Reflections of a Father
For Father’s Day
What’s the most difficult thing about being a parent?
All of us are familiar with the par-for-the-course difficulties: the sleep deprivation, helping your child through an illness, and the myriad humdrum worries that assault us in the quiet moments. Will my child do well in school? Will they make friends? Will they forge a rewarding career, and find a person with whom to spend their lives?
But perhaps the most difficult moments for me are when I start to believe that I’ve failed my child. Maybe I didn’t protect them when I should have, or maybe I was overprotective when I should have let them learn the hard way. Maybe I didn’t say the right things. Perhaps I didn’t hold them to the right standard, or wasn’t consistent. Maybe I didn’t support them when they needed it. And I probably allowed them to do things that were bad for them.
One thing becomes apparent to all parents: you’re going to screw up, and you’re going to screw up repeatedly. You can’t predict, or know, it all.
I certainly didn’t foresee the consequences of modern technology and how it would impact our culture. I suffered from a failure of imagination. I assumed the Internet would make education and information available to all. I believed it would give rise to improved standards of living, make our society more equal and just, and make our world a better place. I assumed it would connect people who were far in proximity but close in ideals, thereby strengthening some social bonds. And, to some extent, it has.
But I was naïve. I assumed this neutral medium would skew toward the best humanity has to offer. I believed it would somehow force the darker side of human nature to the periphery, much like a city council creates zoning ordinances to ensure certain business activities are located far from schools and neighborhoods.
Well, I think it’s safe to say that I blew that one. It turns out that the Internet, much like the TV, was merely an amplifier. In the case of TV, we had intermediaries who determined what passed the smell test. With the Internet, we pretend we have intermediaries and tools. Screen time, anyone? In practice most kids (who typically are far more tech-savvy than their parents could ever be) have unfettered access to the darkest corners of the human psyche.
But wait, there’s more! Remember the early Internet companies hell-bent on securing “eyeballs”? Turns out the owners of those eyeballs need to buy something or there’s not much of a business model.
Corporations figured it out. They were highly incentivized to develop algorithms designed to keep your attention so they could sell ads. Remember, if you don’t know what the product is, you’re the product? The business model isn’t that different from good old-fashioned TV. The longer someone sticks around on your digital properties, the more ads you can sell. We’ve unleashed Darwinian code that survives only if it keeps you addicted to social media. If it doesn’t work, new algorithms will replace it. Billions are at stake.
Here’s the thing: we are sailing through uncharted territory. It’s been said before, and it’ll be said again. As trite as it may sound, it’s true.
In my head I can already hear the rejoinders and visualize the eye-rolling. “Isn’t it true that people believed that the novel would corrupt the youth?” Indeed, there have been a long list of moral authorities bemoaning the newest development and how it would utterly ruin society. It was chess one day (yes, the board game that you would be delighted if your child would play), novels the next, and of course TV and music. Surely you’ve seen Dirty Dancing. How quaint that in recent decades the main threat to our children, and thus civilization, was good ol’ sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. I recall with some humor the days when parents would lose their minds over the possibility that playing a record backwards would expose their children to satanic messages. Go back far enough, and people lost their minds when someone asked a few inconvenient questions and allegedly corrupted the youth. Socrates was put to death for it.
Certainly each of these developments changed the existing culture and posed challenges for parents who were both trying to prepare their children for bright futures while simultaneously protecting them from harm. And, looking back, a lot of the fears appear downright silly and unfounded. Did these technologies, the printing press, the TV, change society? Of course. Did they destroy civilization? No. Arguably, such inventions allowed for new art forms and enabled civilization to flourish.
So, it’s really no different this time, right? What’s with the hysteria? Aren’t you happy people have more freedom and the possibility of discovering their authentic selves?
My response is this: do you think an evolutionary algorithm expressly designed to maximize corporate profit is going to provide you with a glimpse of your authentic self? Or will it lead you into a morass of addictive group think, wherein you are subjected to relentless comparisons in which you will never appear to measure up? That will inexorably grind away at your self-esteem until you believe yourself inferior? That will expose you to social contagions that pretend to offer solutions to problems you may not know you even had? That will cause you to discard reason and logic if the pain will just go away?
We already know the answer to these questions. And we know that social media causes depression, low self-esteem, and anxiety, amongst other things. And yet, we keep looking to the cause for the cure. Sound like addiction to you?
I used to smoke. It took me many years to quit. It was difficult, and after much soul-searching, I understood why. The mechanism of action is simply this: use something that creates a need that did not exist before, and the only way to satisfy that need is to use the thing that created the need in the first place.
So here it is in a nutshell: social media purports to offer our children the solutions to problems that social media platforms and algorithms created in the first place.
Depressed? Anxious? Maybe you aren’t thin enough. Maybe you need to learn how to dress better. Maybe you’re not doing this one simple trick that will solve every problem that ever existed in all of human history.
Or, maybe you weren’t born in the right body.
Does it sound like an addiction to you? Does it sound just a little bit insane?
This is the reality we live in today.
And, if you have the audacity to question someone’s reality? Cue the name-calling. Suggest that there is a reality that exists beyond what they directly perceive or believe? Fascist. That reality appears to contradict their personal beliefs? Transphobe.
Kind of sound like a cult? Or, maybe Cult 2.0?
The bitter truth is that some have accepted the narrative that reality is what each person believes it to be. Perhaps there is a physical, absolute reality that underlies our beliefs, and perhaps not. Even if there is, how could we know it? Our senses can deceive us. Our minds are fallible. In this world, wouldn’t it be immoral to impose our beliefs on others? Would not each and every person be entitled to their version of reality? Who are you to deny them their authentic selves and their happiness?
It’s hard not to be sympathetic to such well-intentioned beliefs. And yet, every single day we acknowledge a physical reality. We have no choice but to acknowledge it. Gravity, it would appear, is real. So is the material world. Our feet stand upon it.
As parents we owe it to our kids to not only tell them about the nice things in life and the ideals we strive to uphold, but also to tell them the reality of life as well.
Don’t want to brush your teeth? Your teeth are going to fall out.
Poor diet and no exercise? You’re going to gain weight.
Don’t wear your seat belt? You might be severely injured in a car accident.
Don’t do X? You might experience consequence Y.
Helping your child navigate reality is your sacred duty as a parent. We all know this intuitively. We live this every single day.
Great pep talk, huh? Just like you shouldn’t sugarcoat the reality of a consequence-based world for your kid, I won’t sugarcoat this. We’ve been presented with a near-impossible task. We’ve unleashed systems that are expressly designed to exploit weaknesses in our psyches so that the largest corporations that have ever existed can make even more money. And everyone around us, if they even bother to consider it, responds with the equivalent of the shrug emoji if we bring it up. Back to doom-scrolling!
This is hard stuff. It’s hard for people who’ve been around the proverbial block and understand a little bit about how the world works. Imagine how hard it is for someone approaching, or going through, puberty.
So what now? This is not like the good ol’ days. This is not sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. And we as parents are profoundly ill-prepared to deal with this reality. Most of us aren’t skilled coders, or professional debaters, or psychoanalysts, or trained in evaluating scientific literature. And certainly very few of us are all of these things at the same time. We’re outmatched. We face a juggernaut that controls vast sums of wealth and twists and perverts the narrative such that people are ostracized for even asking basic questions about reality. What is truth? What is a woman? What is gender? How do people who transition fare 10 years down the road? How many people de-transition? Does the risk of suicide recede after transition, or increase? Why are we allowing the medical establishment to pathologize normal human development?
Science still exists, but is used as cover. Inconvenient conclusions are repressed, just like the speech that questions the preferred narrative. If we truly cared about people, wouldn’t we ask the difficult questions? Wouldn’t we ask if our social constructs are in some way, at least marginally, related to reality? Wouldn’t we do the most important thing of all: follow the money?
After all, who stands to gain here? It’s simple: massive technology companies and the medical-industrial complex. They’re the ones who will make money off of Cult 2.0, all while denying responsibility and tarring us, the parents. We’re transphobes who harm kids by questioning their true identities.
Ultimately, who stands to lose in this horrific equation? Our children.
Sometimes, it’s not the outcome that defines our success as parents, but our actions in the most difficult moments. Did we tell our kids the truth, even as they raged against us, called us names, and threatened us with self-harm? Did we push back on the nonsense, while acknowledging the suffering? Did we seek to understand the source of their pain, while standing firm that no person is born in the wrong body? Did we help them understand that medical transition can lead to a lifetime of dependency on the medical-industrial complex, while doing the hard work of working through puberty and finding true self-acceptance inconveniently denies industry with a profit, but offers instead the child a lifetime of rich and fulfilling experiences?
Is there a happy ending to this story? I wish I could tell you that there is. But like so many engaging novels or movie plots, the ending comes after a long struggle. There’s no shortcut to happiness or fulfillment. As we’ve told our child: the only way out is through.
At the end of the day, we all know intuitively that we just have to do our best. We have to act with good intentions. We have to be fair, and just, and kind. And we have to be honest about reality. Keep engaging, help them experience real life, push back on social media use, and explain the why of it all. While our outcomes will vary, our actions together will help create a more fair and just world.
If you’ve acted with good intentions, and did your best with what you had, and loved your child no matter what, you’ve been a good parent. Life has a way of tempering idealism. We work with the messy reality we’re confronted with, not the perfectly edited movie that plays out in our hopes and dreams.
Finally, as bleak as it may seem at times, remember that we parents have one critical ally that will see us, and our children, through:
We have truth on our side.