Back in the halcyon days of 2018, a peculiar craze, driven by a desire for attention and social media fame, swept through the younger population of America like a tornado: The Tide Pod Challenge.
For reasons that defied our understanding, teenagers and young adults starting eating Tide Pods, a laundry detergent that is obviously injurious to those who consume it, and recording the outcomes. If ever we needed a clear demonstration of the scary malleability of young minds—and why we must exercise the greatest caution regarding their influences—this particular social media sensation pretty much nailed it.
The explanation offered to us by experts was that adolescents and young adults, whose brains are not yet fully developed, are especially susceptible to what is called social contagion, which is the compulsion to imitate others without making a conscious decision to do so. This is today facilitated by our modern age of instantaneous mass communications, but it has also been seen throughout history in various forms, often manifesting in mass delusions, wild and inexplicable behaviors, and hysterias that race through a population due to overwhelming personal, social, and cultural stresses.
Social contagion, of course, existed long before anyone ever thought to define it. Humans have always followed the herd because, as the old saying goes, it is imperative to “go along to get along” in order to avoid conflict with your community. We often seek security in conformity, and this is especially true among adolescents and young adults, who are terrified of the banishment and isolation that results from defying the norms ruthlessly and relentlessly enforced by their peers. Having to sit alone in the school lunchroom is the worst of all disasters for any young person, and every group behavior will be readily adopted in order to avoid that social stigma.
The skyrocketing prevalence of mental health problems among adolescents and young adults during the protracted Covid-19 school shutdowns is perhaps the best possible proof of the catastrophic effects of isolation on our young, and social media became a lifeline for many stuck at home. As a result, TikTok, Instagram, and other services targeted at young people became superspreaders of one particular social contagion: the belief that the cure for every difficulty facing frightened and frustrated young Americans was gender fluidity, and to both assume an alternative sexual identity oneself and support others who chose this path was the ultimate social signifier of your amazing and attractive personhood.
There is, we must not forget, another factor that created a fertile ground for these ideas to flourish: the frightening “pornification” of our culture, which has ripped away the barriers that once shielded young people from the basest and most disturbing practices of human sexuality. Depictions of rape, sexual violence, and perverse sadism (which too many young people suffer in their real lives as well) are now streaming as our daily entertainment, so it is little wonder that many adolescents and young adults might be searching for an escape hatch from these horrors.
Joining a convent or the priesthood is passé, so the only way to flee the intense sexual pressures and expectations forced upon girls and boys today is the embrace of a new sexual identity, one that, unsurprisingly, often does not include a concurrent desire for any actual sexual behavior. This particular social contagion—now reinforced by not only mass culture and social media but celebrities, politicians, doctors, and educators as well—both puts up a protective wall and enables entry into a welcoming community of fellow refugees from America’s hyper-sexualized norms.
Fear and pain is turned inward, and safety is found with others who also are fleeing from the depravity that now characterizes so much of our society’s approach to intimacy.
Better still, this particular strategy possesses all the rebellious coolness once reserved for rock stars—and you do not even need to know how to sing or play an instrument. All that is required is a devotion to rejecting the 21st century sexual attitudes that fill you with distrust and disgust in favor of an identity that grants instant social approval and provides a welcoming peer group.
The stampede of adolescents and young adults adopting gender-bending behavior is very different from the segment of our population that is homosexual or bisexual, so we need to pay closer attention to the forces—and terrors—today driving troubled and traumatized young people who are seeking protection from our damaging culture and demonstrating their desperation for validation.