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The Mental Health Effects of Teenage Cancel Culture

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Cancel culture—the practice of withdrawing support from individuals or companies who have done or said something offensive—can be helpful in making social change. Canceling someone for an unforgivable action can be an effective way to combat inequality, such as sexism and racism. The cancellation of celebrities like Louis C.K. and J.K. Rowling is part of a larger movement to stop sexual harassment and transphobia.

But when it comes to teenage cancel culture, the negative mental health effects outweigh the positives. Teens are still forming their identities and their beliefs, and they need to be able to learn from their mistakes rather than being punished.

For many teens, cancellation is the worst punishment imaginable, because rejection by their peer group is their biggest fear. That’s why there’s a link between cancel culture and mental health: Being canceled can lead to teen anxiety, depression, trauma, and suicidal thoughts and behavior.

What Is Teenage Cancel Culture?

Canceling someone or something refers to boycotting and publicly shaming them in response to a perceived or actual transgression, such as making an offensive comment about a marginalized group or excluding certain populations. Sometimes this can be a powerful means of social justice. For example, in 2016, the film community banded together to boycott the Oscars in response to the lack of diversity among award nominees. In 2021, a record number of people of color were nominated for acting awards. In this case, calling out the Oscars brought awareness to the problem and helped jump-start forward movement.

In teenage cancel culture, classmates or social media “friends” boycott a teen who says or does something problematic, like making racist or homophobic comments, telling a tasteless joke, or misgendering someone. Teens also cancel each other for other reasons, such as being a toxic friend, being too needy or self-centered, or even watching the wrong shows or listening to the wrong music.

While cancellation automatically labels someone as bad and irredeemable, the slightly gentler “calling out” or “calling in” refer to bringing someone’s attention to what they’ve done wrong and giving them a chance to apologize, learn, and do better. According to cancel culture statistics collected by the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of Americans believe that calling someone out on social media holds them accountable for their actions, while 38 percent believe it punishes people who don’t deserve it.

Cancel Culture and Social Media

Cancel culture and social media go hand in hand: Cancel culture wouldn’t have gained nearly as much momentum over the past decade without social media. The primary means of canceling an entity or individual is through blocking, unfollowing, and/or verbally targeting them on social media platforms. Because celebrities typically have public social media accounts and large followings, their cancellations become big news. Recently, two of Taylor Swift’s exes, John Mayer and Jake Gyllenhaal, were canceled online after the pop star shared details of their breakups in songs on her album Red. They even received death threats from Swift’s fans.

Social media gives teens a sense of connection with celebrities, and encourages them to mimic cancel culture behavior with peers. Much of teenage cancel culture takes place online, through comments and unfollows. But it can also happen in real life, at school or in activities outside of school. Teens who have been canceled are often left out, snubbed, bullied, ignored, and isolated.

Cancel Culture and Mental Health: The Harmful Effects of Cancel Culture on Teens

It can be a powerful learning and growing experience for teens to be called out by their peers for offensive words or actions. And it’s important for young people to learn to speak up against their peers’ racist, sexist, or other unacceptable behaviors.

But cancellation isn’t just a teaching moment; it’s a harsh punishment and public shaming. And it’s especially damaging because this age group is so sensitive to the opinions of their peers. A review of research on media and adolescent brain development found that teens are particularly vulnerable to social influences because the regions of the brain involved in the social aspects of life are still maturing. Brain imaging studies show that social rejection literally hurts: It lights up the same parts of the adolescent brain that are activated by physical pain.

As a result, being socially ostracized, at an age when peer connections are incredibly important, can be devastating. Many therapists report treating teen clients who suffered from depression and suicidality for months after being canceled by peers. Teens who experience this may struggle for years to trust themselves, to trust others, and to feel a sense of belonging in a peer group.

The harmful effects of cancel culture also extend to the cancelers and the bystanders. Teens who cancel others may do so because they have strong moral convictions, and that’s a good thing. But teenage cancel culture gives them permission to bypass empathy and forgiveness in favor of being right. Rather than learning to have debates about topics they disagree on, cancelers simply shut out those they deem wrong. As for the teens on the sidelines, they often suffer from anxiety and fear that they will be next, and/or guilt about not standing up for someone who was harshly canceled.

 

5 Ways Parents Can Help Kids Navigate Teenage Cancel Culture

It’s important for parents to have conversations with teens about cancel culture and mental health. Here are some tips for parents to help prevent the harmful effects of cancel culture.

  • Help young people understand the consequences of teenage cancel culture. Teens may not realize how cancel culture is cyberbullying if it is used in a way that shames and ostracizes a classmate, even one who has done something offensive. Talk to them about the importance of understanding what others feel and think, even if you don’t agree with them.
  • Validate teens’ emotions about cancel culture, whether it involves classmates or celebrities. Even if the issues don’t seem serious to you, recognize how meaningful they might be to teens. Encourage open discussion about cancellation and how it affects people on all sides of the issue.
  • Teach teens what Don Grant, PhD, Director of Outpatient Services for Newport Academy, calls “good digital citizenship.” That means thinking twice before posting on social media and avoiding engagement when you’re feeling emotional. Consider limiting the amount of time teens spend on social media.
  • For teens who are cancelling others, try to get to what’s under this behavior. Do they feel like cancelling people is the only way they can keep friends or be a leader? Has cancelling become an unhealthy way for them to boost their self-esteem? Explore more effective ways that they can share their beliefs and values.
  • If your teen has been cancelled, don’t judge them for their actions. If they did or said something problematic, use this as an opportunity to discuss it, and help them see why it was hurtful. Acknowledge and sympathize with their pain, and equip them with some approaches for resolving conflict or apologizing in a meaningful way, if that is called for. If the cancellation continues, help your teen find positive connections elsewhere, and make sure they receive mental health support if needed.

Treatment for the Harmful Effects of Cancel Culture

The pain and shame of being cancelled, in addition to the loneliness and isolation if a teen is ostracized, can be traumatizing. The experience can catalyze depression, anxiety, and co-occurring disorders like substance abuse.

Treatment helps to heal these wounds and supports teens to rebuild self-esteem and authentic connections. At Newport Academy, teens create strong, trusting relationships with peers and discover that they are not alone in their experiences. They can discuss topics like cancel culture and mental health crises in a caring and compassionate environment, with the support of clinicians who specialize in treating young people.

Contact us today to find out more about our philosophy of care and our industry-leading outcomes.

Sources:

Nature Commun. 2018 Feb; 9 (1): 588. doi: 10.1038.

 Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Apr; 108 (15): 6270–5.