Reactive Decision-Making, Social, and Youth: A Call to Action. 2040’s Ideas and Innovations Newsletter, Issue 154

Kevin Novak
10 min readApr 4, 2024

Issue 154, April 4, 2024

We’re worried about the members of our younger generations — your customers, employees, children, and family members. We’re worried as well about the kneejerk attempts of some of our leaders and those with influence to solve what is perceived as a problem without truly understanding it or the consequences of the solution they attempt to put into place.

Reactive States of Mind

Post-pandemic society appears to be in reaction mode, and playing whack-a-mole has become the forward-thinking, strategic, and tactical direction. This random behavior seems to be in response to imposing one’s religious values and special interests on others, public sentiment fueled by the news cycle, and candidates in an election year seeking to convince their constituents that they can deliver on what matters to voters.

Take a moment or two to reflect, and we’re sure you can identify a few solutions put forward by others that cause you to pause, perhaps even have a WTF-were-they-thinking moment. Invariably, those problems will be revealed as messes that must be cleaned up by someone else.

Playing whack-a-mole is immediate, short term and short-sighted. The perception of “winning” is framed as a “battle” with little regard, or ignorance of the long-term consequences and the long view. As organizations seek to transform, some take the shortcut path of knocking down a few of the moles that yield quick, initial results and potential successes. The real winners are those who are highly functioning and focused on the human factors, dynamics of the market, and their organizational systems. They take the long view to win not only the battle but the entire war.

The Social Influence Crisis

The very real crisis confronting us today is the influence social and digital media have on our youth. Daily, the news cycle reveals how the young are being influenced by their immersion or near addiction, to the point where their mental health is at risk. The deepening crisis and growing public awareness begs the necessity for sound strategy and tactics to ensure we are seeing the problem for what it really is and identifying how best to solve it for the short and long term.

The crisis is made even more complex because of users’ deep dependence on the platforms, apps and devices amplified by peer pressure. Getting a social media fix is contagious and creates an addiction to stay connected. Anecdotally, even the younger members of our team admit to falling into the TikTok abyss for hours, losing all sense of time, losing sleep, and being unable to resist.

Highly functioning societies have safeguards in place to protect their citizens but many in today’s digital technology-infused society are dated, situational and lack substance for addressing newly emerging problems. In short, we are up a creek without a paddle.

Among the most important of society’s safeguards is protecting the health and welfare of its future — its children. In the US, these protective policies are rules, regulations, and laws. Starting with the Industrial Revolution, stronger laws have been enacted to ensure the welfare of child workers. Sadly, many emerging economies didn’t get that message with child laborers a common practice today.

As social observers, educators, and business insight consultants, we have to weigh in on the current state of health and welfare of our kids. Social businesses are thriving catering to pre-teens and teens. We are in the throes of another revolution, the digital distraction and destruction revolution. And this revolution has a significant impact on the young.

Legislating Health and Welfare

First, let’s take a sidestep. The primary US laws in place to protect children (often from their own immature decision-making) and their general welfare include:

· Child neglect and abuse

· Child labor laws

· Driver’s license over 16 years old

· Tobacco purchase — 21 years old

· Legal drinking age — 21 years old

· COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule)

As a side note, COPPA was put into place recognizing that the “internet” was not a holistically wholesome place and children needed to be protected and limited in what they could access.

In our current reactionary state of affairs, regulations and laws are not keeping pace and are taking a back seat in the dynamically changing digital market. Revisions to COPPA, enacting Federal-level privacy protections or even considering changing Section 230 (which exempts technology companies from liability for what is posted by users to their platforms) remain stalled or simply reduced to soundbites. As a result, all responsibility has been placed squarely on parents and parental consent to protect their children. Or so we thought, until last week. More on that later.

The more concerning issue is that the US Congress for 2024 has continued to include only $12 million for the National Institutes of Health to invest in digital and social media research to identify the psychological impacts to youth. Our laws are focused more on physical health than mental health.

What We Do Know

Headlines almost daily share news of rising mental health concerns among our young people. Axios reports, “Depression has hit teens much harder than adults in the smartphone era, according to National Survey on Drug Use and Health data.”

This situation has been growing steadily over the past four years. The US Surgeon General’s Office found that rates of anxiety and depression rose among children and teens before the pandemic, which was attributed to the growing prominence of digital media and greater academic pressure, as well as limited access to mental health care. (USA Facts) More recently, “U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory on the effects of social media on youth mental health stating adolescents are susceptible to peer pressure, opinions and comparison,” according to the Wall Street Journal. USA Today reports, “When asked to describe their current mental health or wellbeing, just 15% of members of Gen Z polled said it was excellent.” Just stating the obvious, that’s 85% of this cohort who felt otherwise.

Business Wire reports, “New research by The Hartford, a leading provider of workers’ compensation and employee benefits, found Gen Z workers are the most in need of mental health support compared to other generations — 53% are highly stressed in a typical week and 44% feel depressed or anxious at least a few times per week.” All told we are facing a mental health crisis among younger generations that has a ripple effect through society at large as well as our organizations’ workforces.

Peer Pressure and Planetary Orbits

It’s hard to keep up with all the recent developments related to teen anxiety. TikTok is well documented as an addictive social site that has few guardrails in place to prevent bullying and bad behavior. But here’s a new one. In a recent Wall Street Journal report, a Snapchat feature “lets paying users see their position in their friends’ digital orbits. For some teens, whose friends are everything, it’s adding to their anxiety.” The way it works is that users can rank their friends in a meta-solar system; if you’re Uranus, you are lost in outer space as opposed to closest friends Venus or Mercury. The Journal reports the solar system was created to get users to engage more fully with the app. “And while it can be turned off, it’s on by default. Now, lawmakers, doctors and parents are giving fuller attention to these apps and how they broadly affect kids’ mental health. New legislation and lawsuits have pressed tech companies to better protect minors on social media, if not block them from it outright.”

Short-Term Isolated Solutions

Four school boards in major cities in Canada sued the owners of Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok for about $3 billion, alleging the platforms have contributed to a mental health crisis and left schools to clean up the mess. About 200 U.S. school districts have also joined litigation against social media companies, reports the WSJ.

What these litigation efforts do not include is the multitude of emerging and niche apps, platforms, and sites across the digital spectrum. What is new, and “niche” is often more popular with our youth in their desire to be current, if not ahead of others. Simple proof? Many platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn and even X have lost a significant portion of their younger audiences because they no longer view these platforms as having any cool factor. Many of new apps, sites and platforms have not reached the public consciousness radar, so pursuing only a few of the big brands doesn’t really solve the greater problem.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s office reports he signed a bill that, if upheld in the courts, would prohibit kids under the age of 14 from having social media accounts in the State of Florida. The bill allows 14- and 15-year-olds to become account holders with parental consent. Those over 16 are able to secure accounts legally and without parental consent.

The bill also protects the ability of Floridians to remain anonymous online and requires pornographic or sexually explicit websites to use age verification to prevent minors from accessing sites that are inappropriate for children. Remaining anonymous online is a limited perspective as it offers privacy to those who seek it, but it also provides an anonymous opportunity for those who seek to bully, stalk or otherwise harm and manipulate others. As we know, cyber-bullying and stalking are having huge impacts on young users of social and digital technologies. This part of the bill basically reverses the positive intentions of protecting those under 13 who may be online. We also know that most sites that ask for age verification have no real validation process. Age verification with no validation simply puts lipstick on a pig.

Pendulum Swing

We have written about grass-roots movements across the country of next gens who sign off on social media and smartphones to detoxify from the pressures of FoMO. But here’s a new twist: JoMO — the joy of missing out. The Washington Post (via Axios) reports JoMO was put to the test through a fascinating study. Anecdotally, on Oct. 4, 2021, there was an hours-long Facebook outage, which took down related apps like Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. Researchers at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University interviewed hundreds of people about that experience and found there were four types of reactions: (1) feeling anxious at first, but then feeling better after realizing the outage was global; (2) having only negative feelings; (3) having only positive feelings and even experiencing a version of the joy of missing out (JoMO); and (4) feeling indifferent.

In countertrend, JoMO is based on scheduling disconnected time. Many people set timers to log off TikTok or Reels; JoMO reinforces the practice of setting hard time limits on social — or outright putting your phone away. In an update of Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” drug advice, JoMO is just saying no to social media. We all need to remember that social media is a highly curated and edited view of someone else’s life. It is not reality and therefore not a role model of an ideal life that others should emulate to be happy.

To take it to the organizational level, Axios suggests an evolved JoMO workplace model:

· Retrain managers: “There’s no going back to the pre-pandemic 9–5. You can fight these shifts, or you can embrace them and watch your business — and talent access — grow,” says Lars Schmidt, Founder of Amplify.

· Benefits: Mental health is becoming a benefit staple alongside medical, dental and others.

· Life/Work Balance: Some companies are creating synchronized summer breaks — for a week they shut down. Others are adjusting out-of-office plans. Portugal made it illegal to email employees after business hours.

The Bigger Picture

We always stress the importance of critical thinking, especially when considering this digital distraction and destruction revolution. When one seeks to manage one problem by going to extremes, he or she often doesn’t recognize the consequences. We also need to be mindful of who is responsible for what. DeSantis’s new social media regulation could have far-reaching consequences including redefining parental responsibility beyond Florida. Remember, TikTok has more than 170 million American users, including many children and teens. The power of its reach was demonstrated when Congressional offices were flooded with calls after the app sent a pop-up message to users urging them to tell their representatives in Congress to oppose the bill.

Both bans are examples of guardrails put into place without a full understanding of the potential consequences and complexity of implementation. For example, as reported in The New York Times, “’They’ve described the TikTok application as a Trojan horse, but there’s some of us who feel that either intentionally or unintentionally, this legislation to ban TikTok is actually a Trojan horse,’ Rep Thomas Massie said. ‘Some of us are concerned that there are First Amendment implications here. Americans have the right to view information. We don’t need to be protected by the government from information.’”

America has built its heritage on free speech. Censorship is not part of our DNA. But we are veering dangerously in that direction with TikTok and the DeSantis-approved social media regulations. Do we really want to emulate China’s policy to censor so many sites and apps from being available to the citizens?

Clearly, we need to wake up to the need for guardrails and effective action to ameliorate the mental health and well-being of our society’s future. Kneejerk reactions are not the best approach since they invariably backfire. That said, our question to you is: what are you doing within your organization to deal with these issues head-on? Empathy, collaboration, transparency, and an open mind are critical tools to use in a collective approach to problem-solving. The mental health of our youth is a real and present danger. We’ll need private/public enterprise collaborations to develop holistic and well-grounded solutions and reverse this trend.

Explore this issue and all past issues on 2040’s Website or via our Substack Newsletter.

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Kevin Novak

4X webby winner, CEO and Chief Strategy Officer @2040 Digital (, IADAS Member, Speaker, Author, Science Nut