Jonathan Haidt, Generation Z Children And Smartphones

May 11th, 2024 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Concern, even anxiety, about the upcoming generation is a given in American history.  For example, in 1935, George Leighton and Richard Hellman in Harper’s lamented the apathy, disenchantment and criminality of high school students in America.  In 1982, Neil Postman published The Disappearance of Childhood in which he argued that teens were adopting adult vices (e.g., heavy drinking, crime and sexual immorality).  He blamed television.  In that same spirit of concern and anxiety, a new book by Jonathan Haidt, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing An Epidemic of Mental Illness, gives focus to smartphones and social media.  Haidt is an admired social psychologist who teaches at New York University’s Stern School of Business and has spent his career studying emotion, culture and morality, turning along the way to child development and adolescent mental health.

Haidt’s basic thesis: “Once young people began carrying the entire internet in their pockets, available to them day and night, it altered their daily experiences and developmental pathways across the board.  Friendship, dating, sexuality, exercise, sleep, academics, politics, family dynamics, identity, all were affected.”  Free play had been in retreat and technology on the march since the 1980s, Haidt observes, but it took the invention of the smartphone, which permits users to be online 24/7, to complete the mutation of childhood from ‘play-based’ to ‘phone-based.’ He adds that giving smartphones to young people en masse constitutes “the largest uncontrolled experiment humanity has ever performed on its own children.” That experiment has been a disaster.

Peggy Noonan summarizes his historical perspective as well:  “He tells the story of what happened to Generation Z, which he defines as those born after 1995. (They followed the millennials, born 1981-95.) Older members of Gen Z entered puberty while four technological trends were converging. One was the arrival of the iPhone in 2007, another the continuing spread of broadband internet. The third, starting in 2009, was ‘the new age of hyper-viralized social media,’ with likes, retweets and shares. In 2010 came the front-facing camera on smartphones, which ‘greatly expanded the number of adolescents posting carefully curated photos and videos of their lives for their peers and strangers not just to see, but to judge.’  This 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 alternative universe that was exciting, addictive, unstable and . . . unsuitable for children and adolescents.’”

Other salient parts of her summary:

  • “Pew Research reports that, in 2011, 23% of teens had a smartphone. That meant they had only limited access to social media—they had to use the family computer. By 2016 one survey showed 79% of teens owned a smartphone, as did 28% of children 8 to 12. Soon teens were reporting they spent an average of almost seven hours a day on screens. ‘One out of every four teens said that they were online ‘almost constantly,’ Mr. Haidt writes.  Girls moved their social lives onto social media. Boys burrowed into immersive video games, Reddit, YouTube and pornography. The tidal wave came to these children during puberty, when the human brain is experiencing its greatest reconfiguring since early childhood. In puberty, as brain researchers say, ‘neurons that fire together, wire together.’ What you do at that time ‘will cause lasting structural changes in the brain,’ Mr. Haidt writes.”
  • “Suddenly children ‘spent far less time playing with, talking to, touching or even making eye contact with their friends and families.’ They withdrew from ‘embodied social behaviors’ essential for successful human development. It left them not noticing the world.  Signs of a mental-health crisis quickly emerged. Rates of mental illness among the young went up dramatically in many Western countries between 2010 and 2015. Between 2010 and 2024 major depression among teens went up 145% among girls, 161% among boys. There was a rise in disorders related to anxiety as well.”
  • “What Mr. Haidt calls the Great Rewiring isn’t only about changes in technologies. Parents over the past few decades made two big choices about how to keep children safe, and both were wrong. ‘We decided the real world was so full of dangers that children should not be allowed to explore it without adult supervision, even though the risks to children from crime, violence, drunk drivers, and most other sources have dropped steeply since the 1990s. At the same time, it seemed like too much of a bother to design and require age-appropriate guardrails for kids online, so we left children free to wander through the Wild West of the virtual world, where threats to children abounded.’”
  • “Mr. Haidt cites an essay for Free Press by a 14-year-old girl: ‘I was ten years old when I watched porn for the first time. I found myself on Pornhub, which I stumbled across by accident and returned to out of curiosity. The website has no age verification, no ID requirement, not even a prompt asking me if I was over 18. The site is easy to find, impossible to avoid, and has become a frequent rite of passage for kids my age. Where was my mother? In the next room, making sure I was eating nine differently colored fruits and vegetables on the daily.’”
  • “Near the end he quotes Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, on the inner thinking of the Silicon Valley pioneers who created the new world. In a 2017 interview Mr. Parker said they wished to ‘consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible.’ The ‘social validation feedback loop’ they created exploits ‘a vulnerability in human psychology.’ The apps need to ‘give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you. . . more likes and comments.’ He said that he, Mark Zuckerberg and Kevin Systrom, a co-founder of Instagram, ‘understood this consciously. And we did it anyway. He added: ‘God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.’  We now know.”
  • As Meghan Cox Gurdon of the Wall Street Journal summarizes: “We can glimpse the true horror of what happened not only in the U.S. but also elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Starting in about 2010, suicide rates for young adolescents in the U.S. shot up (increasing 91% for boys ages 10-14 and 167% for girls). The rate of self-injury almost tripled between 2010 and 2020. In the U.K., too, more children than before were using self-harm to cope with severe anxiety and depression; in Australia, rates of hospitalization for mental health showed a sharp increase for both boys and girls’ .  . .  Ironically, the creation of social media—with their promise of “connectedness”—has left young people lonelier and with fewer friends. For girls, the apps have proved toxic, Mr. Haidt writes: ‘Social media use does not just correlate with mental illness; it causes it.’ Boys are less susceptible to the dangers of social media but more vulnerable to the harms of online pornography. Retreating behind their bedroom doors for screen-based virtual lives has put boys at greater risk of malaise, apathy and ‘failure to launch’ into the responsibilities of adulthood.”
  • Something very deep changed in America in the 2010s, he thinks, and it goes well beyond the realm of child rearing and teenage woe. He has come to believe that “the phone-based life produces spiritual degradation, not just in adolescents, but in all of us.”

Haidt strongly posits four reforms:

  1. No smartphones before high school, only basic phones with no internet capability.
  2. No social media before 16. Let their brains develop first.
  3. All schools from elementary through high school should be phone-free zones—students can store their devices in lockers.
  4. Bring back unsupervised play. Only in that way will kids naturally develop social skills and become self-governing.

Wisely, David French issues an important caveat:  “Neither smartphones nor social media are solely responsible for declining teen mental health.  The rise of smartphones correlates with an transformation of parenting strategies, away from permitting free play in favor of highly managed schedules and copious amounts of organized sport and other activities.  The rise of smartphones correlates with the fraying of our social fabric.  Even there, the phones have their roles to play.  They provide a cheap substitute for in-person interaction and the constant stream of news can heighten our anxiety.”

“The primary responsibility for policing kids’ access to phones should rest with parents, not with the state.  Not every social problem has a governmental solution, and the more that the problem is rooted in the inner life of children, the less qualified the government is to address it . . . [A]s parents adjust childrens’ diets or alter discipline habits in response to new information, they can change the culture around cellphones.”  In addition, Christian parents should follow the wise counsel of the Apostle Paul:  “’All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful.  ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.”  [1 Corinthians 6:12 ESV]

See The Economist (23 March 2024), pp. 76-77; Peggy Noonan, “Can We Save Our Children From Smartphones?” in the Wall Street Journal (6-7 April 2024); Meghan Cox Gurdon, The Anxious Generation’ Review: Apps, Angst and Adolescence” in the Wall Street Journal (25 March 2024); and David French in the New York Times (28 March 2024).

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