Girls today are experiencing the highest levels of loneliness on record, according to a 2018 Cigna national health survey. Depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation have skyrocketed in recent years, but “The Catcher in the Rye” indicates such feelings have long been highly present among young people.
J.D. Salinger, author of the great American classic “The Catcher in the Rye,” would be appalled to see the loneliness affecting American youth today. Salinger’s message about the perennial problem of teenage loneliness and the need for genuine human relationships rings truer today than ever.
The novel resonated with so many American teens at the time of its publication, selling millions of copies following its 1958 release. The book is more relevant today as teens battle the age-old problem but now with the added weight of social media and technology serving them endless unrealistic expectations of popularity and beauty.
In addition to serving as a source of comfort for so many, “The Catcher in the Rye” sent shock waves through elite cultural circles in America. Many elites publicly refused to understand what the main character and sullen high school student Holden Caulfield experienced each day.
Caulfield felt disillusioned with society as he attempted to survive the daily life as a well-to-do American teen. He’s famous – or infamous, depending on who you ask – for complaining about the “phonies” of the world (ie., everyone over the age of 11 or so). Salinger described with disgust the everyday ways his high school classmates and acquaintances fought to fit in, including keeping up with fashion trends, using the same slang, and taking on contrived vices to impress particular people.
Caulfield gets frustrated by any tendencies that could qualify as common or people-pleasing. In his stream-of-consciousness style, Salinger reveals through the smallest of interactions Caulfield’s bitterness with society. He very openly expresses his loathing toward the other guys at his school over their constant conformity and lack of depth — most aggressively against his roommate, Stradlater.
“He always looked good when he was finished fixing himself up, but he was a secret slob anyway, if you knew him the way I did. The reason he fixed himself up to look good because he was madly in love with himself.”
Caulfield couldn’t bring himself to find solace in all that his classmates seemed to, which in Stradlater’s case included his good looks. Rather, Caulfield’s cynical rejection of such a shallow way of life represented the confused conscience of those who desired more than what so many “phonies” seemed to.
Salinger criticized athletes at his school for sticking together. If one phony acts a certain way, he argued throughout the novel, their entire entourage follows suit.
The elites fit the characterization of Caulfield’s “phonies” perfectly, so it makes sense they wouldn’t see their social pursuits and behavioral tendencies as he does. In their lifetime masquerade of attending dinner parties and events only to make surface-level conversation with others they may barely tolerate, they are too distracted to fathom Salinger’s open expression of discontent. Caulfield’s dissatisfaction with such a life baffled them.
Of course, teens still face many of the same challenges Salinger chronicled in his first book. Fitting in is a struggle that transcends time. What separates the behaviors teens now experience from how Salinger portrayed them, however, is the extreme scale on which young people feel pressured into competing.
Although loneliness among the young has been a reoccurring theme throughout history, teenagers today experienced new levels of isolation and social pressure unimaginable to past generations. The phonies are magnified in the 21st century on a national level through social media.
Girls don’t just want to fit in, they’ve suddenly been bombarded with images and likes and republishes and story views and comments and shares that follow them wherever they go. The time and consumption Instagram and similar social media platforms require is an investment, taking time and effort that no longer goes to developing sound relationships with friends, family, and those in the local community.
According to a Wall Street Journal article investigating the effects of social media on teen girls, these platforms actively work against their proper development, including girls’ physical, cognitive, relational, sexual, and maturational health.
“As they create more interesting, supposedly happier virtual personas for themselves, their real selves diminish,” it says. “Girls collect ‘likes’ instead of making friends. They can be devastated by a cruel text or a tepid reaction to a selfie… In a sense, modern girls are never truly alone and never truly with others.”
Social media denies basic pleasures teens have enjoyed for centuries. One of the girls whose story was included in the article, 16-year-old Genevieve, said she specifically yearned for the “olden days” when kids hung out in person and went on real-life dates.
The convenience and omnipresence of smart technology in the lives of young people presents the additional problem of never needing to learn basic life skills, including communicating with new people and forming real-life relationships.
“When girls do eventually leave home, they often find themselves ill-prepared to navigate ‘real life.’ In 2011, the American College Health Association reported that 31% of female freshmen said they had experienced overwhelming anxiety or panic attacks; by 2016, that had shot up to 62%,” the Wall Street Journal article says.
What many anguished American teens were able to relate to in the ‘50s now seems to be a trademark of teens everywhere in 2020. Salinger perfectly captured the sentiment of so many who have grown tired of the constant pursuit of Instagram likes as a replacement for genuine love and friendship, more than 50 years before Instagram was released on the App Store.
Let us allow Salinger’s fundamental lesson to serve as some corrective for today: the loneliness of youth is only perpetuated by young people’s empty attempts to fit in.