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When Did All Our Kids Develop Crippling Anxiety?

I have always been a comics fan. When I was a kid, I used to regularly ask for and get collections of Marvel comic books sold through the annual Christmas wishbook catalogs. Through those annual dumps of overstocked comics, I was able to keep up on the complex lore of the Marvelverse. I was also a fan of DC, though, and some of my earliest reading in that genre was a hardcover collection of Batman stories. Given this background, I relished the thought of the Supergirl television series when it premiered on CBS in 2015.

It was unwatchable.

The show moved to the CW network, where it was better suited to the stable of DC series hosted there (Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, the late and unlamented Arrow). Unfortunately, the show still had the same problem that made it so distasteful to me when I first tried to watch it: Every single character on the show suffered from crippling self-esteem issues. Every episode concerned Supergirl (and every single one of her friends) contending with the savage doubt that they simply were not not good enough. I don’t find that level of intellectual and emotional weakness — especially in a superhero show — entertaining.

In this way, Supergirl was perhaps one of the most “millennial” programs to exist up to that point, supplanted only by monstrous failures like CW’s Batgirl. But the millennials are growing older; the generation that followed them, Generation Z, now represents our nation’s teens. If anything, Generation Z is even weaker than the generation it succeeded.

Generation Z represents those young people born from the late 90s to the early 2000s, which places some of my own extended family in that category. I have a niece, for example, who is unusual among her contemporaries in that she’s emotionally strong and relatively street-smart, but I’ve noticed a common trend among her friends: They are almost all, every single one of them, suffering from crippling anxiety.

The comparison to Supergirl‘s millennials and their pervasive self-doubt is inevitable. I have been amazed at just how many of the people my niece knows — boys and girls alike — seem always to be coping with anxiety and insecurity. They don’t look at you; they look at the floor, mumble whenever they speak, would never even dream of shaking hands or introducing themselves when they enter your home, and prefer to screen out the world with their earbuds. The closest they’ll get to actually speaking to you without prompting is to ask you for the WiFi password.

They’re probably good kids, all in all… but they don’t seem prepared for the challenges life offers. Unlike my niece, they seem fragile. They seem to spend the majority of their time avoiding social situations that make them uncomfortable — which is all social situations– and spreading bizarre rumors about each other, according to the ever-shifting Venn diagram of who’s getting along with whom at that moment.

Looking through social media, it’s clear to me that these young people aren’t unique. So many popular memes refer to anxiety, depression, and social awkwardness that these conditions are taken for granted among our youth. Generation Z, as a whole, seems to suffer from crippling anxiety issues, almost without exception. I find myself wondering: When did this happen… and how? I can conclude only that it developed sometime over the last twenty years and is, well, my fault.

The Baby Boomers are now senior citizens. Today’s adults, those of us in middle age, are Generation X. When we were teenagers and twenty-somethings, Hollywood was making television shows about us. Today we’re simply the grownups… and we have nobody but ourselves to blame for the weakness of our children.

We’ve hovered over them at every turn; we’ve taught them that no one must ever, under any circumstances, offend them; we’ve raised them like hothouse flowers in greenhouses built of speech codes, gender-neutral social theories, and anti-bullying crusades. We’ve worked hard to prevent them from ever having to face any adversity whatsoever, under any circumstances. We’ve given them everything they could ever possibly want and placed in their pockets electronic devices that entertain them without cessation every minute of every waking hour.

We have, in other words, made them weak.

Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. Every generation believes its youth have lost their way; every generation watches as society comes just a little more unraveled. Whether we’re making progress depends on your point of view… but I can’t help but think that such pervasive weakness bodes ill.

If the simplest of social situations causes our teenagers to hyperventilate with anxiety, what happens when something actually goes wrong? How will they fight a war, deal with a lay-off, work on a contentious marriage, or problem-solve when they’ve broken down by the side of the road? A generation that can’t bring itself to walk to a convenience store without staring at the ground as music blasts in their ears can hardly be expected to win the war on terror. They’re barely able to win the war on Twitter without terabytes of block lists.

I’m not sure exactly when our young people all started dealing with crippling anxiety, but I know why they do. We made them this way, and as we leave the world in their trembling hands, we’re going to wish we’d parented them differently.