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Young adults are desperate not to let peers see any signs of weakness or failure.

A cursory search of academic dissertations reveals a new interest in the origins of insults and curse words. For instance, I learned recently that the insult “phony”—as in “She acted like she was into EDM [electronic dance music], but then we found out she was a phony”—entered our lexicon with the arrival of the telephone. People started phoning other people randomly, pretending to be someone they weren’t. These were the original “phonies.”

New technologies always give rise to new cultural anxieties. As John M. Culkin said in summary of Marshall McLuhan’s work, “We shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us.” If the modern news media had existed in the early 20th century, TV anchors would have breathlessly warned parents about the threat of phonies coming after their children. Websites would have compiled listicles with “eight signs your son is a phony.” And journalists would have dialed up leading psychologists to ask for tips on talking to college students about phony-ism.

Nowadays, it’s social media that has us worried, as stories of cyberbullying and “sexting” surface with alarming frequency. Parents, educators, church leaders, and even young people themselves want to know what Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter—not to mention the smartphones that make them omnipresent—are doing to us. We all have feelings and theories on the ill effects of social media, but these are only anecdotal. Surprisingly little direct study has been attempted.

Onto this turf steps sociologist Donna Freitas with her book The Happiness Effect: How Social Media Is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost (Oxford University …

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