Friday’s tragedy in Santa Fe, Texas marks the seventh high school shooting in the United States in 2018, and the fall semester hasn’t even started. The uptick in school shootings provides only a snapshot of the broader cultural despair that drives many teens to violence and suicide.
While many Americans debate what can be done to stop the carnage, more should consider why it happens so frequently.
After the shooting, a friend asked me why President Donald Trump could not sign an executive order requiring schools to better protect students and more strictly regulate their entries and exits. After all, his job description includes protecting Americans from enemies foreign and domestic.
Tragedies often cause people to forget niceties like federalism and the rule of law.
Without knowing all the details at the time, I told him that states could at least require public schools to have armed resource officers.
But Santa Fe High School did have two school resource officers on duty who engaged the shooter and prevented him from killing more.
Currently, 20 percent of U.S. public schools have resource officers, and multiple times this year they have prevented school shootings from becoming more fatal. Limiting students’ access to one entrance would no doubt make their jobs easier.
But the American school shooting problem is cultural, and one that better policies and law enforcement can manage but never solve.
Yes, schools should have metal detectors.
Yes, schools should have one resource officer per so many students.
Yes, teachers should have the option to carry in the classroom — provided they are licensed and trained.
But teens are more innovative than people give them credit for; and while skilled Halo players are not the tactical equals of trained soldiers, they come close enough to overcome trivialities like armed guards, metal detectors, and tighter student access policies. These policy changes are needed, but without a cultural mending, they will only control the damage—never end it.
Any effort to address the surge in school shootings should look at the stressful demands that teens face, which leads many to pathological loneliness.
Recent health insurance data show that depression is rising dangerously among all age groups, but the 63 percent increase from 2013 to 2016 among teens accounts for the largest spike. Unlike adults, many teens become irritable rather than sad when they are depressed. This often masks their depression and allows them to continue their daily activities like attending school.
Although today’s teens have more resources at their disposal to connect with other people, the limited time they have prevents them from taking advantage of these constructively. As a result, they find themselves overwhelmed in an impossible attempt to fulfill the social demands they face.
On the one hand, they feel that they must meet the demand of their peers by cultivating an image and building a following on social media. On the other, their parents and teachers — who come from a different century — still hold the same academic and extracurricular expectations that their parents and teachers held for them when they were in school.
But just as the rapidly changing economy negates the former truth that a good education guarantees a good job, a strong social media presence does not guarantee school popularity. Teens’ inability to excel at both, and the half dozen other tasks that society expects of them, often drive them to sacrifice the grades for the status.
Others give up on winning friends and exhaust themselves trying to make straight A’s, thinking their social fortunes will improve if they get into their dream college. This, in turn, drives them to an unhealthy scholastic perfectionism and isolation.
In “The Age of Loneliness,” George Monbiot observes that isolation “enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dementia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents, and suicide.” It drives premature death as surely as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
A recent study by psychologist Jean Twenge found a sharp correlation between social media screen time and the rise in teen suicide.
The expectation that everyone should be a well-rounded achiever, coupled with the online expectations of peers, drives many teens to loneliness—a loneliness many drown in social media, video games, addictions, and — for some — violence against themselves or others.
American society once had churches, social clubs, neighbors — communities — to whom to turn in time of need. For many, social media have replaced these bastions of mentorship on which previous generations of teens relied. While social media can provide a temporary rush of companionship and feeling of popularity, gaining cyber friends and followers often fails to translate to empathetic relationships between people who are genuinely there for each other.