Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation: How to Win Back Our Kids

 

Every so often, a book is published that causes a huge societal shift – Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin made abolition a widespread movement in pre-Civil War America; Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring jumpstarted the contemporary environmental movement (for better or worse). I hope that Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation creates a mass movement against the tech and social media giants that have been targeting Gen Z and younger: people born after 1995.

As Haidt observes,

Gen Z became the first generation in history to go through puberty with a portal in their pockets that called them away from the people nearby and into an alternate universe that was exciting, addictive, unstable, and – as I will show – unsuitable for children and adolescents. Succeeding socially in that universe required them to devote a large part of their consciousness – perpetually – to managing what became their online brand. This was now necessary to gain acceptance from peers, which is the oxygen of adolescence, and to avoid online shaming, which is the nightmare of adolescence.
(p. 6)

A related threat to the mental health of children and adolescents is the trend of adults to overprotect them. Haidt posits that without unsupervised outdoor play, children fail to develop strategies of negotiation, compromise, and dealing with setbacks. This sets them up for weakness and fragility as adults. So, the main thesis of The Anxious Generation is that “… two trends – overprotection in the real world and underprotection in the virtual world – are the major reasons why children born after 1995 became the anxious generation.” (p. 7)

The Anxious Generation is in four parts. Part 1 is A Tidal Wave, and it is loaded with data that make the case for childhood and adolescent access to smartphones causing significant increases in depression and anxiety. For example, here’s a graph of the rate of hospital visits due to self-harm incidents:

From p. 30 of The Anxious Generation. Source: https://wisqars.cdc.gov/reports/

As you can see, there is a shocking increase in girls’ incidents beginning in 2010. This chart is one of many, taken from data all over the world, that illustrate how young adolescents’ mental health fell off a cliff beginning in 2010. Haidt maintains that the primary cause was the introduction of smartphones with front-facing cameras that allowed users to take selfies, along with apps like Instagram. Unfortunately, the trend is not leveling off, let alone declining. As a high school math teacher of almost 40 years experience, I can affirm that something has gone very wrong with teenagers over the past ten years. The amount of anxiety I see in my students is truly alarming. My school has a no-phones policy during school hours for which I am very thankful. I can’t imagine trying to compete with social media during class time.

Part 2 is The Backstory: The Decline of the Play-Based Childhood. Haidt says that children have a need for free play. In a play-based childhood, young humans develop social skills involving others like connecting, synchronizing, and taking turns. These skills can only be learned in face-to-face, synchronous activities. Social media, on the other hand, promotes asynchronous, unconnected experiences. Most interestingly, there seems to be a critical period for children aged 9 to 15 where the lessons learned are “imprinted” on their psyches. This is also the age at which most teens begin using smartphones. Instead of learning how to behave socially with others their own age or with trusted, older mentors, they are thrust into a virtual world that promotes skewed and fringe “adult” values and behaviors.

There are two modes of cognition – discover and defend. For productive learning to take place, children need to be in discover mode, which means they are eager to have new experiences and make new connections. If they are in defend mode, they worry about being “triggered” and desire “safe spaces.” Children who don’t experience small setbacks and failures early on won’t be able to withstand larger setbacks later in life. The best way for children to learn how to respond to setbacks is during free play – unsupervised activity that involves a manageable amount of physical risk.

Beginning in the 1980s, parents became much more fearful and limited their children’s opportunities to be outdoors unsupervised. This led to a lack of trust in other adults and a decline in “neighborhood” parenting. If you don’t know and trust your neighbors, you won’t involve yourself in policing their kids’ behavior and they won’t help parent yours.

In addition to a loss of adult role models and mentors, children began to be denied rites of passage, starting in the 1980s. Throughout human history, cultures have all practiced rites of passage that help adolescents transition from dependent children to responsible adults. Our secular society has eliminated many of these transition experiences. Instead, we have instituted experience blockers like safetyism and smartphones. It used to be that turning 16 was an extremely significant age of transition, because almost all teens got their driver’s license at that time. In 1978, over 90% of U.S. high school seniors had a driver’s license. Since then, that percentage has steadily declined; in 2018 less than 60% of seniors had a license.

Part 3 is The Great Rewiring: The Rise of the Phone-Based Childhood. Adolescents who have had a phone-based childhood are liable to be harmed in four ways: social deprivation, sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation, and addiction. Since the average teen is on his or her phone for more than seven hours a day, there is a large proportion of Gen Z  that is dealing with the effects of these harms.

While both girls and boys are harmed by 24/7 access to the internet and social media, they are harmed in different ways and by different media. Boys spend their time on YouTube, Reddit, and multiplayer videogames. Girls primarily use Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, and TikTok. The goal of these platforms is to maximize user attention time. They have very sophisticated algorithms that quickly detect what a young girl shows interest in. If she looks up posts on nutrition, it isn’t very long before she is exposed to influencers promoting dangerous lifestyles that lead to anorexia.

Girls are more susceptible to visual social comparison. The filters Instagram uses turn the average person into an impossibly beautiful woman that young girls compare themselves to. This leads to depression and dissatisfaction with one’s self. In a fascinating study, women were shown images of very thin women for only 20 milliseconds – not long enough to be consciously aware of them – and they still became more anxious about their own bodies! 

Social media enable girls to practice aggression through sabotaging reputations and relationships. Social media also exacerbate girls’ vulnerability to sociogenic illnesses – illnesses caused by social influence. That helps explain the explosion in young women claiming to be “transgender”.

The effects of a phone-based childhood have also been bad for boys. There has been a drastic drop in boys doing risky behavior, which sounds like a good thing, right? However, it’s become so widespread that we have a generation of young men who avoid taking any kind of risk, whether it’s riding a bike up and off a ramp, to asking a young woman to go out on a date. This has consequences for our society at large. Men are traditionally the risk-takers, and that sparks innovation and moves a culture forward (think Elon Musk and SpaceX). If our males would rather stay in their bedrooms playing videogames and watching porn – which is so commonplace in Japan they have a name for it, hikikimori – it doesn’t bode well for our future.

Haidt wraps up Part 3 with six recommendations to help restore some spirituality to our culture – which is interesting, given he admits he’s an atheist. They are: Share Sacredness – engage in communal ceremonies, whether they be worship services or sporting events; Embodiment – do them in person; Stillness, Silence, and Focus – train yourself to ignore distractions to mindfulness; Transcend the Self – focus on something (or Someone) higher than yourself; Be Slow to Anger, Quick to Forgive – resist the temptation to participate in cancel culture; and  Find Awe in Nature – get outside! Notice that all six of these practices are impossible to perform online with social media.

So what can we do? That is the focus of Part 4: Collective Action for Healthier Childhood. All of his recommendations are common sense, such as raising the age of internet “adulthood” from 13 to 16, along with reliable methods of age verification. Haidt has some very interesting ideas of how software and hardware companies could accomplish accurate age verification without sacrificing user privacy.

Haidt also recommends making schools phone-free zones. As he writes, “A school that is phone-free and play-full is investing in prevention. It is reducing overprotection in the real world, which helps kids to cultivate antifragility. At the same time, it is loosening the grip of the virtual world, thereby fostering better learning and relationships in the real world.” (p. 253) The independent school where I teach has always been phone-free from 8:00 am to 3:10 pm. Visitors often remark on how the students are engaged in conversation and active play, instead of glued to their screens!

On the issue of encouraging more childhood independence, local governments need to stop assuming unsupervised kids are being neglected by their parents. They also need to legislate more play time during the school day and design playgrounds and neighborhoods that encourage foot and bicycle traffic. School systems need to drop the emphasis on getting high school graduates into college and provide more vocational and technical training.

The final chapter provides age-specific strategies parents can employ to safeguard their children’s mental health. At each age level, he shares practices that will provide “More (and Better) Experience in the Real World” as well as “Less (and Better) Experience on Screens”. If a critical mass of parents begin implementing these, we will see a huge improvement in the mental health of our next generation, which means we all will benefit.

Haidt has put together a very helpful companion to the book at anxiousgeneration.com. There are all kinds of resources there, as well as more documentation of the research he cites. I hope the book and the community he’s building via this site spark a global backlash against the exploitation of vulnerable children by social media.

Published in Education
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There are 5 comments.

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  1. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    • #1
  2. Fractad Coolidge
    Fractad
    @TWert

    Percival (View Comment):

    A very disturbing trend that Haidt documents is how girls’ mental illness has been internalized – depression, anxiety, eating disorders, etc., while boys’ bad behavior was externalized – drinking and driving, fighting, etc.  Except now both girls and boys have identical rates of internalized mental illness. Bring back the Big Wheel!

    • #2
  3. Lilly B Coolidge
    Lilly B
    @LillyB

    I also hope that Haidt’s book will create a mass movement, but I doubt it. I appreciate hearing your perspective as a teacher over several decades.  [As an aside, one massive change my mother noticed in her over 30 years of teaching was that the extra-running time she gave to some kids as a young teacher had turned into medicine time by the late 1990s/early 2000s. She retired in 2004.]

    My middle school daughter attends a school with a policy of no phones during the school day. The local public schools also eliminated phone use during school for middle school at the beginning of 2024. However, my daughter doesn’t have a phone number to use for social interactions after school is out. She doesn’t want one, yet, but she never gets invited to anything. She was very disappointed a few years ago when a neighbor, also in 5th grade at the time, spent their whole car-ride to an event together on her phone.   

    I wish other parents would also say “no phones until high school,” but I have found that most parents really want their kids to be popular and cool. They really do. One friend’s daughter just joined Instagram as a 12-year-old 7th grader. If she knows about Haidt’s book, it seems like she doesn’t care about it’s observations and conclusions. 

    • #3
  4. Fractad Coolidge
    Fractad
    @TWert

    Lilly B (View Comment):
    I wish other parents would also say “no phones until high school,” but I have found that most parents really want their kids to be popular and cool.

    @lillyb, you have hit the nail on the head as far as addressing this problem. Haidt understands that individual parents will never be able to withstand the social pressure. In the book and on his website (linked in my post), he provides the names of organizations that parents can join, so they are not in the fight alone. For example, members of Wait Until 8th take a pledge to not give their children any smartphone until 8th grade (I think that’s still too young, but it’s better than nothing). The goal is to get sizable blocs of families in individual schools to join and support each other and provide social activities for their kids.

    • #4
  5. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    Lilly B (View Comment):
    I have found that most parents really want their kids to be popular and cool.

    My parents never wanted that for me, and I never wanted it for my kids.

    The ‘cool kids’ are always the worst.

    • #5
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