Jonathan Haidt’s Alarming “Anxious Generation”

Author Jonathan Haidt on Today

Every generation of adults thinks the next is growing up in a broken world. “It is the story of humanity,” says Jonathan Haidt, author of a new book on a youth mental illness epidemic called The Anxious Generation.

Returning to his roots as a professor of moral psychology after a perhaps uncomfortable foray into the center of America’s culture wars, Haidt’s new work describes a “great rewiring” of childhood, whose most frightening feature is its alacrity. In less than ten years, Americans went from nearly 8 in 10 teens not having smartphones to the inverse. By 2022, 46% reported being “almost constantly” online, many steeped in digital addictions causing depression, dysphoria, suicidation. A parent reading The Anxious Generation will feel like a dental patient shown two hours of oral health disaster photos.

What makes this scare tale different? After all, Haidt says, these concerns are “usually a groundless moral panic.” The Your Screwed Up Kids theme has long been a go-to scare cliché for booksellers and magazine editors, who hooked nervous parents in supermarket check-out lines or doctors’ waiting rooms with headlines like “Teens and AIDS,” “How Well Do You Know Your Kid?” and “Children Having Children.” No media consumer is an easier mark than the guilt-ridden parent, whose perseverations about not paying enough attention can be amplified a millionfold by graphic pop-culture warnings about teen temptations, from mod culture back in the day to fantasy games (remember Mazes and Monsters?) to guns to Satanism to hookup culture. What’s so different about leaving kids to spend seven hours a day on screens?

A lot, you’ll conclude after reading The Anxious Generation. While “there are plenty of fake groundless small panics, there have been a few huge ones that were justified,” says Haidt, and the digital revolution created one. The introduction of “world-changing products” from Silicon Valley in the Internet age had far-reaching implications for the world, with smatterings of good and bad for adults, but for younger heads the screen revolution presented first as an addiction issue.

The “great rewiring” replaced skinned knees, sleepovers, and fights behind the Dairy Queen with formative years in self-enforced sensory deprivation, experiencing life “forever elsewhere,” as MIT’s Sherry Turkle put it. Haidt is convincing when he argues this screen-dominated upbringing delays neurological development and compounds conventional teen nihilism and depression, necessitating action in the form of a “no smartphones until high school” movement.

Haidt is an interesting figure. He’s good at the activist role, with the diagnostic chops to define national problems and the organizational stamina to lead concrete reform efforts. Not many writers possess both attributes. In 2015 he co-founded the Heterodox Academy with law professor Nicholas Quinn Rosenkrantz and Emory University grad student Chris Martin. The effort to try to counteract viewpoint diversity issues on campuses made him a bête noire to campus progressives, who made him an “almost” banished figure (see below), and became further convinced of reactionary treachery when in 2018 he co-published The Coddling of the American Mind with fellow Substacker Greg Lukianoff.

Left-leaning outlets like The Guardian ripped that book as a self-interested patriarchal effort to defame “change that may undermine them,” while the Daily Beast said parents were the coddled ones, and a few fellow academics pooh-poohed their description of an “alleged spike in censorship.” Despite the pushback, Haidt and Lukianoff were successful in starting debates about “safetyism,” threats to free inquiry, and monoculture, while solidifying the term “heterodox” in the national political lexicon.

I asked Haidt to expand on his “After Babel” Substack (which has a good read right now in Freya India’s “Your Boyfriend Isn’t Your Cameraman”), and to explain what brought him to The Anxious Generation:

Racket: Did you pursue The Anxious Generation project as a result of something that struck you as a parent, or was there another reason?

Jonathan Haidt: Actually, this was just a side project originally, after The Coddling of The American Mind came out. I’m a social psychologist who studies moral psychology, and after 2004, I moved my research over from how morality varies by culture to how morality varies by politics. That’s what I was doing for a while. And then Greg Lukianoff came to me and said, “Hey, weird stuff is happening on campus.” I’d begun to see it myself. So, I took a detour to write The Coddling of the American Mind in the form of an Atlantic article with Greg in 2015. Then I thought I was going to get back to my big book on capitalism and morality, which I got the contract to write now that I was a professor at a business school, but things kept getting worse on campus. So Greg and I turned the article into a book.

Racket: So Anxious Generation is a bit of a return to your original discipline, after a detour?

Jonathan Haidt: Not exactly. I studied moral psychology. I was going to go from politics to the moral psychology of economics, but then the university started melting down. So I began to focus on the university as a social and moral system. That’s when I founded Heterodox Academy, because when you have intimidation in a scientific community, you automatically and immediately get bad science, and I could see that happening.

So I co-founded Heterodox Academy in 2015 to advocate for viewpoint diversity, but it was the 2015 Halloween Nicholas Chistakis affair at Yale that really marked the beginning of the university meltdown that led directly and inexorably to the December 5th, 2023 hearing where the three presidents of three major universities were humiliated on national TV.

Jonathan Haidt: So after we wrote The Coddling of the American Mind, I started getting back to my book on capitalism, but this was like 2020, 2021, which were just crazy years. I kept having ideas about why our country is fucking insane that I wanted to write about.

The point is I think the world has been going insane since around 2014. And I’ve been studying various aspects of it. I had a lot of ideas for essays to write in The Atlantic, and I submitted them as ideas, and Jeff Goldberg said, don’t write eight essays, write one big one. And so that became an essay I wrote about “Why the Past 10 years of American life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” and that became the origin of the Babel metaphor.

Then I got a contract to write that book, but the teen mental health crisis kept getting worse and worse. And this was just a side research project, as I’m not an expert in teen mental health. But once I wrote up the first chapter of the Babel book on teen mental health, it was so shocking to see what was happening, especially once I saw that it was happening in many countries, not just ours. So I decided to split the book in two, and I wrote an entire book just on what has happened to Gen Z.

Racket: I remember during the eighties and nineties there were concerns about exposing kids to television advertising, the Joe Camel controversy in the States, and in Europe they went so far as to pass laws against certain kinds of advertising targeting children. How are these problems more extreme than the television saturation problem?

Jonathan Haidt: So when society gets alarmed by whatever the kids are doing, that’s normal. And usually, it’s a groundless moral panic. But not always. Just because it usually is doesn’t mean that it always is. There have been a few huge ones that were justified. I believe this is very similar to leaded gas, where we have evidence of its hugely negative effect on the intelligence and behavior of an entire generation.

And another difference is that past moral panics have been fueled by stories that are often untrue about rare and violent episodes. So a kid smoked reefer and then he stabbed his parents. It happened, maybe it didn’t, but it’s one story. This time is different because more than a third of our kids are now depressed and anxious, especially girls. And everyone sees it. People see the mental illness and the link to social media. People see it in the children of their friends. This is not fueled by rare or untrue stories. This is fueled by what everyone is seeing now.

Racket: And this is linked to the addictive nature of the internet?

Jonathan Haidt: Not exactly. The internet itself is not so dangerous, and people can grow up in fearful environments and not be depressed and anxious. My argument in the book is that we underwent a great rewiring of childhood between 2010 and 2015. Children need to play, and childhood was always play-based, from time immemorial up through the 1990s, when it began to fade away. But even as late as 2010, almost all kids had flip phones, if any. They don’t have a smartphone, and they still sometimes do things together. They still get together physically with their friends. They often use their flip phones to arrange getting together. So that’s the way things were in 2010. And that’s why the millennials are okay, because the millennials made it through puberty by 2010 or so. Whereas from 2010 to 2015, adolescents trade in their flip phones for smartphones. They get high-speed internet.

Instagram is bought by Facebook, and Instagram is the first mobile-only platform. The first front facing camera comes out in 2010, and for all these reasons, by 2015, childhood has been rewired. Most of your free time goes through the phone, and for girls especially, with social media. For boys, it’s YouTube and video games, but that’s what I mean by the great rewire. It’s no one thing. It’s rather the complete transformation of childhood away from what we evolved to do to foster human development, into a bizarre new world that seems to be producing very bad results for Gen Z.

Racket: How much success have you had in raising concern among policymakers about the issue? What’s the sensible reform that you think that might be considered?

Jonathan Haidt: I’ve been involved in many persuasion projects beginning when I ran a gun control group in college in Connecticut in the 1980s. And I’m used to the fact that it’s very, very hard to change people’s minds, especially if you just give them reasons and evidence. This is the first project I’ve ever been involved in where I don’t have to persuade anyone. Almost everybody already sees the problem. They just want to know what to do about it. The central analysis is that this is not an individual choice or addiction, like say, sugar or crack. This is a social network issue. And once you pass a tipping point, everyone has to be online or else they’re isolated. Social media has trapped adolescents and their parents in a collective action problem, which is costly to escape by yourself. The only solution is to all walk out the door together.

If we do it at the same time, if we all agree, you know what, we’re just not going to give our kids smartphones until high school. They can have a flip phone, they can have a phone watch. We want to be able to talk to our children, but we don’t have to give them the world’s greatest distraction device when they’re nine years old. Once you give them that device, they’re not going to pay much attention to other human beings, including their teacher and their parents. So the most important things that we can do are the four reforms that I propose: no smartphone before high school, no social media before 16, phone-free schools, and far more independence, free play and responsibility in the real world. If we do those four things – and we can do those all without any legislation, though legislation would help – but they are things that groups of parents can do together or that schools and parents can do together.

Racket: It has to be community-based? It doesn’t work as an individual prerogative?

Jonathan Haidt: It’s very hard, and if you’re a devout Christian or a religious Jew and you’re supported by a community, you can be very strict with your kid. But if you’re a typical secular urban type person, it’s very hard for you to say, no, you’re not getting a phone or social media, even though all your friends have it and they’re leaving you out. It’s very hard to do that as an individual. So the key to the solution is collective action.

Racket: To quickly shift to one other thing. You are largely responsible for introducing the term “heterodox” into the cultural lexicon, but there’s been a really intense propaganda campaign to tell people that this is just coding as another form of conservatism. Did you anticipate that? And do you think you’ve succeeded in creating a space for people to build bridges between different sides?

Jonathan Haidt: First, we live in a country and a time with extraordinary and rising negative partisanship, where each side is defined not by what it stands for, but by what its side stands against. So, if you criticize the left, you must be on the right. You are the enemy. And I was on the left my entire life until the 2010s when I became a centrist. But I began my political work hoping to help the Democrats stop making so many stupid mistakes in their messaging and policies.

Racket: This sounds so familiar.

Jonathan Haidt: Exactly. Because that’s what most of the heterodox people are. I mean, you can talk about some true conservatives like Ben Shapiro, but the great majority of us in the heterodox space used to be Democrats, libertarians, centrists. And when you critique a problem on your side, the result is not often gratitude. It’s usually that you’re banished. And that’s what happened to me. I shouldn’t say banished, I’ve not been banished, but I am frequently criticized by people on the left who have not read my books and will not read them. That’s been a surprising thing. There’s been no real critique of me from the left because it seems that purity laws seem to prevent activists on the left from actually reading anything I’ve written. So, they say bad things about me, but I’m still waiting for a critique of the common American mind. Nobody has actually even written an essay saying why we’re wrong.

Racket: Just that you’re bad.

Jonathan Haidt: Right. And as to the second point, while I didn’t exactly anticipate it, it sure makes sense from the point of view of moral psychology that if you critique illiberalism on the left, you’ll be hated by the left. And if you critique illiberalism on the right, you’ll be hated by the right. So the Republican party has banished almost all of its moderates. And while the Democratic party still has plenty of moderates in Congress, in the culture zones like in the university, it’s just really made it hard for dissent to happen. You always get structural stupidity. Silencing. Dissent is the direct cause of structural stupidity. And boy, has the academy and many other progressive institutions gotten stupid since 2015. And again, that’s what we saw in that hearing room in Congress on December 5th.

Racket: What can people expect to read at After Babel?

Jonathan Haidt: What I can say is for this year, we’re going to be focusing on the teen mental health crisis and the role of smartphones, and we’ll be focusing on the story that is the decline of the play-based childhood and the rise of the phone-based childhood. We’ll be looking at policy solutions, we’ll be looking at tech solutions and we’ll have a lot of advice for parents from other parents. We will also be developing the Babel idea, which is that social media or the new digital environment that became super viral after 2009, might be incompatible with liberal democracy. And if liberal democracy is to survive, we have to figure out how to adapt, how to either mitigate the effects of the technology, strengthen our democratic institutions, or rethink what it means to have a democracy in the digital age.

Racket: Thanks, Jon.

Jonathan Haidt: Thank you.

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