I was a student for 32 years. This time was spent in classrooms, laboratories, hospitals, and silent offices. Spent countless hours learning the language of medicine and the mysteries of the mind. That was the path for a psychiatrist turned psychoanalyst. But I wasn’t introduced to psychology until my sophomore year in medical school, 19 years into it.
I was not previously taught anything about the psychological development of the child. Not where feelings arise and how they lead to thoughts. Nor how difficulties in communicating feelings lead to relationship problems. I was not taught about the baby-mother bond and how that template affects later relationships. I wasn’t taught how a child feels in the conflict between desires and fears. And I wasn’t taught how a child’s development is derailed by trauma, ranging from harsh punishment from parents to death or abandonment by one of them.
Amazingly, I wasn’t taught anything about the science of learning. Why certain kids struggle with the traditional approach. What variables make it easier or harder. How feelings about social acceptance affect learning ability. Nor were we taught to question the sources we relied on for facts—mainly textbooks. It wasn’t until college that I was encouraged to think critically about the author’s perspective, sometimes unconsciously. The way the narrator tells the story, what is omitted or emphasized, shapes the reader’s picture of the story. It turns out that the issue of prejudice is crucial.
I wasn’t taught anything about group behavior either. Although groups surrounded me—cliques of kids taunting or bullying other kids—no one explained to me how a nice kid in a hostile crowd could become a bad guy. The role of group membership in the consolidation of personal identity, group contagion, and the causes of group regression were never part of the curriculum.
Fast forward a generation. Our children graduated from public school in our hometown five years ago. The schools are considered excellent; They are equipped with the latest technology and are led by average to excellent teachers. Unless a child is an unorthodox learner and has not been diagnosed, they can at least expect a solid education, and an excellent one if they use the resources.
But our kids haven’t been taught how to communicate feelings in a healthy way. Nor about child development, the science of learning, or group dynamics. A little bit about the power of bias. Only now this bit is clearly insufficient. Because they walk around with computers in hand and connected via social media. They received no lectures on how Instagram can affect self-esteem, no lessons in how multitasking lowers effectiveness at all tasks, little guidance on analyzing data sources to determine what is true, no warnings about anger and how it becomes hateful, when it escalates online, and no education about search engines and their goal to addict the user.
I have treated many youth during this advent of social media. I showed them how the buzzing of their cellphones during meetings interfered with their concentration and disrupted the continuity of our relationship. When they post hurts on Facebook and I ask why they stay, their typical response is FOMO. After we chat, they discover that leaving Facebook spares them their unhealthy type of relationship — usually related to past patterns and almost never resolved virtually.
In a recent lecture in Philadelphia, 2021 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Maria Ressa explained that lying generates more social media activity than telling the truth. And because there are no penalties for spreading untruths – there is even a profit motive for spreading them – they flood us. The role of social media is central to facilitating electoral interference, inciting hatred, obscuring actual reality and encouraging violence. Ressa advises that for now we organize resistance to this barrage and legislate to regulate the Internet airways, and in the long term educate our children to protect themselves from this type of transmission of feelings and information.
We weren’t so divided when I was alive. There are many reasons for this rift, including the destructive influence of social media. We should not underestimate the impact of additional existential threats such as mass immigration, climate change and the recent pandemic. Under such pressure, people seek out others who appear to be like themselves — noticing a common ethnicity, skin color, or religion. They tend to create hierarchies: my group is the best and we are entitled to more than yours. They sometimes dehumanize members of the other group. The best way to immunize people against fragmentation is to teach them what causes it and help them deal with their mixed feelings.
The starting point is where 90% of the children meet: the public school. And they cannot afford to wait 19 years to learn these principles.
Andrew Smolar, MD, is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine.