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Children today lack the tools to deal with hardship

Khloé Kardashian having a brain scan to identify her emotional trauma

Back in 2008, says Jill Filipovic in The Atlantic, the feminist blog I worked for began putting trigger warnings before posts discussing distressing topics. The policy quickly got out of hand. When I wrote that a new piece of law was “so awful it made me want to throw up”, a reader asked for an eating-disorder trigger warning. Someone else told me a piece showing funny pictures of cats attacking dogs could be triggering for domestic abuse victims. This, I now realise, was the start of a wider shift towards insulating people from all forms of personal “trauma”. Today, we are fixated on avoiding “individual hurt and victimisation”; we talk about “toxic” workplaces and “problematic” colleagues. The general principle of all this – to make people more comfortable – is sound. But has our obsession with protecting each other made us more vulnerable?

It’s well documented that mental health among teenagers has “plummeted”: between 2007 and 2019, the suicide rate for 10- to 14-year-olds in the US tripled. Yet their “material circumstances” haven’t fallen enough to account for such a dramatic shift. Today’s teens are less likely to drink or take drugs; bullying, in some forms, has decreased in high schools. The answer, surely, is social media. In their online bubbles, young people are constantly being encouraged to view distressing experiences as “traumatic”. But “applying the language of trauma to an event changes the way we process it” – we feel helpless, rather than in control. So a belief that something is traumatic becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we helped popularise trigger warnings all those years ago, we thought we were “making the world just a little bit better”. In reality, “we might have been part of the problem”.