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Jonathan Haidt – The Anxious Generation [Feature Review]

The Anxious GenerationA Source for Technologically Sustainable Solutions

A Feature Review of

The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness
Jonathan Haidt

Hardcover: Penguin Press, 2024
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Reviewed by Andrew Camp

In the Pixar movie, Wall-E, humanity has devolved into a state of comatose-like creatures. Unable to walk, unable to interact, they are trapped in pods where interaction is through screens, even though people are all around them. Food is consumed not at tables, but simply through straws. And to top it all off they no longer are able to inhabit the earth, but are trapped in space. A cautionary tale centered around humanity’s relationship not only with technology but with the physical environment, the movie premiered about the same time the iPhone was released. Since then, technological advances– especially with cell phones– have proliferated, coinciding with the ubiquitous nature of social media.

While some of this technology has provided us with some ease and connection, all of it has happened and continues to happen at such a rapid pace that rarely did we stop to consider the costs of this technology in our pockets, especially for developing adolescents navigating their way through puberty and social dynamics. 

Some of this lack of reflection and analysis is beginning to change now that the technology has been around for over 15 years. We can begin to look at studies about adolescent mental health and see the impact that access to smartphones and social media might have on adolescents.

This is what Jonathan Haidt does in his newest book, The Anxious Generation, examining the impact of smartphones and social media on adolescents from 2010 to 2015. It’s not a book Jonathan set out to write, as originally in 2021 he began the process of writing about the detrimental effects of social media on American democracy, but after looking at the data and research associated with Gen Z, he realized that their story and their mental health was much bigger than he had thought (289).

Haidt’s central claim in this book is that “overprotection in the real world and underprotection in the virtual world are the major reasons why children born in 1995 became the anxious generation” (9). While this book examines in depth with lots of graphs and research about the mental health of adolescents, not only in America, but around the world, this book more broadly speaks to and points to the flourishing of children, so that we as humanity do not end up like the humans in Wall-E. 

The virtual world is not void of any good, but Haidt encourages and challenges his readers that in order to truly flourish as humans we need deep engagement with the real world. Contra to the virtual world, relationships in the real world are embodied, synchronous, are limited, and they generally have a high bar for entry and exit (9). Again, while this book examines and summarizes a lot of research, the core of the book does examine what we can begin to do to rediscover the real world based around four key reforms that Haidt believes would provide a healthier childhood in this digital age. They are:

  1. No smartphones before high school.
  2. No social media before 16.
  3. Phone-free schools.
  4. Far more unsupervised play and childhood independence (15).

The book is divided into four parts. In Part 1, Haidt presents evidence for the upswing in teen mental health, and argues that the upswing we see starting in 2010 is linked to the prevalence of the smartphone at the same time. In Part 2, his goal is to show how we got to where we are today, starting with the 1980s where parents began to be overly protective of children and allowed them less freedom to be able to have risky play, something Haidt firmly believes each and every child needs. Coinciding with the decline in freedom for children was also the decline in rituals to help children navigate puberty and transition into adulthood. Haidt recognizes that in a secular society constructing agreed upon moral guideposts is difficult, but nonetheless provides a framework he believes is feasible, what he calls a “ladder from childhood to adulthood” (see pages 106-109).

In Part 3, before exploring the effects of a phone-based childhood on girls and boys, he shows how a phone-based childhood disrupts development in four foundational ways: sleep deprivation, social deprivation, attention fragmentation, and addiction. Part 3 concludes with a chapter on the spiritual degradation we are all facing due to the rise of new technology. 

Finally in Part 4, he begins to offer solutions on what we can do to change course. This is where the book shines. As a parent, I know the ill-effects of screens on my two daughters’ development, but many times, I am at a loss for what to do. If you are a parent or work with children, I am assuming you have felt similar. Change feels nearly impossible due to the all-invasive scope of technology in our lives. My wife and I can make decisions that help our girls at home, but without collective action on the part of other families, schools, and the government, I fear that my wife and I will be fighting a losing battle. He points to organizations like Wait Until 8th, in which parents in communities can sign a pledge to wait until their child is in 8th grade before being given a smartphone. The goal is to have a group of children who do not feel like they are the only ones without. This is but one example. Other examples are urging the government to raise the “legal” age from 13 to 16 for children to sign up for accounts online. Plus the need to implement actual age verification technology that is more than just checking a box confirming my age.

Jonathan Haidt’s analysis and research present a compelling case, but not everyone agrees. At times, it feels too simplistic to blame the mental health crisis we are facing with the rise in smartphones and social media. The world has changed vastly since the 1980s, including school shootings, our litigious society, 9/11, terrorism, recession, inflation, vitriol politics and debate, and COVID, plus others I am probably forgetting. Also at times, the book seemed to be presented without regard to economics and race. Haidt writes from a middle-class white perspective, which is who he is, but considering the research and the broad-range effects he is describing, I don’t know how valid his proposals and suggestions are to those in lower-economic classes, not to mention other ethnicities.

While the book has some weaknesses that do need to be addressed, I do, nonetheless, think this book needs to be read and discussed broadly. What we are doing as a society is not sustainable, and changes need to be made to allow not only children but all of us to return to a life that leads to flourishing and health instead of floating aimlessly in space stuck to our screens with little to no interaction, much like the characters on Wall-E.

Andrew Camp

Andrew Camp, host of The Biggest Table podcast, draws on his experience as both a professional chef and a pastor to help people experience a rich lived experience around the table. He has a Masters in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care from Talbot Seminary. He is married to Claire, has two daughters--Hazelle and Hannah-- and currently lives in Flagstaff, AZ.

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