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Why I'm Increasingly Worried About Boys, Too

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Here at the After Babel Substack, we’ve had many posts about declining adolescent mental health, many of which noted that the problems are more severe for girls, or that “liberal girls sank first and fastest.” The evidence, from studies and from what so many girls say, points clearly to smartphones and social media, particularly Instagram and TikTok, and particularly when girls are hooked in early puberty (middle school). 

But what’s happening to boys? I could see that they were not doing well, even though their rates of anxiety and depression are much lower than girls, on average. I just couldn’t identify a clear pattern in their mental health trends nor a clear explanation for why they were doing poorly. That began to change in late 2022 when Zach and I committed to figuring out the boy question when we started writing The Anxious Generation. I asked Zach to create a new Collaborative Review Doc, on boys, and to put everything into it: what do we know about rising marijuana use, falling sperm counts, sports betting addictions… everything. I invited my friend Richard Reeves to join us as a curator of the document. This was while Richard was working on his book Of Boys and Men.

Once Zach and I read Richard’s book, the story became much clearer. The story for boys begins in the 1970s, as they slowly get pushed out of the real world, and slowly get pulled into the virtual world with the arrival of home computers and video games. The push-pull dynamic got stronger after the arrival of the internet, in the 1990s, and it got supercharged in the late 2000s and early 2010s with the arrival of mind-blowing multi-player games, smartphones, and practically unlimited access to the virtual world via the new high-speed internet. 

Visual illustrations of the push-pull dynamic away from the real world and into the virtual (Created by Zach Rausch, in DALL-E)

Richard asked me if I would tell that story in a short essay at his new and very much needed American Institute for Boys and Men. That essay was published on Nov. 14. I’m very grateful to The Free Press for giving it a much wider readership by republishing it on December 5. Zach and I decided to republish it here as well, so that readers of After Babel would be sure to see it, and so that our list of posts includes this post focused on boys. (There will be more.) 

Let’s figure out what this rapid technological change has done to boys, as well as what it has done to girls.

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Since 2015, I have been trying to solve a mystery: All of a sudden, around 2013, rates of depression, anxiety, and self-harm began rising rapidly for American adolescents. Those born in and after 1996—Gen Z—have the worst mental health of any generation for which we have data (going back to the “Greatest Generation,” born 1900 to 1925).

Teen girls reporting more depression

You can see the sudden change in Figure 1, which plots the percentage of adolescents (ages 12-17) who self-report at least one major depressive episode in the past year, as measured by a major national U.S. survey:

Percent of U.S. teens (ages 12-17) who had at least one major depressive episode in the past year (by self-report based on a symptom checklist).

Figure 1. Percent of U.S. teens (ages 12-17) who had at least one major depressive episode in the past year (by self-report based on a symptom checklist). Data from U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health. See more on U.S. mental health trends in Adolescent Mood Disorders Since 2010: A Collaborative Review.

What stands out is the trend for girls. It’s like a hockey stick, with a bend that begins going up in 2013. Why that year? That is the year after Facebook bought Instagram, and, with so much publicity, girls of all ages flocked onto the platform. In graph after graph, Jean Twenge, Zach Rausch, and I found sharp increases in poor mental health for girls right around 2013. One major correlational study found that girls who are heavy users of social media are three times more likely to be depressed than non-users, while for boys, there’s no sign of harm for light use, and heavy users are “only” twice as likely to be depressed as non-users.

The conclusion was clear: Social media harms girls via multiple well-known mechanisms including social comparison, early sexualization, perfectionism, cyberbullying and relational aggression, and emotional contagion. Mystery solved, right?

Not quite. What about the boys? Their depression rates also go up in Figure 1, but not as much, and without a clear “elbow.” So, maybe the story is that boys use social media less than girls do, and/or it is less harmful to them, so we should focus most of our efforts on helping girls.

That’s what I thought when I began my deep dive into the mental health crisis of Gen Z. After four years of research, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve found that boys are doing very badly too, but it was harder to see because I was focusing on the wrong outcome variables.  I’ve learned that the collapse of boys’ mental health is driven by different social and technological factors, compared to girls. (You can find a Google doc collecting studies about boys’ difficulties here. I curate it with Zach Rausch and Richard Reeves.)

I’ll be sharing that story in future essays for the American Institute for Boys and Men, a new think tank founded by Richard V. Reeves, and in my forthcoming book The Anxious Generation. But let me give you a brief preview now.

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Boys are doing badly too

On any measure related to anxiety or depression, girls have higher absolute rates (the total number of individuals), often two or three times higher, as you see in Figure 1. For suicide it’s the opposite: as a new research brief from AIBM makes clear, the rates for boys are much higher, and their high rate is the deepest sign of a crisis for boys.

But what about the relative change since 2010? For the data shown in Figure 1, the answer is that the rate of reported depression for girls was up by 145%, while boys are up 161%. That’s right: The relative change since 2010 was actually slightly larger for boys. (Again, a similar but opposite trend can be seen in suicide rates.)

From a public health standpoint, the change for girls is more serious because it includes a much larger number of girls; just as the rise in suicide rates among boys has a much bigger absolute impact.

But from a researcher’s point of view, trying to understand causal factors, the relative change is also important. It tells us that something changed in the early 2010s that impacted boys at least as much as girls. We see similar patterns in many other mental health variables. The relative change is only occasionally larger for boys (as in Figure 1), but it is often in the same ballpark.

Boys are retreating

In scientific research, everything depends upon specifying the correct variables. The dependent variable is the one that we measure as the outcome. We try to understand how it changes in response to the independent variable, which is the one that we manipulate in the lab, or the one that the world manipulates for us (such as by giving some kids a smartphone, others not).

Back when I was focused on anxiety and depression as the dependent variables, the story of technology (as the independent variable) seemed to be a story that was mostly about girls. But once I read an early draft of Richard Reeves’s book Of Boys and Men, I realized that I had been focused on the wrong dependent variables. For boys and young men, the key change has been the retreat from the real world since the 1970s, when they began investing less effort in school, employment, dating, marriage, and parenting.

Figure 2 illustrates one aspect of this gradual withdrawal. It plots the percentage of American high school seniors who agree with the statement “People like me don’t have much of a chance at a successful life.” As you can see, very few girls agreed with that statement back in the 1970s, and as girls and women made progress relative to boys in school and employment, the line stayed low. It wasn’t until girls’ social lives moved onto smartphones and Instagram in the early 2010s that they reported feeling much more pessimistic about their lives and themselves (across many survey items).

Percent of U.S. 12th graders who agreed with the statement: “People like me don’t have much of a chance at a successful life.”

Figure 2. Percent of U.S. 12th graders who agreed with the statement: “People like me don’t have much of a chance at a successful life.” Source: Monitoring the Future 1977-2021, 2-Year Buckets, Weighted).

For boys, the pattern is somewhat different. More boys than girls were pessimistic in 1977, and that number rose gradually and fairly steadily until 2011, at which time it was much higher than the rate for girls. After 2011, pessimism surged for both sexes, and girls closed some of the gap. In other words, the trend for boys has a longer back story.

The male crisis didn’t begin on the day that boys traded in their flip phones for smartphones packed with social media apps. Boys started to become more pessimistic around four decades ago, although the trend has accelerated in the years since everyone got a smartphone.

In Of Boys and Men, Richard describes many of the structural factors that caused boys’ gradual disengagement from the real world, such as an economy shifting away from manufacturing (in which male strength is a huge asset) and toward the service sector (where women have some advantages). What I and my colleagues have added to this analysis is the role of digital and entertainment technologies in pulling and keeping boys away from the real world.


The Siren Song of the Internet

Zach Rausch and I have constructed a timeline of the digital revolution and shown how at every step—from the first personal computers in the 1970s through the early internet in the 1990s and the rise of online multiplayer games in the 2000s—the virtual world sent out a siren song that sounded sweeter, on average, to boys than it did to girls.

Why? Among the most consistent and largest of all psychological sex differences is the “people vs. things” dichotomy. On average, boys are more attracted to things, machines, and complex systems that can be manipulated, while girls are more attracted to people; they are more interested in what those people are thinking and feeling.

So, in the early phases of the technological entertainment revolution, boys invested more and more of their time into computers, computer programming, and video games. It was only when social media became popular in the late 2000s that girls flocked over to the virtual world and began spending as much time as boys interacting with computers and smartphones.

The virtual world was magical for many boys. In addition to letting them interact with new gadgets, it also enabled them to do—safely—the sorts of things they find extremely exciting but not available in real life: for example, jumping out of planes and parachuting into a jungle war zone where they meet up with a few friends to battle other groups of friends to the (virtual) death.

Just as video games became more finely tuned to boys’ greater propensity for coalitional competition, the real world, and especially school, got more frustrating for many boys: Shorter recess, bans on rough and tumble play, and ever more emphasis on sitting still and listening.

To understand what has happened to the mental health of boys and young men, we must begin our analysis long before the early 2010s, and then we must use a “push-pull” analysis. In other words, what were the factors pushing them away from investing in real-world pursuits? And what were the factors pulling them into the virtual world?

(These are the questions I answer in a chapter of my forthcoming book. It covers research on video games, online pornography, and discussion platforms such as 4Chan that can sometimes lure boys into adopting radical political ideas and identities.)

Boys are in trouble. Many have withdrawn from the real world, where they could develop the skills needed to become competent, successful, and loving men. Instead, many have been lured into an ever more appealing virtual world in which desires for adventure and for sex can be satisfied, at least superficially, without doing anything that would prepare them for later success in work, love, and marriage.

And all of this withdrawal happened before the arrival of the metaverse, which is just now taking shape, and before the arrival of increasingly compelling, witty, attractive, and customizable AI girlfriends. The virtual world is becoming ever more immersive and addictive. Every year it will pull harder and harder on boys, urging them to abandon the real world. We’ve got to make the real world more appealing for them.

The mental health crisis afflicting Gen Z is among the most serious of many serious problems we face in America today. (I should note that the problem is not uniquely American; it seems to be happening at the same time and in the same way in all of the Anglosphere nations, and in the Nordic region too, as Zach Rausch has reported.) 

I am extremely concerned about what is happening to girls, and to boys as well. (I happen to have one of each, currently in high school.) But the struggles of boys have received far less attention. I hope that is now changing, and we can figure out how to help boys and men flourish.

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The Anxious Generation comes out March 26. You can pre-order it here.

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Harry Potter and the Magical Phone

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[A note from Jon Haidt]

A theme of The Anxious Generation is that we are overprotecting children in the real world while underprotecting them in the virtual world. That’s an abstract principle. In the post below, Raffi Grinberg illustrates it brilliantly by re-imagining the Harry Potter story if Harry had been born into Gen Z, instead of being born at the start of the Millennial generation (his imputed birth year is 1980).

Raffi is well-placed to comment on these themes. He’s a millennial himself (born 1990). I first met him when he came to see me, in 2017, with ideas about how to improve a project I was working on: an attempt to teach students the skills of speaking to those who don’t share their beliefs. Raffi had great ideas about how to make the project more engaging, and how to program it online, which evolved into the Constructive Dialogue Institute. I am grateful to Raffi for the key role he played in launching the whole thing. 

Raffi now runs a separate organization, Dialog, which in some ways has a similar mission: they convene leaders from around the world (CEOs, high-ranking politicians, public intellectuals, etc.) for off-the-record conversations in which there is plenty of disagreement and plenty of learning. Raffi is also writing a book based on his popular course “Adulting 101” at Boston College, to teach recent college grads everything they need to know about the real world. You can subscribe to his Substack (or even better—forward it to a 20-something-year-old you know).

Zach Rausch (who is the overall editor of After Babel) helped Raffi refine the post, connect it concretely to the research we have been collecting, and then took some of his text and used DALL-E 3 to illustrate various scenes. As you’ll see, Zach is still fine-tuning his abilities — there are quite a few different Harry’s below.

— Jon Haidt

You can subscribe to Raffi’s Substack, The Adulting Professor:

The summer that Harry Potter turned 11, he received a letter in the mail informing that he was born to magical parents.1 The next moment, a half-giant by the name of Hagrid appeared at his doorstep and bestowed upon Harry a shiny new smartphone. Hagrid whisked him off to App Alley to collect all the tools he would need to make the most of this magical new adventure.

First up was a neon purple and yellow building, full of ever-scrolling images of smiling people. “With Instagram,” a brightly-dressed witch explained, “you can keep up-to-date on all your friends’ lives, while sharing highlights of yours!”

Harry meets the Instagram Witch

“Wow!” Harry exclaimed. “So this will show me every moment of their lives?”

“No,” replied the Instagram Witch. “Only the moments they want to share.”

“Hmm,” murmured Harry. “Wouldn’t that give me a distorted view of what their lives are like? And give me unrealistic expectations of how I should be dressing and eating?”

“Perhaps,” shrugged the Instagram Witch.

“And if I’m constantly seeing other people having fun without me, could that lead to major FOMO?”

“Yes yes,” muttered the Instagram Witch. “Now that you mention it, we’ve seen that girls who spend five or more hours each day on social media are three times as likely to be depressed as those who report not using social media at all.” The United States is currently facing an adolescent mental health crisis, in part fueled by social media.”

“Alright, that’s enough of that!” bellowed Hagrid. He plopped the Instagram icon onto Harry’s phone.


Off they went to a tall building decorated with a beautiful blue bird (which appeared hastily redecorated by an X across its body). “Welcome to Twitter!” said an enthusiastic wizard, “where you can expose yourself to more new ideas than ever, and share your own.”

Harry meets the Twitter Wizard

“Cool!” said Harry. “Do people really become more open-minded as a result?”

“Not exactly,” responded the Twitter Wizard. “Although users are exposed to other opinions, their tribal instincts tend to become activated which makes them feel threatened and thus shut themselves off from other opinions, linking mostly to people who share their ideology.”

“But at least it makes you feel better to find like-minded people?” ventured Harry.

“Not quite. The most common words associated with re-Tweeting are emotional words—such as ‘angry’, ‘disgusted’, or ‘outraged’—which are linked with a 17% rise in virality for each word mentioned.”

“Okay, thank you very much!” cried Hagrid, putting the X into Harry’s phone.

Their final stop was a massive clock that kept re-ticking in 6-second intervals. “Behold the ever-entertaining TikTok!” cried a witch, “where short videos are curated just for you.”

Harry meets the TikTok Witch

“How come everyone looks so beautiful?” asked Harry, wide-eyed.

“Ah, just a bit of our magic. These filters spruce everyone up automatically.”

“So if I spend a long time on TikTok,” asked Harry, “won’t everyone in the real world appear drab by comparison?”

“Perhaps,” admitted the TikTok witch. “Exposure to artificially-altered images and videos often creates unrealistic expectations for your own looks. Watching TikTok videos of thin women dancing has been shown to cause significant declines in one’s body image, which can in turn increase the risk of developing eating disorders.”

“And so ends our magical visit to App Alley,” said Hagrid after granting Harry’s phone the TikTok icon.

“What’s over there?” asked Harry, peering down a shadowy corner.

“Knockturn Alley. All sorts of dark stuff. You really shouldn’t go—”

But Harry had already walked ahead, and was now speaking with a wizard wearing a yellow hooded robe.

Very different Harry meets the Yellow Hooded Wizard

“With this wondrous app,” wheezed the Pornhub Wizard, “you can indulge all your sexual curiosities.”

“What does ‘indulge’ mean? What are ‘sexual curiosities’? Remember, I’m 11.”

“Not to worry, young man. As long as you’re willing to lie about your age and employ a few easy tricks to keep your parents from knowing, you’ll be able to use it as much as you want. You may become one of the 5% of male users who develop a pornography addiction, or one of the countless others whose intimate relationships are disrupted by their heavy pornography use.”

Hagrid grabbed Harry by the arm and pulled him back into the bright light outside, but not before the Pornhub Wizard stealthily threw his icon into Harry’s phone.

Hagrid told Harry it was time to head to Hogwarts to meet with Dumbledore.

“Wait,” said Harry, confused. “Will Hogwarts be providing me with some kind of training to mitigate the dark side of these apps? Some kind of… defense against the dark arts?”

Hagrid laughed. “Of course not. We don’t have a teacher for that.”

By the time Harry reached Dumbledore’s office, he had enough time to reflect and do some research of his own. In an act of unusual maturity, Harry handed his new phone to Dumbledore.

“As exciting as this smartphone is, sir, I would like to hold off until age 16, when my brain is more developed and equipped to navigate these dangers. Otherwise, I’m at increased risk of developing all sorts of mental health problems. And it’s not just about what’s in my head—mental health disorders can lead to physical harm as well (self-inflicted). In the hands of a discerning adult, this smartphone can be a great tool; in the hands of a child, it can be truly dangerous.”

“Alright Harry,” nodded Dumbledore. “As you wish.”

“In the meantime, sir, could I have a wand?”

“Absolutely not.” Dumbledore grew very serious. “We don't let kids play with wands2 anymore—they’re too dangerous.”

Harry Potter and the Magic Phone

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Actually, parents who who became sick of him complaining that all of his friends have smartphones.


Climbing trees, biking around the neighborhood, riding public transportation, being exposed to germs via other kids, etc.

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Adventskalender 2023, Türchen #10: Paco / Risikogruppe – Reise nach Ixtlan

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Nachdem wir uns Gestern in die Brandenburger Pampa zurückgezogen haben, von wo die Idee, das Ding hier mal eben schnell mobil hochzuladen, eine doch sehr optimistische war, heute etwas später, aber immer noch früh genug, um damit den 2. Advent passend zu untermalen.

Paco ist hier ein langer Bekannter, auch wenn wir uns persönlich bisher nie getroffen haben. Seinen Valium House mag, wie ich von vielen Leuten weiß, nicht nur ich außerordentlich gerne. Auch deshalb ist er eigentlich immer Teil des jährlichen Kalender-Ensembles.

Ich habe in diesem Jahr lange damit gehadert, dieses Projekt weiterzuführen. Zu arbeitsintensiv, zu viele nicht beantwortete Anfragen, die doch gesunkene Reichweite und das Leben, das neben all dem auch geführt und gelebt werden will. Letztendlich aber habe ich mich dann doch dazu entschieden und so kurzfristig wie nie, Leute gefragt, von denen ich wusste, dass die auch trotz der kurzen Zeit dem Kalender qualitativ angemessen ein passendes Türchen basteln würden. Einer davon ist Paco, der offenbar der späten Anfrage wegen überrascht dennoch innerhalb kürzester Zeit antwortete und lieferte. Und ich wusste vorher schon, dass es ein Türchen zum Advent werden wird. Weil ein solcher und sein Valium House einfach immer Hand in Hand gehen. So auch hier.

Und während die beiden am Spazieren sind, fahren die Frau des Hauses und ich durch die verregnete Brandenburger Pampa auf den Landstraßen, an deren Seiten der Schnee langsam den Kampf gegen den Regen verliert, Richtung zu Hause, wo Glühwein und Stollen auf uns warten. Und irgendwie passt das alles in Summe ganz wunderbar zusammen. Auch und gerade dieses Mixes wegen.

Style: Valium House
Length: 02:15:09
Quality: 320 kBit/s

Wallace – Tokyo Street
bambinodj – Gepäckträger (3LNA oklou)
OK EG – Golden Hour (Cousin’s Overcast Mix)
Rampue – Trägheit Motivlos
Emin Gök – In Circles (feat. Ramiz Ali)
Ah! Kosmos & Büşra Kayikçi – Ma
Joseph Shabason – Zero Donny Barley
Carsten Jost – V (Achim Maerz Remix)
Ninze – Bird in Hand
Ninze – Mild Club
AFAR – On Me
Oceanvs Orientalis – Critique
Robot Koch – Botanical Garden
Flieder – Klavier in C (Ninze Remix)
Sean La’Brooy feat. Leo Yucht – Storage Room
Cagan Tunali – Never Ending Dream
Soble – Aquella Tarde
222 – Brown Rice (Shunji Mori)
Betelgeize – Capítulo II – Parábola Del Chamán
Xexa – SectionAudio
Kundan Lal – Interlude (Aas Paas)
IV-IN – The Moon Is Rising
Landhouse – Ambre
Joseph Shabason – Welcome To Hell
Nosaj Thing – My Soul of Something (Instrumental)
Hoffmannstrasse – Paradoxalement
Agatha Love – Aroma
Hoffmannstrasse – Rose in Detroit
Peter Power – Rain Dance
Peter Power – Amma
Kundan Lal – Illgrimage

Alle der diesjährigen Kalendermixe finden sich hier.

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9,990 orders of shrimp paste:

The woman was having a meal with friends at a hotpot restaurant in Kunming, a city in southwest China. When everyone's selections arrived at the table, she posted a photo of the spread on the Chinese social media platform WeChat. What she didn't notice was that she'd included the QR code on her table, which the restaurant's customers use to place their orders. [...]

Wang was absolutely shocked to learn that "her" meal soon included 1,850 orders of duck blood, 2,580 orders of squid, and an absolutely bonkers 9,990 orders of shrimp paste. According to the South China Morning Post, Wang didn't know what she'd accidentally done until a member of the restaurant's staff stopped by her table to confirm her $60,400 order. [...]

It is commonplace in China for restaurant customers to use QR codes to both order and pay for their meals -- and in many situations, diners have to follow the restaurant's page on WeChat before they can order the first item.

Previously, previously, previously.

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Adventskalender 2023, Türchen #09: Kraftfuttermischwerk – Glühen & Glimmern

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Das 9. Türchen wird hier seit jeher und aus Gründen von mir gefüllt. Da draußen wird der Techno wieder schneller, die Jungen feiern den Sound der 90er, mit dem wir damals schon erwachsen wurden, auch wenn der jetzt geremixt, voll digitalisiert und meisten ganz klar poliert daherkommt. Die Technologie gibt das relativ einfach her, was ja auch ganz geil ist. Trance geht wieder voll klar und keiner hat Probleme mit 145 BPM. Es rappelt aus den tragbaren Bluetooth Boxen aller Orten.

Ich dachte mir letzte Nacht dennoch, ich mache es mir einfach mal mit Glühwein und Spekulatius bei 108 BPM gemütlich und bringe das zusammen, was ich davon in den letzten 5 Jahren der Bummeltechno-Euphorie so gekauft und bisher nie gespielt habe. An dieser Gemütlichkeit könnt ihr hiermit teilhaben. Ich werde dazu jetzt mit der Fam geburtstagsbrunchen und später mit der Frau des Hauses bis Morgen in einer Therme abtauchen.

Style: Sloth Dance
Length: 01:18:13
Quality: 320 kBit/s

Nicolas Jaar – No One Is Looking at U feat. Lorraine
Zazou, Landhouse – La Paz (Xique-Xique Remix)
Valeriya, Latteo, Xande – Metalips
AVEM, Arutani – Halcyon
Feinheitsbrei – Forest Of Souls
luçïd (Paris) – Favorite Mistake
Noema – Twilight (O/Y Remix)
Cedric Scheibel – Amacitia
Deep Andi – Bajor
Christopher Schwarzwalder, Mira, Xique-Xique – Siriema (Mira & C. Schwarzwälder Rmx)
Savu – Climber
Steffen Laschet – Mitternachtsluft (Solatic Remix)
Pulli & Chomba – Acid Vogel (Laurent Flaoh Remix)

Alle der diesjährigen Kalendermixe finden sich hier.

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Die Dark Patterns werden immer fieser! Hier hat einer ...

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Die Dark Patterns werden immer fieser! Hier hat einer das Cookieterrorbanner dunkelgemustert. Da ist dann der "alle ablehnen"-Knopf der hervorgehobene. Jetzt wo wir alle konditioniert wurden, auf den unscheinbaren Knopf zu klicken. Wie fies und gemein!1!!
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