likely to date, go out, get a license at age 16, or leave home. There is a startling lack of desire for freedom and self-reliance as more kids than ever seem to content and entitled to live endlessly dependent on mom and dad. Lobotomized by their devices, they drift along the superficial, never acting to create their own life.

Lawsuit culture, the self-esteem movement, and smartphones have provided a perfect cocktail for the insidious “safe space” culture currently being indoctrinated across coastal universities.

Budding adults who have always been led to value safety and security are immersed in a culture where prestige is given for tantrums of public outrage only made possible by the smartphone. Unfortunately, these dogmas program the victimized neurotic mental patterns of our most depressed and anxious.

Contrary to popular belief, we aren’t made of glass. As psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains in his book, Stumbling Upon Happiness, the phenomena known as absent grief is actually quite common.

We are anti-fragile beings who need the struggle to induce growth. This is the foundation of our immune system and the first principle of any resistance training program. By removing any strife, we eliminate the essential fuel for strength, personality, and purpose.

You Are the Solution

Despite their frustrating worldviews, the kids today are not the issue. Young kids still come out the exact same. Go to the park and you’ll see three and four-year-olds are still running around like crazy. Their parents, conversely, are now either incessantly buffering them from free play or on the park bench scanning their phones for distraction. If we want to change, it is we adults who will have to change.

Strong parents make strong kids. If we want our children to break free of the cycles of dependency and create meaningful lives, then we have to model it. Your example speaks far louder than anything you could ever say.

Youth will never understand what healthy eating looks like or how it could be made enjoyable if parents don’t value it. Kids whose parents lift, run, practice handstands, and continue to exude a joyful spirit of play will be far more likely to embrace a physical existence of connection and energy.

Adolescents who have seen their parents put the phone away after work will be more likely to opt out of smartphone passivity in favor of real experience. Parents who have projects, interests, and enthusiasms outside of their children create children who yearn to discover, explore, and craft similar passions.

Life is too short to be normal. Be strong instead. Strong parents make strong kids.

This Week’s Mission

Do something really hard. Farmer’s walk a mile. Bear crawl 800 meters. Try a benchmark Crossfit workout like Chelsea (30-minutes AMRAP of 5 pull ups, 10 push ups, 15 air squats), Nicole (400-meter run and max rep pull-ups for AMRAP in 20 minutes), or Fran (21-15-9 thrusters and pull-ups). Go to that hard workout class your brother has been badgering you to try. Just decide to reasonably extend your limits.

Pushing ourselves past discomfort has a way of connecting us to others while revealing a latent inner strength dying to be tapped. It is a portal of discovery that we will want for our children as we seek to make them capable, rather than incessantly comfortable.