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The Desensitization of Gen Z

By Angel Martinez Published Apr 22, 2022 5:00 am

While clearing out my camera roll, I discovered that I have over 50 selfies of me crying, set in multiple seasons and for different reasons. A paper I found impossible to finish; a late-night career crisis; a movie that wasn’t even supposed to be sad. Sometimes, I’m pouting; more often than not, I’m throwing up a peace sign. But no matter how humiliating it looks, it’s been uploaded to my finsta for posterity’s sake.

One time, my dad caught me in the act and asked me why I do what I do, which then demonstrated how hard it is to explain such behavior to someone outside of Generation Z.

Humor reduces the negative emotions surrounding a stressful event and instead paints it in a positive light.

This involuntary impulse to make a meme out of any inconvenience seems to be our distinct go-to coping mechanism. Today’s teens can incessantly laugh at their biggest insecurities, ridicule their previous toxic relationships, and share deep-seated trauma by participating in the latest viral TikTok trend. We were born in an era of successive tragedies — political turmoil, environmental crises, intergenerational poverty — all further magnified by the ubiquity of the internet. Couple that desensitization with Filipinos’ radical optimism, and you have the rationale behind our “broken” humor.

Today’s teens can incessantly laugh at their biggest insecurities, ridicule their previous toxic relationships, and share deep-seated trauma

Regardless of how absurd this line of reasoning might appear, these reactions are all psychologically sound. “Humor reduces the negative emotions surrounding a stressful event and instead paints it in a positive light,” shared Dr. Chen Tan, a licensed clinical psychologist. “In fact, it’s powerful enough to help change our perspective on things: we can begin to see something that was once threatening to us as something within our control, making it easier for us to cope.”

Alexis-Rose, a high school student, confirmed this when we spoke, saying that laughter is what helped her family through the toughest time in their life. On the night they had to take her father off life support, one of their neighbors’ houses had suddenly burst into flames. Yet, instead of sending them into a frenzy, the sight of the fire “made us laugh to ourselves, because how much worse could the night even get? We continued to joke about how horrible this day came to be, like our trauma from the morning at the hospital fueled our need to make light of the current situation.”

Instead of seeing this as a drawback, these should serve as our golden opportunity to show them our true legacy: shrugging away
our problems with a laugh.

When content of this nature is made available to a wide audience, it can even comfort viewers, implicitly affirming that they are not alone in what they’re going through. Dianne (name changed to protect interviewee’s identity) experienced this when she got into an accident that shattered both her femur and her dreams of becoming a competitive volleyball player. “I initially started posting funny skits about my injury on TikTok to give me something to do so I wouldn’t sink deeper into my depression. So I was surprised to find a little community of people from all over the world, also former athletes dealing with injuries, in my comments, thanking me.”

While this works wonders in helping us make sense of our personal problems, there is also danger in using the same approach when dealing with serious matters. The “benign violation” theory states that it’s possible to joke about even the most catastrophic natural calamities or complex international conflicts when they pose no real threat to our physical and mental health. One recent manifestation of this is how we poke fun at the possibility of getting drafted for the third World War, being Filipinos living on the opposite side of the world.

When content of this nature is made available to a wide audience, it can even comfort viewers, implicitly affirming that they are not alone in what they’re going through.

But this psychological distance makes us forget that these hypotheticals are already other people’s reality — some of which come with irreversible consequences. Even if we claim to have harmless reasons for doing so, there’s just something disturbing about cracking jokes from the comfort of our own homes when those in evacuation centers and emergency rooms aren’t laughing. Over time, diluting human suffering into shareable content could prove detrimental to the way we relate and converse with one another.

“The worst thing about this whole phenomenon is how when someone points out the tastelessness of people’s jokes, it becomes their fault for not being able to have a laugh,” Dianne said. Alexis-Rose noticed the same thing: “People often think they can join in on my ‘dead relative’ jokes just because I’ve made them. I give them permission to laugh (at the jokes that I make), but if it’s never happened to them, I don’t think they have the right to do what I do.” Too much levity? Definitely the last thing we need in a world already so deprived of genuine compassion.

So, if we don’t laugh at life-altering situations, how then are we supposed to deal with them? Dr. Chen offers a two-pronged approach, which includes setting online boundaries and learning to simmer in the silence. He shared that during times when things get a bit heavy, he, too, mutes pages with dark content and swaps them out for wholesome memes. “It’s perfectly understandable that some of us still won’t have the mental fortitude to push forward and deal with what’s happening,” he said. “In that case, there’s no problem in curating what we see online. Consider it caring for our souls.”

This involuntary impulse to make a meme out of any inconvenience seems to be our distinct go-to coping mechanism.

There’s this unspoken rule that we need to have some sort of incendiary reaction to every single issue that finds its way to our feeds. But momentarily stepping away from the steady stream of headlines allows us to reflect on how we could continue fighting for a world on fire while protecting our own peace of mind. If we’ve come up with our own set of answers and determined that this problem is too large to sit out, we can try what Dr. Chen calls sublimating: “using the dark we’ve found and applying it in a constructive, socially acceptable manner.”

This happens to be something Gen Z is particularly fluent in: we’re known to coordinate directly with those affected by crises, mobilize the resources they need to rebuild their lives, and even start online campaigns to disseminate information needed to understand the situation better. It’s the side of us older generations don’t always see, hence the sometimes reductive, often inaccurate perceptions they have of us. But instead of seeing this as a drawback, these should serve as our golden opportunity to show them our true legacy: not our inability to read the room, but our capacity to channel our emotions into concrete change.