There’s an underappreciated aspect of the Discord documents leak. The Washington Post describes the online group where suspected leaker Jack Teixeira may have divulged national-security secrets as “mostly bored young gamers, isolated during the coronavirus pandemic.” Another Post article characterizes the kids as “far-flung acquaintances searching for companionship amid the isolation of the pandemic.” It goes on: “The gathering spot had been a pandemic refuge, particularly for teen gamers locked in their houses and cut off from their real-world friends.”
Teenagers were isolated and cut off from their real-world friends during the pandemic? You don’t say.
It would be irresponsible and unfair to claim that unnecessary school closures during the pandemic led directly to the worst American intelligence breach in ages. But it would be cowardly to ignore completely their possible role in this story.
In January, the journal Nature Human Behavior published a paper stating that students “lost out on about 35% of a normal school year’s worth of learning” when schools went remote during the pandemic. That’s bad enough, but it’s strictly a measure of academic loss. What children learn academically in classrooms is only a fraction of what they learn as members of a school community. During closures, kids were deprived of the essential socialization that normally shapes a child’s ability to understand, negotiate with, and relate to others. In the Atlantic, Meira Levinson and Daniel Markovits claim that “by the time schools let out for summer in May or June 2021, the average American public-school student had experienced 65 school days without any contact whatsoever from their schools or teachers—no in-person classes, no Zoom classes, no videoconferences, no telephone calls. That’s more than a third of a school year without schooling, full stop.”
It’s also more than a third of a school year without the sense of community that normally sustains life.
So kids found community elsewhere. The nonprofit organization Common Sense Media found a 17 percent increase in digital screen time among teens and preteens from 2019 to 2021. What’s more, kids spent most of that time gaming and watching videos. And that’s precisely where the leaker and his friends come in. Their online club Thug Shaker Central was made up of gamers. And it seems to have spun off from a larger group of kids who connected over guns-and-ammo videos. There is no question that Thug Shaker Central served as a substitute community during the pandemic. One member told the Washington Post that other members were like “family” and helped one another through periods of depression and emotional strain. In a world of fading bonds, the kids must have felt pretty special to be entrusted with the leaker’s secrets.
Social-media platforms are designed both to foster connections and lead users down rabbit holes. A March 24, 2022 New York Times article on the pandemic spike in youth screen time paraphrases Diana Graber, author of Raising Humans in a Digital World: “YouTube in particular had a worrying algorithm that was designed to expose viewers to more extreme content over time.” This makes sense. The group from which Thug Shaker Central apparently broke off were fans of a weapons-related YouTuber. And they were led to top-secret U.S. military intelligence. That’s extreme.
It would be absurd to say that schools should have stayed open during the pandemic to prevent kids from joining online groups and exposing national-security secrets. Schools should have stayed open because the science in support of closing them was nonexistent. Children are extremely unlikely to get very sick with Covid and far more unlikely than adults to transmit it. Schools should have stayed open because the tragic impact on mental health and learning was predictable and predicted. And schools should have stayed open because children and teens need structure and real-world connection in their lives. Without those, who knows what they’ll get up to?
It’s worth asking whether the document leak would have happened without school closures, even if the question is unanswerable. The fact is, it will be a long time before we can accurately assess the full reach of our pandemic policy mistakes.