At the time of writing this piece, the United States has already experienced more than 100 mass shootings this year. That works out at roughly 11 mass shootings—involving three or more victim fatalities in a single incident—every week.
What is going on? Some, of course, will point to the ease of access to firearms. However, just because someone can access a firearm easily doesn’t mean that they would choose to use it to take their own life or the lives of others. There is obviously something much bigger at play.
Could it have anything to do with dysfunctional parenting practices and an obsessive desire to isolate children from the realities of the world?
When you think of dysfunctional parenting, what images spring to mind? A physically and emotionally abused child whose needs constantly go unmet, largely because the parents’ needs take precedence. This is just one form of dysfunctional parenting.
Besides offering too little protection to a child, it is possible for a parent to offer too much protection to a child. In an effort to keep their loved ones safe, parents may choose to isolate their children from a world they feel is just too dangerous. The consequences of such an approach to parenting often prove to be disastrous.
In a recent paper, researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University emphasized the link between social isolation and mass shootings. The authors of the study, Nicholas Thompson, a forensic psychologist, and Samuel J. West, a psychological scientist, analyzed the psychological crises of dozens of mass shooters. Their conclusion: social isolation is the most important external factor leading up to the mass shootings.
According to Dr. West, when individuals isolate themselves from various social circles, they lose “that functional component” offered by their loved ones. They lose the vital link to the very people willing to highlight inappropriate thoughts and behaviors.
The researchers findings are important, largely because an increasing number of Americans are living incredibly isolated lives. This is especially true of American children. I’m not just talking about “bunker babies”—the children born during pandemic times. I am talking about all Americans under the age of 21.
Before going any further, it’s important to define what exactly social isolation is.
The academic Robert L. Berg defined social isolation as “the absence of social interactions, contacts, and relationships with family and friends, with neighbors on an individual level, and with “society at large on a broader level.” Social isolation involves disengagement from social circles and the broader community. It involves trading communal experiences for a life of prolonged bouts of isolation, trading shared experiences for solitary ones.
Today, Americans report having considerably fewer close friendships than previous generations. Some readers will understandably point to COVID-19 and blame the pandemic for the rise in isolation and feelings of loneliness. In truth, though, the pandemic simply worsened a problem that already existed.
As a fascinating paper by Viji Diane Kannan and Peter J. Veazie, two mental health experts at the University of Rochester, clearly shows, over the past two decades, right across the country, social isolation has increased, while social engagement with family, friends, and the broader community has decreased significantly. Moreover, note the authors, companionship, which involves “shared leisure and recreation,” has also decreased.
The two generations most affected by this shift to extreme isolation are members of Generation Z, those born between 1997 and 2012, and members of Generation Alpha, those born after 2012. The vast majority of these children and young adults are digital natives. In other words, they have never known a world without digital devices.
For many, digital devices are not just gadgets, they are body appendages. To compound matters, digital devices encourage isolation. Why meet with friends when you can “communicate” with them from the comfort of your bedroom? In fact, when you can order just about anything online, from clothing to food, why venture out at all?
It has become fashionable to live the life of a tech-savvy hermit. Fashionable, but certainly not wise.
In addition to the scourge of digital devices, these children and young adults also came (and are still coming) of age in a time when “helicopter parenting” reigns supreme—a style of parenting that sees parents become overly fixated on their children.
This overprotective practice involves parents doing everything in their power to ensure that their children never encounter any real hardships. Although the intentions are often pure, the results of such a parenting style are anything but.
Helicopter parenting increases a child’s chances of developing anxiety and depression—two mental disorders closely associated with social isolation.
A 2019 study published in the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services found that parents who engage in helicopter parenting erode their child’s sense of autonomy and self-efficacy. The study’s authors also noted that children with helicopter parents are often alienated by their peers. In an effort to avoid such alienation, some children decide to preemptively isolate themselves.
It is clear to see that there’s a very fine line between protective parenting and possessive parenting, and that crossing this line can have drastic consequences. In an effort to produce healthier, happier children, it’s important for more parents to recognize this difference.
The old saying, “it takes a village to raise a child,” has never been truer than it is today. No child should be raised in isolation. No human should ever live a life completely walled off from society.