Five years ago, a number of high school students in Palo Alto killed themselves, a phenomenon that is referred to as a “suicide cluster.” Last year, another tragic wave of suicides struck the Northern California city, terrifying the affluent, otherwise picturesque community; two clusters so close together was unheard of.
In her cover story for the December issue of The Atlantic, journalist Hanna Rosin traveled to Palo Alto, home of Stanford University and the de facto capital of tech, to report on the shocking problem of teenage suicide in Silicon Valley. She discusses the psychological research behind suicide and the role of destructive social norms that push American teenagers hard to be superhuman in all that they do.
For most people in Silicon Valley, success isn’t really a plateau that you reach, but rather something that is constantly a few rungs above you, perpetually out of reach. This is true across America, but especially so in the Valley.
In an interview with Re/code, Rosin talked about the story and the ways in which tech industry norms are interwoven into the Valley’s fabric of life.
With entrepreneurs, it’s an endless cycle of raising money, hiring, product tinkering, raising more money, hoping, praying, raising even more money, rinse, repeat. For employees of bigger companies like Facebook or Apple, it means stretching your workday to make sure that features and new products ship on time. Or at least with as few screw-ups as possible.
Predictably, this industry culture isn’t totally confined to the industry. In an interview with Re/code, Rosin talked about the story and the ways in which tech industry norms are interwoven into the Valley’s fabric of life. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Re/code: How did you come to this story?
Hanna Rosin: I came to it in kind of a backwards way. I was interested in the research by this woman, Suniya Luthar, who I quote in the story about the U-shaped curve between poor kids and really elite kids.
I just kept reading about the research; it’s this unusual body of data. I talked to her on the phone, and she was talking to me about Palo Alto. And she thought she was gonna head to Palo Alto, and then I looked up the Palo Alto story, and then I realized — they’re in the middle of another suicide cluster. So initially I thought that Palo Alto was just going to be one example of many, but then I realized they were smack in the middle of a second cluster, so all of these issues would be really alive to them at that moment.
People were in serious, deep agony at meeting after meeting in the high schools and the community, and you could hear the anguish kind of unfolding. “The Overprotected Kid” was another story I wrote, and I kind of think of this as “The Overprotected Kid, Part Two,” with teenagers, later down the road.
How do you think of this suicide problem when compared to other public health issues at high schools? Like, say, injuries from football?
I think that deaths are just one of those things that call your attention to it — the deaths make you not be able to ignore the problem. But the actual deep problem, and I don’t know if this is analogous to sports injuries, is that we all — parents, administrators, parents — kind of have gone along and not really been paying attention to it. The deaths are really what just call your attention to the actual problem.
Have you seen “The Sopranos”?
One of the “Sopranos”-like themes that I picked up on in your story was how the high-school-age characters effectively relived the larger dramas of their parents. So many of the kids in Palo Alto have parents who work in Silicon Valley — did you see a connection there?
Absolutely. The bar is unreasonably high. The bar for dedication to professional life, the bar for how much money you need to make. It’s like everyone there has absorbed as a normal line of success what’s a completely unusual measure for success. I interviewed a lot of shrinks, who told me their patients come in with terrible anxiety because they haven’t made, say, $10 million by the time they’re 40.
And they absorb that like a normal path for success, and they transmit that onto their kids, like, “that’s what counts for success.” And that’s actually extremely difficult to achieve, I think there’s a line in the story from Suniya who says, “If you’ve never been to the moon, you wouldn’t know that that was an option.”
Whereas these guys, they do go to the moon, they go there all the time. They are the center of the universe, they make a huge amount of money — that’s the culture that’s considered normal. So that permeates the school, so what they think of as success is really unusual.
What you’re describing also sounds like a consequence of economic segregation; that by creating communities of the ultrawealthy in Palo Alto, you’re separating them from all these other people in the Bay Area who have totally different lived experiences, and so Palo Alto high schoolers have a very skewed idea of what’s “normal.”
Oh yeah, totally. That’s absolutely true. This is all about social norms, and social norms get created and absorbed by everybody, and nobody understands any alternative — or you forget that there is any alternative.
This is all about social norms, and social norms get created and absorbed by everybody, and nobody understands any alternative — or you forget that there is any alternative.
And I think that Palo Alto is a really excellent example of that. I was thinking, would it be different if Paly or Gunn [high schools in Palo Alto] were located in New York? And it would be different — New York is diffused and spread out, and you’d be passing lots and lots of kinds of people. You’d be bumping up against different social norms all the time. But Palo Alto is like an island, it’s isolated, it’s essentially a nice quiet suburb. You’re not in contact with many different kinds of people doing different kinds of things.
So the vast majority of people are doing this one thing, have accepted this one norm, and haven’t come into contact with many other norms.
Outside of the context of the Google engineer [whose daughter committed suicide] who joins the school board that was in your story, did you see any other instances where the tech industry got involved? Like, say, a Facebook employee comes to a high school auditorium and says, “Listen, I didn’t go to college until I was 26, and dropped acid and walked around Nepal — you’re all going to be okay.”
Well that is what was so funny to me! People told me this is fairly typical, but the first generation of success stories in Silicon Valley are like affluent college-dropout types, and this is a question that I didn’t deal with, but how did that mutate into a kind of standardized, uniform, AP testing, “get-into-college” obsession?
The problem right now is that there is only one narrative, whereas I think in decades past there have been counter-narratives, like in the ’60s.
How do you mean?
It was like, “Screw the man! Drop out!” Even in the ’80s, there was a counter-narrative to ’80s materialism; in the ’90s there was one, too. I feel like there isn’t that counter-narrative, like we’ve lost it along the way.
Even the kids who are protesting in colleges these days, the kids are asking authorities to fix the problem, and that’s unusual. It used to be, “Screw the authorities!” The weirdest part of the story to me was the loss of agency, and how the kids have totally absorbed the norms.
That’s an eerily apt metaphor for how people perceive Silicon Valley. Take the public character arc of Mark Zuckerberg: Harvard bad boy who fucks with authority, creates his own app, becomes CEO of a fast-growing brash company, and then he drops the hoodie, wears a tie, hires a former Treasury official as his COO, and now his share price is way up. Are there people in the community who are making these kinds of connections between the industry and what’s happening?
Well, we’re in second-generation Silicon Valley now. A lot of people say that it was initially “rebels” or “outsiders” and “visionaries” and “kooks,” and now it’s much more, kind of, mainstream corporate. If any of these kids came home to their parents and said, “I have this vision for changing the world!” and want to drop out, their parents would be horrified. That’s not part of the idiom, that’s not hugely admired.
You really found that was the case? There’s an entire subset of the culture, especially around Stanford, that is telling people, “Hey drop out, work on that startup, move fast, break shit.”
Maybe that becomes true after high school. Like maybe when you get a bit of wiggle room, that becomes true. There are definitely kids who thrive in Palo Alto’s culture, who are awesomely smart machines inventing apps, and are insanely independent. You know, the culture attracts people who love it and thrive in it, and aren’t destroyed by it in any way — they totally flourish in the culture. That’s a type that I met.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.