Culture Clips: Is Everything Contagious?


Independence is hardwired into the American consciousness. We rugged individualists like to think that we, alone, determine what we like and dislike, do and don’t do, value and shun. We want to believe we’re not influenced by others’ opinions and choices. Not by media or pop culture. Certainly not by trends or peer pressure. Nope. No way, no how.

Science, on the other hand? It tells a different story. And this week, a whole bunch of new studies suggest that many of our choices, values and behaviors might actually be “contagious”—especially for vulnerable adolescents.

Take transgenderism, for instance. Lisa Littman, an assistant professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown’s School of Public Health, recently published a paper in the journal PLOS ONE examining the phenomenon of what’s being called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria.” Hers was anecdotal research, in that she interviewed more than 250 parents with children who’d experienced this phenomenon. Among other things, she noted that the presence of one gender-dysphoric teen often correlated with clusters of other teens (most often girls) quickly declaring their identification with the other gender when they never had before.

In an interview with Science Daily, Littman summarized her findings:

Of the parents who provided information about their child’s friendship group, about a third responded that more than half of the kids in the friendship group became transgender-identified. A group with 50% of its members becoming transgender-identified represents a rate that is more 70 times the expected prevalence for young adults.

The Federalist’s Robert Tracinski unpacks the similarities between these findings and what scientists found a generation ago in anorexia research. In his article, “Is Transgender the New Anorexia?”, he writes, “Notice the deeper parallel. In the years following puberty, young women are naturally susceptible to insecurities about their bodies and sexuality. In the case of eating disorders, extreme insecurity can lead them to want to negate their bodies through starvation.”

Suicide, of course, has also long been thought to occur in clusters where that tragic choice becomes “contagious,” a subject that Outside magazine explored in an article about one such cluster in Durango, Colorado. And still more new research from scientists at Brown, Harvard and the University of California/San Diego indicates that if you have a friend who gets divorced, you’re 75% more likely to get divorced yourself. So divorce is apparently contagious, too.

Another study published in the professional journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery suggests that social media has contributed to an uptick in the number of teens seeking elective cosmetic surgery. The study’s authors connect the dots here:

This generation of adolescents is more exposed to peer appearance-related feedback from their social media use than the previous generation. It is well established that body image is strongly associated with self-esteem and psychological functioning. This generation of adolescents is more vulnerable to being bullied or teased, which are critical factors in desiring cosmetic surgery. The average millennial takes over 25,000 selfies in his or her lifetime, which is astronomical and one of the major reasons for the self-esteem issues in this age group. The studies show that selfies can lead to overvaluation of shape and weight, dietary restraint, body dissatisfaction, and internalization of the thin ideal in adolescent girls.

Meanwhile, Common Sense Media’s extensive new report, “Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences (2018)” unpacks exactly how much social media shapes the lives of young people today. Among the most reported findings is the fact that 13- to 17-year-olds now prefer texting to face-to-face communication with their peers. But significant percentages of teens also say that social media sometimes causes them to feel excluded if too few people comment on their posts. (An infographic summarizes the study’s other key findings here.)

Given teens’ skyrocketing engagement with social media, it’s not particularly surprising to learn that they’re sexting more than they were a decade ago, and that, sadly, they’re reading less.

Other teen trends of note this week: About 14% of teens in a new survey report having tried to commit suicide (a number that rises to more than 50% for transgender male teens.) Nearly 1 in 4 British 14-year-old girls reports self-harm in the past year. A Pew Trusts study indicates that abuse of the prescription sedative Xanax is “surging, while the FDA reports that teen use of e-cigarettes is at “epidemic” levels as well. Contraceptive usage among adolescents is reportedly up as well, according The Guttmacher Institute.

To end things on a slightly brighter note after quite a lot of heavy stuff this week, here’s one last trend worth reporting: fans fusing ABBA songs to some seriously bruising Marvel superhero movie fight scenes. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to watch Thor dispatch myriad enemies while “Dancing Queen” played in the background, this is your week.

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Some Band or Another More than 1 year ago
Ok but the brown university article was based on mis-represented data? This is easily searchable and fact-check-able. I can give you some links for a further article if need but this kind of reads ill-informed from an academic standpoint.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Brown University and the journal that published the study are reviewing its methods, but based on what we know so far I don't think it's fair to say it's "based on mis-represented data."

It's a descriptive study, so it's useful mainly for guiding future research. And the data comes from self-described parents of transgender kids who responded anonymously to an online survey, so it's not a representative sample. But that doesn't mean the data was "mis-represented."

-- The Kenosha Kid
charitysplace More than 1 year ago
There's also research that suggests your weight loss or gain is somewhat impacted by your friends' habits, due to humans being social creatures and most of them automatically "merging" to fit in. They tested people's eating behaviors and when around a larger friend, most of their test subjects ordered more food right along with them; when with a thinner one who ordered (first) salads and smaller portions, or did not want dessert, most of the group did as well.

It's true, you are usually a blend of the five people you spend the most time with.
Dan Haynes More than 1 year ago
I think an increase in contraceptive use is a plus, no? It should help continue the trend of fewer and fewer abortions. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Yup, more contraception is great news.

-- The Kenosha Kid