How smartphones colonised childhood

Jonathan Haidt argues a toxic combination of safetyism and social media has shaped Generation Z.


Topics Science & Tech USA

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The kids are not all right. All over the Western world, today’s young people seem to be more fragile, anxious and depressed than any other generation in living memory. In The Anxious Generation, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that this is because childhood has been fundamentally ‘rewired’. Kids once enjoyed hours of unsupervised play. Now they are under almost constant surveillance from adults – except when they open up their phones.

He returned to The Brendan O’Neil Show last week to discuss the rise of the anxious generation. What follows is an edited extract from the conversation. Listen to the full thing here.

Brendan O’Neill: Who are you referring to when you talk about the ‘anxious generation’?

Jonathan Haidt: The anxious generation is made up of young people in developed countries born after 1995. Now, that doesn’t necessarily include all developed countries. But it’s certainly the case in all the English-speaking nations, the Nordic states and in northern Europe. In my previous book with Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), we tended to label these young people (especially the college students) as millennials because they were born between 1981 and 1999. But, as I outline in The Anxious Generation, it turns out that there’s a very sharp delineation around 1996 – and the difference is basically puberty.

If you went through puberty with a flip phone, you’re a millennial – and mental health among millennials is generally fine. But if you were born a few years later, let’s say 2000, you probably got your first smartphone at the age of 11. By 2012, your iPhone had a front-facing camera, you probably had an Instagram account and you had access to high-speed internet. As a result, these young people went through puberty holding their smartphone. They spent hours looking at it. Even when they weren’t looking at it, they were thinking about what they had just posted and what people’s reactions would be.

The point here is that millennials had a recognisably human childhood, and as adults, they now use their phones as a tool to meet up with each other. Young people today, however, are not using smartphones to meet up. The average American teen today spends roughly five hours a day on social media, and up to nine hours a day on digital devices in general.

At the same time, rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide among young people have been rising since 2010, anywhere from 50 per cent to 150 per cent depending on the mental-health issue. For teenage boys it has been a little more gradual, but it has been an incredibly sharp rise for teenage girls. One-third of them have seriously considered suicide, and a majority (57 per cent) have said that they experience persistent sadness or hopelessness.

O’Neill: How much blame for these problems should we place on the iPhone?

Haidt: The iPhone is one of the greatest inventions in human history. It has been an extraordinary platform for innovation, especially when it comes to social media. And I do not entirely blame it, or other smartphones, for creating the anxious generation. I think Apple is at least trying to help parents out, but it could still do a lot more to help them gain some semblance of control over how they raise their children.

I am also not arguing that phones and social media are destroying an entire generation. It’s not that simple. Instead, I’m talking about the phone-based childhood. Phone-based childhoods are not going to produce healthy children. But play-based childhoods, where children are free to take risks, will produce healthy children. Fundamentally, what I’m talking about is the transformation of childhood.

O’Neill: Is safetyism a bigger problem than smartphones?

Haidt: One theme of my book is that we have overprotected our children in the real world, and under-protected them online. When we overprotect children in the real world, we deny them important life experiences. I’m all in favour of making kids wear a bike helmet, for instance. What I’m opposed to is stopping children from riding a bike entirely because there’s a small chance that they will be abducted. That’s what a lot of parents are doing, and that fear and overprotection blocks out most of the exciting, thrilling and independence-building aspects of growing up. Safetyism has become an experience blocker in the real world.

When parents give their kids a smartphone, that device is going to take up most of their attention – it becomes a digital experience blocker. Half of teenagers say that they are online almost constantly, up from just under a quarter in 2015. That basically leaves no time for anything else. American teens spend very little time with their friends in person. Even when they are with their friends, they’re all on their phones; so they’re not even really talking.

This is why so many kids are fragmented, exhausted and suffering from mental-health issues. Technology has stopped being a tool to facilitate their social life. It is now an experience blocker that pushes out almost everything else: sleep, friends, reading a book or having a hobby. Kids are being left to squeeze all that stuff out so that they can make time for this new, digital way of living.

Jonathan Haidt was talking to Brendan O’Neill on The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here:

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Science & Tech USA


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