May 15, 2016
Bernie Sanders And Why The Kids Know Best

Pundits have jumped on the fact that Bernie Sanders is so popular amongst young people. He has galvanized a whole generation into getting politically aware and socially active, making art, going to rallies, creating songs and memes and animations. Young people have been inspired by him like no other political candidate in living memory. His rallies rival rock concerts. The youth love him.

But that's a bad thing. Millennials love Bernie Sanders, which is why we shouldn't listen to him. That's how the story goes anyway. Millennials are brattish, ignorant, self-centered, and uninformed, don't you know? They are immoral and narcissistic and know nothing, so an endorsement from them is a reason to ignore him.

The youth of today are disruptive, lazy, and far more decadent than previous generations. Right?

"What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets, inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?" said Plato, in the fourth century BCE.

Here's the thing: the kids are more socially aware than you, better informed, more networked, more tolerant, kinder, less intoxicated, and less criminal than you. Teen births have plummeted since the 1990s, along with abortions. That's right, not only are 90 percent less kids getting pregnant, they are also not having as many abortions. They're better at contraception, but that's not the only reason they're not falling pregnant -- they're also having less sex. They also drink less, commit far less crime, use less drugs than the previous generations across the board including drugs like marijuana, meth, and heroin. They're happier and report less thoughts of suicide, have better relationships with their parents, carry fewer guns than we did, they exercise more, and they even wear their seat belts more than we did.

In short, they're much nicer kids than we ever were.

They're also smarter than us. It's called the Flynn effect. Every revision of intelligence quotient tests since 1932 has had to adjust for the fact that that the average intelligence rises in a continuous and roughly linear fashion. This means that the people who scored 100 in 1932, would have only scored 80 in 1997. They were just plain dumber back then.

Which means we are just plain dumber than our kids.

This has played out historically. The youth have always been on the right side of history. Healthy movements towards a more inclusive, more peaceful, more collaborative and more creative society have been brought about by student movements and the youth. Abolition, feminism, anti-war movements, and civil rights were all largely driven by young people, and this generation has loudly demanded much greater rights and respect for the LGBT community.

It's easy to call teenagers narcissistic, because they are. As a part of their development, the young brain needs to develop their idea of their sense of self, and this happens during the teenage years. That's why no psychiatrist will diagnose a narcissistic personality disorder before the age of 18 -- a certain amount of self-centeredness is healthy and needed.

That said, the idea that every young girl wants to be a Kardashian is wrong. In a study of 2,000 kids by Fun Kids Radio, these young people valued being happy, clever and kind much more than being famous, popular and good looking. They're also far more at ease with difference than we were and report happy relations with their classmates of any ethnicity or sexual orientation.

They don't like bullying, and don't accept it as "part of growing up" like we did. Children are fueling the anti-bullying movement, and as they learn to navigate the playground of the internet and come across self-organized bullying groups like 4chan (as in the case of these 30-something men trolling 11-year-old kids for their love of a racially-inclusive cartoon show), their nuanced understanding of boundaries is growing. In this online age, kids are developing an astute sense of when someone is expressing an opinion as opposed to when they are bullying, which is a sense that has been largely unconscious for previous generations.

That is to say, they listen to Donald Trump and hear a bully, someone who is deliberately trying to hurt people with his words, rather than just expressing an opinion. This delineation between opinion and bullying evades even the most educated of previous generations. You can't fool the kids though. They don't like Donald Trump. His words are obviously designed to hurt, and not just express a respectful opinion. There is a difference. Through their exploration of bullying, the kids understand this while the adults are still confused.

But despite all this evidence, we wring our hands over the caliber of our future leaders. Our cognitive bias leads us to interpret data incorrectly too. Recently, there was a study into the smartphone habits of young people and their parents. Predictably, the headlines despaired over the youth of today. "Teen Phone Addiction A Growing Problem In Homes" was a typical headline. The hard news story from CNN began with this lament: "I don't have teenagers yet, but watching my 8- and 10-year-olds spend endless amounts of time on iPads during spring break makes me worried about the day -- hopefully years from now -- when they have their own devices."

A closer inspection of the data revealed no such cause for concern. If young people are "addicted to their phones," then so are their parents, with both groups reporting equal use. Both teens and their parents checked their phones hourly to the same degree, and both group were equally likely to pick up the phone at dinner time.

The only difference was that the kids felt worse about it, and the parents worried less about their own use and more about their kids' use. When you really look into the data, the anxiety about phone use was the only real problem. Taking away those worries, both teens and parents reported that using smartphones were reportedly improving their parent/child relationships.

It's not surprising that, despite the data, the impulse to demonize new technology and the new generation lead to these headlines. People have always feared the young and had "great apprehensions for the future" due to their fascination with new technology.

"The art of letter writing is fast dying out… We fire off a multitude of rapid and short notes, instead of sitting down to a good talk over a real sheet of paper," wrote the The Sunday Magazine, in 1871.

There's a name for it. It's called juvenoia, a term coined by academic David Finkelhor and brought to the internet's attention by Vsauce; it's a knee-jerk biological reaction for which there is no real explanation yet. Humans become suspicious of the youth as they grow older. Every generation has thought itself smarter than the previous and wiser than the next, as exemplified in this beautiful XKCD cartoon. That just happens in our brains. It's not real, it's not evidence-based; it's just our brains trolling us, probably for some biological tribal reason that is no longer relevant to our way of life now.

In fact, it's not only irrelevant, it's dangerous. This year, more than ever, with our own species on the precipice of extinction, we would be downright stupid not to listen to the voice of our young people who are screaming "wrong way, go back!" As the planet warms at an alarming rate and our bizarre obsession with fueling the bank accounts of oil magnates continues, the fresh voices of alarm from our newest humans as they open their eyes to the idiocy of our past mistakes should be heard and enacted.

[Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]