Many of these anxieties take the same shape: An external mob is watching and judging and withholding approval. It’s impossible to matter, to be interesting enough. Many young people describe others as “a better version of me.” This is how it feels today to be young and fully invested in our new popularity contest: No matter how hard you try, someone else out there is taking the same raw ingredients and making a better life out of them. And the curated version of you that lives online also feels hopelessly polished and inaccurate — and you feel, somehow, that you alone are the inauthentic one.
Far from spoiled, the young people who write to me don’t seem to feel like they deserve happiness. They feel self-conscious and guilty about everything they do. They can’t breathe without feeling like they’re stepping on someone’s toes. They often resolve to say less, to seem better, to work harder, to keep their mouths shut at the exact moments when they need to speak up and tell the truth in order to feel right with the world. They feel afraid of showing their true selves because they’re sure they’ll be shamed for it. Everyone is waiting to be exposed as a fake. As far as I can tell, 20-somethings don’t embody the self-assured, self-promotional values of social media any more than Gen-Xers like me do; it’s just that they’ve learned that one should never publicly reveal one’s doubts, anxieties, and ambivalence. I have spent years peeking behind the stage curtain, and it looks to me like maintaining that performance has become excruciatingly difficult.