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Increased Individualism is Making Our Villages Smaller



In western culture, there has been an increased emphasis on individualism in the last two centuries, which leads to people feeling more isolated than ever, even though we are actually more connected than ever before via smartphones and the internet.


Who would have thought that the Surgeon General would have to declare an Epidemic of Loneliness? Or say that being lonely is as big a health risk as smoking?


They say, "It takes a village to raise a child" but here in America and abroad, our villages are becoming smaller and smaller. This leaves parents taking on more and more roles in their children's lives, as even family help seems to shrink with passing decades. Parents become more reliant on each other, more overworked, and reliant on childcare they have to pay increasingly more for.


According to Princeton University Press, the age of individualism began in "the Jacksonian era (1820–1850)." In the years that have followed, people have become even more individualistic, less likely to have close friends, and increasingly isolated in our society.


We connect through unrealistic highlight reels of our lives on social media, sharing with every acquaintance we have known in the last 20-something years, but these relationships tend to lack the depth of relationships we had with friends in the past.


Even teens spend less time today socializing with each other without their parents present. While some helicopter parents may think this is a good thing, it actually means these teens aren't learning adequate social skills to interact with their peers beyond text messaging. And texts, as we all know, can be misleading when we are trying to interpret emotions.


Effects of Individualism on Culture


In addition to the loneliness that many people experience on a daily basis, individualism is also founded on some insidious values. According to Princeton,

American individualism was—and still is—deeply entangled with racial and gender hierarchy. In Jacksonian America, the free individual celebrated in the nation’s mythology was almost always a white man, and the broad freedom he asserted included the freedom to subordinate women, to expropriate Native American lands, and to enslave and oppress Black Americans. In recent decades, historians have written a lot about the construction of white identity during this period, and how individualistic traits—including rationality, self-reliance, and self-discipline—were assimilated into the ideas of whiteness and masculinity. At the same time, these traits were denied to women and people of color, who were continually represented as naturally irrational, dependent, and undisciplined. For many Americans at the time, asserting individualist ideals was therefore a way of justifying the exclusion and oppression of women and people of color.

Individualism allows people to do what they want without the social consequences they would have faced in times past. In some ways, it is good to be less approval-seeking, however, it can lead to a lack of consequences for treating people badly. One could also argue that this is why Narcissism seems to be on the rise today.


Scores of self-reported grandiose narcissism, assessed by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), have increased [7, 8]. Twenge and Campbell reported a significant increase in NPI scores in a cross-temporal meta-analysis of American college students between 1979 and 2006 [9]. NPI scores were 30% higher in the most recent cohort compared with the first cohort.

When one person is allowed to say that they are better than someone else without consequence, this leads to all different forms of prejudice and hate within society. In the last few years, we have seen hate groups like the Proud Boys and Moms for Liberty become more and more outspoken in a way that hasn't been seen in years.


Individualism leads to increased narcissism, and also increased hate. As these views become more indoctrinated over time, people seem to accept and even embrace them more and more.


Hate crimes are on the rise too. According to the American Psychological Association,

In the bureau’s most recent report, released in March 2023, hate crimes reported in the United States increased nearly 12% in 2021 over the previous year. The FBI said close to 65% of victims were reportedly targeted because of their race or ethnicity, 15.9% were targeted for their sexual orientation, and 14.1% were targeted because of their religion.

This concerning statistic shows that hate is on the rise in a big way in the United States. Malicious viewpoints that were allowed into the spotlight through Donald Trump's campaign and presidency are taking to the political forefront. People don't feel like they have to hide their hateful values anymore. They have been emboldened to actions like the January 6th attacks, as well as a slew of violent hate crimes by individuals.


All of these things can be traced back to the rise of individualism in our society, and the idea that the self is more important than others. This allows individuals to devalue other people with little, if any, noticeable consequences.


Mental Health Consequences


With isolation increasing even more since the pandemic, more people are presenting for psychological treatment to a shrinking psychological workforce. What does it say about our society that people feel so lonely that they have to pay someone hundreds of dollars an hour to talk about their problems? Isn't that part of what we used to have friends for?


Sociologists since Emile Durkheim have argued and demonstrated that suicide rates are higher when relationships between persons are slack or severed, when a society’s fabric is too thin. A strong, healthy society can’t be woven on individualism alone. A thin-fabric society is prone to tearing.

Increasing loneliness and isolation is actually killing people. This can be partially attributed to rising rates of depression, and rising rates of bullying. Whatever the individual circumstances, things have to be pretty bad for someone to feel hopeless enough to commit suicide. Children are also contemplating suicide at younger and younger ages; some as young as kindergarten.


According to a report by NBC News,

The number of children ages 6-12 who visited children’s hospitals for suicidal thoughts or self-harm has more than doubled since 2016, according to data from 46 such facilities across the country collected for NBC News by the Children’s Hospital Association, a trade organization.

Little kids should be out playing ball and riding bikes, not thinking about suicide. It is heartbreaking to think that kids so young already feel like their lives are hopeless, but I suppose it isn't surprising since suicide rates are up overall, especially since the pandemic.


Some factors contributing to these young kids contemplating suicide, according to NBC, are:

  • Increased use of social media and online bullying

  • Changes to immigration policy and fears of deportation

  • Family poverty and food instability

  • Family conflict

  • Lack of access to mental health services, especially for minorities

Many of these causes of suicide in the very young mirror reasons for fractures in our individualistic society as a whole: poverty, racism, and lack of access to healthcare. There are disparities that people experience in very real ways, even when they are too young to understand why these things are happening to them.


When it comes to family conflict, studies have also shown that during the pandemic, family violence worsened for many. There were higher rates of domestic violence and child abuse. When kids aren't going to school, they aren't seeing a teacher in-person, who is a mandated reporter for child abuse.


According to BMJ Medical,

Yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 11% of surveyed adolescents experienced physical abuse and more than 55% of adolescents experienced emotional abuse during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic alone, with socially vulnerable adolescents disproportionately harmed.21 These results were compared with a similar pre-lockdown survey which found 5.5% physical abuse and 13.9% emotional abuse in 2013.22 It is clear that child abuse continues to be a significant problem in the USA which has likely worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When a child experiences violence in the home, they are more likely to experience mental health issues and suicidal thoughts as a result. Being trapped for months on end with an abusive parent, and no other supportive adults to turn to, seems like being trapped in a special kind of hell.


Conclusion


As we see a rise in individualism in our culture, going back 100's of years but being exacerbated in the last 20 years, we see increases in hopelessness and violence too. Things like narcissism, hate crimes, child abuse, domestic violence and socially validated hate groups are becoming the new normal in our society.


We need to take more time to connect with people on a deeper and more meaningful level in our society. Social media isn't a substitute for in-person socializing with friends and family. It can leave us feeling hollow, and comparing ourselves in a self-critical way to others.


It is especially important that we foster community for young children, who have been increasingly isolated too. By providing multiple caring adults in their lives, it allows them to have greater safety from hostile environments such as bullying and abuse. Forming these strong connections is a huge protective factor against trauma and all sorts of mental health concerns.


Society needs to come back from the brink of loneliness and hopelessness and build connections through compassion and kindness. When we show kindness to others, it helps not only that one person, but our whole world. People are likely to pay kindness forward. They just need the opportunity to do so. Someone needs to take the first step.






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