Time and again, we see the same sort of adjectives to describe mass shooters who pull the trigger in their pursuit of violent retribution. The 24-year-old in the Dayton, Ohio, shooting terrified his fellow high school classmates enough that one told the Associated Press, “Most people avoided him.” The 21-year-old gunman in the El Paso, Texas, massacre was described by law enforcement as “a troubled youth” who appeared to be a loner. The 19-year-old Gilroy Garlic Festival shooter showed anti-social behavior and kept to himself. The 22-year-old who shot six people inside a University of North Carolina classroom was “socially reserved” and had a history of angry outbursts. Nikolas Cruz of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting had a similar history. Elliot Rodger of the Isla Vista, California, shooting was deeply lonely. And so on.
In the aftermath of this weekend’s bloodshed, the American public once again debated what aspect of the story to blame most. Was it really about access to guns? Could mental health interventions work? Did social media foment the shooters’ hate? In one sense, it seems logical that each mass killer has a unique “fingerprint” of contributing stressors in life, family, politics and love. But it’s impossible to ignore that so many are young men who struggle with isolation, depression and fitting into any social circle at all.
Even by 2002, the U.S. Secret Service already noticed that the majority of school shooters felt “extremely depressed or desperate,” stating in its report that nearly 80 percent of them had considered or attempted suicide. These young men almost all described experiencing a “major loss” such as failure at school or loss of a romantic relationship. About 70 percent saw themselves as bullied or persecuted by others.
All of this, of course, unfortunately aligns with more general trends. That is, millennials and Gen Z are feeling increasingly unstable about the world around them, with increased rates of depressive thinking common among young people. It reasons then that amid this swath will be the rare individuals who wonder if lashing out in a blaze of glory is the only logical way to make a mark on the world — and secure a taste of the satisfaction that’s eluded them in their short lives. “Many of these mass killers are kids who seem to be on the quote-unquote margins of society,” says Andrew Smiler, a therapist in North Carolina who is an expert on masculinity and adolescence. “But the margins have gotten smaller and smaller.”
To understand these margins is to see how American social norms have broken down in big and small ways since the mid-20th century. Much has been written about how Americans have become more and more disconnected and lonely; one breakdown suggests that there are fewer people today who say they belong to an active social group than there were bowling leagues in 1970. A survey of millennials, specifically, found that a third feel lonely on a regular basis. Nearly a quarter responded that they have zero friends at all.
This doesn’t appear to be a phenomenon reserved for adulthood either, and that has profound implications for why young men end up killing in indiscriminate fashion. From an early age, modern American kids haven’t had the opportunity to bond with each other like in previous generations, says Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College. Gray has found evidence that the free play time we provide for children to socialize with other children has declined sharply in the last 50 years. “Over the same period, anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness and narcissism have increased sharply in children, adolescents and young adults,” he says in his TED Talk on the subject. “The decline in play has contributed to the rise in the psychopathology of young people.”
These deficiencies play out in adolescence, which also brings a tidal wave of negative stimulus that can shape the way a young man views his place in the world. That includes the usual suspects like bullying, rejection and peer pressure, but Smiler believes an additional culprit may be shifting standards of masculinity in the 2000s. “We’ve spent the past 30 years telling men how not to be — can’t be racist, can’t be sexist — but I think we’ve failed at telling men what to be. The cultural conversation since the 1980s is really about the image of the ‘real’ man. And yet we haven’t focused on what it means to be a good man, whether that’s in TV shows, games or movies,” he argues.
Instead, young men are continuing to operate within a framework of American masculinity that feels more than ever like a false promise, especially as they transition into adulthood. “In the 1970s or 1980s, if you were unpopular in school or feeling disaffected, there were still real opportunities to find a good career out of high school. And in that era’s context, economic success would lead to a stable relationship, as young women weren’t going to college as much,” Smiler says. “It’s harder for men in the margins, who might not be the brightest or most social guy, to find that path to fulfillment today. When you see guys on 8chan posting anti-feminist screeds about the dating process today, it’s often a reaction to that pressure to compete.”
Dating culture in the U.S. has certainly changed — for the first time ever, a majority of people age 35 and under identified as “unattached” in 2017, per a Pew report. Staring at a combination of a fragmented (or non-existent) social life, uncertain career prospects and romantic loneliness, young men struggle with the sensation that they’ve done nothing. And so, they turn to other forms of empowerment, which more and more they’re finding in online communities where vitriolic speech and ideas reign.
It’s basically impossible to figure out how much of the racist, misogynistic, violent content on places like 8chan is earnest versus a form of shitposting, but at this point, it hardly seems to matter. Stephen Smith, the executive director of the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation and an expert on genocide, has been studying the arcs of lone-wolf killers who target certain ethnic or religious groups, like the El Paso shooter. He believes these acts of “xenocide” (a term he coined) depict a growing culture of radicalized, lonely men who don’t need to belong to an IRL group in order to bond with violent, specific ideologies and act on them.
“The online environment has created a kind of subterranean set of principles in which you can belong to something without really belonging to anything or anyone,” Smith tells me. “It’s a world driven by ideas, and those ideas fixate on a threat to your existence. It’s largely fear-based. It becomes an echo chamber that you willingly immerse yourself in. That’s another troubling part: You can live in these parallel worlds between online and real without anyone else knowing.”
While whiteness is a common trait of mass shooters, research suggests that this alienation process isn’t unique to middle-class white kids. One study found that Muslim immigrants who felt marginalized, for example, were more likely to support radical beliefs and a hypothetical fundamentalist group. The result speaks to the common human craving for a group’s embrace, and the need to take action, even extreme ones, in order to feel held again.
“They believe in their cause, and they believe they’re ultimately going to trigger the revolution. They’re proud to be a part of that,” Smith explains. “The underlying cause of xenocide may be similar to the fed-up shooter who just goes out and shoots indiscriminately — that feeling of social exclusion and need to find recognition. They’re developing these ideas as a resolution to a society they see as broken.”
This isn’t to dismiss the unique harms of hate crimes, whether it impacts a Jewish synagogue, a yoga studio filled with women or a Walmart on the Mexican border. But it is becoming clearer that mixed messages on ideal maleness and empowerment — in advertising, pop culture and social media — are swirling into a storm that overwhelms some young men. If being themselves can’t bring validation, perhaps lashing out will; the mass-media fracas and the resulting (disturbing) online embrace of killers like Elliot Rodger, the “Incel King” of Isla Vista, seem to bear that out.
What’s clear to Smith is that young men need help, especially when it comes to non-violent conflict resolution in a world where violent rhetoric is normalized online and by political leaders. “I just don’t know that our young people know how to do that, in a variety of environments,” he says.
And when it comes to mental health — among the president’s quick fixes to this problem — Smiler notes that it will take major change to impact multiple generations of men and help them break through their loneliness in ways that lead to long-term peace. “Even if we’re talking about a mental-health intervention, we need to make sure the treatment comes from providers these young men are comfortable with. The vast majority of the therapy world is dominated by women. And that can create problems if they’re not trained on how boys and men think differently,” he explains.
None of this is exactly new. In a lot of ways, it’s the same toxicity that men have struggled with for much of modernity. This toxicity becomes concentrated, however, when it filters through the coarse hate of the internet and fills the empty world around a young man with nowhere else to turn.