Exploring Cancel Culture’s Impact on Teens’ Connection and Education
December 5, 2022
Classmates turn their back as a student approaches in the hall, snickering to one another as they pass by. Nobody will look at them, talk to them, or associate with them. They are not just alone– they are canceled.
This is the basis of teenage cancel culture. While there isn’t an agreed upon definition of the phenomenon, cancel culture in a broader sense has been heavily echoed across political and social discourse over the last few years, particularly for Gen Z. A 2021 study by Pew Research found that 43% of polled 18-29 year olds have heard a “great deal” about cancel culture, in comparison to 22% of those aged 30-49.
Teen cancellation is fueled by calling out immoral and inappropriate behavior, such as when teens act in a derogatory or politically controversial way— or simply an act that contradicts someone’s subjective moral norm.
Social media is to thank for this, for teens can probably name countless public cancellations dramatized across Twitter, TikTok, or Instagram. And this has, perhaps dangerously, instilled in teens that now, anyone can be canceled.
But is cancel culture a moral behavior in itself? How could the dismissal, expulsion and exile of a teen be justified as something positive, especially by students at Jesuit who are supposed to act as men and women for others?
The Mob Mentality Bandwagon
A key factor within cancel culture is the concept of mob mentality— the natural reaction to “hop on the bandwagon” and join a majority group in shunning someone who has been canceled.
Jesuit counselor Mr. Jason Barry detailed how a canceller never acts alone.
“Someone can get more than just 4 or 5 friends; they will get 40, 50 people to feel the same way about a teen,” Barry said. “If teens decide they don’t like somebody, they can just make that person’s life horrible.”
Canceling can also leave the victim devoid of vital social support.
AP Psychology teacher Mrs. Malia Bernards pointed out how group cancellation elicits consequences for the victim later in life.
“Adolescence is a time for exploring social identity and forming viewpoints,” Bernards said. “Cancellation can have the capacity to really shut down adolescent motivation to explore new questions and ideas, and that can be pretty problematic.”
In addition to causing harm for victims, the mob mentality of cancel culture impacts bystanders wishing to stay out of a sticky situation. Junior Griffin Scott outlined what failing to follow a canceling mob can entail.
“Even if you know it’s untruthful and someone actually didn’t do the thing they’re getting canceled for, you feel like if you stood up for them you would get thrown under the bus and canceled as well,” Scott said.
Sophomore Lila Barthold reflected on the role social media plays in perpetuating guilt in bystanders.
“I feel like when something [about someone or something that’s canceled] gets posted on social media, everyone feels the need to repost it just so you don’t get left out,” Barthold said. “If you didn’t, someone could say, ‘Oh, I didn’t see you repost this… does this mean you support that person or idea?”
High school hierarchies fuel the mob mentality. Barthold spoke on where she observes social roles in cancel culture.
“I feel like whoever’s canceled is always really well known,” Barthold said. “If no one knew who they were, it wouldn’t be as big of a deal if they were involved in a scandal.”
Sophomore Nikhil Chaudhari agreed with Barthold, and added why kids may feel incentivized to cancel someone at the “top” of the social chain.
“If they’re super popular, a lot of times people may even want them to get canceled, in hopes that they could rise up to take their societal spot,” Chaudhari said.
It’s an “us against them” mindset, as media psychologist Dr. Pam Rutledge wrote in a blog post about cancel culture and conflict resolution. Rutledge summarized how cancel culture encourages polarization by discouraging kids to stand up for each other, and how the threat of cancellation causes adolescents to worry that any mistake they make may cause them to be the next outcast.
What About Forgiveness?
One of the main arguments for cancel culture is the idea that it’s a form of accountability— a tool to prevent harmful behaviors in teens.
“If someone shuns me, that might be the best lesson I’d ever have as a 16-year-old at Jesuit,” Jesuit counselor Mr. Jason Lowery said. “It’d be better to happen then than as a 25-year-old at a job when you say the wrong thing to the wrong person. So I think that every experience we go through, whether it is good or bad, helps us become who we are.”
The definition of accountability reads, “the obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions.” Taking accountability for mistakes is meant to be an individualized practice, for the courage to grow is facilitated by the belief that external forgiveness is possible, something cancel culture ignores.
“Once you get canceled, it’s kind of your identity,” Barthold said. “If there’s no forgiveness, it doesn’t help you move forward after.”
As a result of teens observing public cancellations online between politicians and celebrities in a negative, artificial light, they may forget the crucial reminder to have empathy for those who make mistakes.
“Forgiveness can be a countercultural notion in contemporary U.S. culture,” Bernards said. “We should really work toward creating relationships where if somebody has wronged someone else, recognizing the opportunity to forgive and communicate directly with one another instead of canceling.”
It’s All About Communication
Counselor Mr. Ken Potter explained how cancellation cuts all ties to communication as the teen is exiled and forgotten, therefore preventing teens from reaching out, sharing, and being heard.
“To me, every time there is a lack of communication, that’s not good,” Potter said. “And when we cancel somebody, there is a lack of communication pretty much immediately.”Bernards outlined why communication is crucial for teens to cultivate.
“Being able to articulate your feelings is a big skill,” Bernards said. “For example, brainstorming how you feel about an issue and then having the confidence to confront someone about it in a respectful way takes emotional maturity. It’s a learned skill, and something we have to practice over our life course, but this is very much still in development during adolescence. It’s important to give one another a bit of grace.”
Scott believes that by utilizing direct empathetic communication, problems will avoid being blown out of proportion, and additionally educate a teen on why they exhibited problematic behavior.
“I think it’s way more beneficial to deal with issues on a smaller scale and focus more on informing the person on, for example, why they can’t say a certain thing,” Scott said. “This will be way better for both parties than everyone posting about the problem on social media and having a mob mentality takeover.”
Conversation propels recognition, understanding, and evolution. Without it, canceled teens are unable to advocate for themselves and learn areas for change.
Walking in the Shoes of Others
We asked students to put themselves in the place of someone who got canceled— to imagine a lack of support and connection, an inability to stand up for themselves, and a tarnished reputation.
“It would be an uncontrollable situation,” Barthold said. “I would want someone to come up and talk to me, to ask questions and be civil without shunning me.”
“I’d have zero trust,” freshman Sam Kaempf said. “I’d worry anything I said or did would instantly get flipped. And I think that lack of trust would prevent me from creating any important social bonds in the future.”
“I would feel attacked from all angles,” senior Elliot Sorenson said. “Without being able to advocate for myself, my friends wouldn’t know who to believe and I would have no one to turn to. My reputation and identity would be lost.”
Experts have provided insight on how to constructively circumvent cancel culture in workplaces and schools.
Cognitive-behavioral coach Dr. Robin Buckley wrote about the idea of “revision culture” instead of cancel culture in a 2022 article for Entrepreneur.
“Instead of cancel culture’s punishment reaction to blackballing a person, revision culture can focus on education and rehabilitation of the individual or organization,” Buckley asserted. “It could offer healing instead of festering the cancers of hatred and ignorance.”
Author Yasna Vismale revealed in a LinkedIn post how this external focus on education, such as offering resources and/or opening direct or wider dialogues about topical issues, leads to growth for a canceled individual.
“Operating through an educational standpoint will allow you to focus on creating a potential solution or guidebook that is personalized for the needs of that person, rather than turning them off by making them feel misunderstood and frustrated,” Vismale said.
Essentially, cancel culture’s punishments of isolation, unforgiveness, and silence appear to do more harm than good. Contrastly, approaches such as “revision culture” will encourage community members to take accountability because of education, not retribution.