There’s a lot in this Freddie deBoer piece which seems self-evidently sound as a way of looking at one’s life. What’s weird about it are the sideswipes he takes at a couple of New York Times pieces, dunking people who don’t deserve it.

I’m not even going to bother summarizing deBoer here; just go read the thing. I’m just not-so-briefly going to get into the unnecessary, counterproductive, and misrepresentative asides.

Let’s work backwards. Near the end, deBoer engages in a little of what I guess I’ll call plush-shaming.

If you won’t confront your relationship to yourself and the world, you can do what the NYT tells you to do and sleep with stuffed animals as an adult. Never leave childhood. Hide out in infancy forever. But I’m telling you: it’s not gonna work.

At issue is this Sarah Gannett piece for Wirecutter about sleeping with stuffed animals as an adult. It’s got nothing to do with anything deBoer is talking about, and it does present an actual argument.

If all of this seems rather childish, it is! As Wu explained, “Kids love stuffed animals. It’s because they’re cozy and … just personified enough to provide a bit of social comfort. That’s a great way for kids to self-soothe. We adults can do the same thing.” Jennifer Goldschmied, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, told me that when people go to sleep, self-soothing reduces “cognitive arousal,” the type of active thinking that dominates a person’s waking hours. She elaborated that while it’s a myth that the human brain shuts off for sleep, people still have to enter a more relaxed mindset in order to drift off: “Your brain is always active, but it’s active in a different way during sleep. If you’re thinking and cognitively aroused, that kind of change in activity in your brain isn’t going to happen.”

deBoer engages with none of this, of course, because the important thing is to take a cheap shot, especially if it’s at the expense of The New York Times. This is strange and frankly trashy behavior for someone whose own piece literally is about the importance of what he calls “human connection”. Just what sort of human connections are you fostering, exactly, by denigrating adults who are unashamedly acknowledging their need to self-sooth?

It’s the swipe that deBoer uses as his overall framing, though, that I want to get into. He spends much of the piece lamenting this focus group convened by The New York Times of a dozen kids between the ages of eleven and fourteen.

For deBoer, the focus group is evidence that we are failing American’s kids because they just want to be online. and one kid even likes online because he can mute himself.

[…] I find it very very bleak! Here you have kids talking about why they prefer online life and identifying precisely the conditions that make me despondent: they like being online more than living their real lives because their online lives serve as an intermediary and distraction from what they don’t like about themselves and their world. They’re too young to know that you’re not supposed to admit that the point of being very online is to avoid the self. They say the quiet part out loud. Online life is more “peaceful and calming” because online you’re permitted to be a vegetable. Online you can mute yourself, render yourself an unperson, remove yourself from existence and in so doing avoid the pain of being alive. […]

This is the sort of thing that has me believing in the Mengele Mandela Effect, because this very much is not the focus group I read.

Here’s a list of just some of the things these twelve kids say about their lives under questioning by the moderators.

Being their age:

  • “Having friends and learning more and more stuff in school.”

  • “Probably being able to play with my friends all the time.”

  • “Being able to see my friends.”

Versus being an adult:

  • “You can be more creative and more curious about the world when you’re younger.”

School likes:

  • “Being able to see my friends.”

  • “Science. You can create fun stuff.”

School dislikes:

  • “I feel like you’re just trapped inside of this building […] and they just yell at you when you make a small mistake.”

School online during Covid:

  • “[…] I feel like they didn’t really teach me anything. There was just too much distraction.”

  • “It was really hard to focus online. It didn’t really feel like I was able to learn as well as when I was in person.”

  • “I also felt really distracted and wasn’t able to focus when I was at home.”

Device usage:

  • “I don’t really go on my phone at school, but when I’m on my own computer, I write my book. I’m writing a book.”

  • “Usually just texting my friends or on social media.”

  • “I usually see who can play outside, and then we go play outside.”

deBoer seems fairly distressed to learn that some kids are more talkative online, but here’s why they say that:

  • “Because the games I play are team games, I have to communicate.”

  • “I talk a lot more online than I do in real life for the same reason. I play team games.”

  • “I’m more myself when I’m online. In school I feel like you’re just being watched by teachers.”

It’s entirely possible here that this online extroversion is a matter of managing sensory channels, and what reduced demands provide the capacity to do.

He seems even more distressed by the kid who talks about muting himself online. Here’s what one kid said which prompted that statement.

  • “Online feels more peaceful and calming. You don’t have to talk with anybody in person or do anything in person. You’re just sitting on your bed or chair, watching or doing something.”

  • “When I’m online, I can mute myself, and they can’t really see me. I can’t just mute myself in real life.”

Here’s the thing: deBoer here concern-trolls over the idea that this kid might mute himself in real life by suicide.

Of course, there are other potential dynamics here other than such a desire for self-erasure. For example, as an actually-autistic adult (it’d arguably be worse for a teenager), human connection in-person for me carries far more demands upon my processing ability than does much of online communication.

For all we know, the self-muter hums to themself when listening to people talk as a self-regulatory stim in order to help them focus: something that’d be considered normatively distracting offline, but online they can mute for everyone’s benefit, including their own. Or, perhaps the “spotlight effect” makes them anxious, so visually muting themselves is a strategy to manage their anxiety.

I don’t know. deBoer doesn’t either, but never considers anything other than putting the kid on suicide watch.

The entire focus group discussion reveals twelve very self-aware kids who also are very much aware of the environments in which they live—be that school, the internet, or the adult world around them. Somehow, though, deBoer sees altogether something else.

Someone has to tell these kids, “wherever you go, you’ll find yourself there, and you have to start to do the work of accepting who you are, as much as you may not like yourself.”

No one has to tell these kids this. There’s nothing anywhere in the round table to suggest that any of these kids need anyone to tell them this. Look, either deBoer never read the actual round table—every single one of his references seems limited just to the four examples he embeds at the start of his piece—or he simply doesn’t care that you might notice he doesn’t really engage with it at all.

I want to cite one entire exchange that comes near the end of the discussion.

Moderator, Ariel Kaminer: “How much impact do you think that kids like you can have on the world around them and the path that it takes?”

Matthew, 13: “I feel like kids my age can’t really have a big impact on the world, because most adults nowadays don’t listen to kids.”

Trinity, 12: “Adults are not listening to kids. They’re like, ‘They’re just kids. They don’t know anything.’”

Moderator, Margie Omero: “Is there a message that you want to send to adults?”

Wynter, 14: “Listen to us.”

deBoer at one point swears he’s “not mad about something these kids have done” but “about something that’s being done to them.” Were this really true, he’d be mad at himself for what he’s done to these kids: ignore almost everything they said.


  1. This post originally called out deBoer in its title, which itself was something of an unnecessary swipe.