The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, by Jonathan Haidt (Penguin Random House, 400 pp., $30)

In 2018’s The Coddling of The American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt contended that kids are inherently “antifragile”—that is, they benefit from adversity. But instead of “preparing the child for the road, not the road for the child,” parents have surrendered to bad ideas and practices that foster a culture of emotional fragility, with its calls for safe spaces, trigger warnings, and censorship.

Haidt’s new book, The Anxious Generation, is a thematic extension of this argument. It describes how Gen Z—those born after 1995, the first “to go through puberty with a portal in their pockets”—has been made fragile by the transition from a play-based to a smartphone-based childhood. The virtual environment of social media, Haidt contends, amplifies extreme ideas and worsens cognitive distortions, swelling this cohort’s rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, and self-harm.

Haidt chronicles how the shift to a phone-based childhood affects learning. It deprives children of experiences that make them productive participants in a democratic society. One reason that kids play is to practice adult skills like independently resolving conflicts. Virtual environments don’t offer this practice—kids can just log off or leave a chat to avoid disputes—while crowding out time spent on real-world activities that do. Unsupervised physical play, with opportunity for low-cost mistakes and even some criticism and teasing, are crucial for learning interpersonal skills and building resilience.

Ironically, while we overemphasize protecting children from the slightest physical or emotional harm in the real world, the virtual world has greater potential for danger. In this realm, parents can’t reward kids with increasing levels of responsibility and independence as they get older. Age does not exist online; little more is needed than, say, checking a box without verification to access a webpage meant for those over 18.

Social media exploits our natural sensitivity to others’ opinions and actions. Haidt describes how evolutionary pressures have rewarded those who learn to conform and who pick the right people to copy. Millions of followers or likes on a post tell young people what they should do to fit in. Social media’s architecture is designed to make the most extreme content go viral. It’s easy to see how constant exposure to the pseudo-norms of a virtual environment, whether radical political ideas or unattainable standards of wealth, beauty, and success, can lead to sustained negative feelings.

The virality of social media presents other dangers. A social miscalculation among a few kids on the playground can help children calibrate their behavior; the same mistake on the Internet can result in thousands—or even millions—of harassing comments and will live online forever.

Haidt also recounts concerning examples of social contagion, such as viral posts by users with Tourette Syndrome prompting an exploding number of teenage girls to develop tics. One of the main treatments prescribed by doctors? Get off social media. Diagnoses of gender dysphoria, as well, may be related to social media trends. Recent years have seen a staggering increase in clinical referrals for Gen Z teens with the condition, particularly girls.

Social media has also been associated with insufficient and irregular sleep and has been shown to be addictive, no surprise to those who find themselves closing out Instagram while in bed, only to realize that they’ve spent two hours scrolling through ten-second videos. Social media apps portend a constant fragmentation of attention. One study found that young people had an average of 192 notifications on their phone a day.

Through these well-researched and well-reasoned arguments, Haidt makes a strong case that phone-based childhoods are not conducive to becoming antifragile. He proposes a set of practical solutions.

Haidt argues that parents should facilitate more independent, play-based learning. At minimum, they should be able to leave their children outside alone without the risk of getting arrested for child negligence. He proposes that states follow the example of Utah, Texas, and at least five others by introducing Reasonable Childhood Independence laws. Separately, the “Internet age”—the age at which children’s online data can be collected and sold without consent of their parents—should be raised from 13 to 16. States could require additional age verifications.

He urges schools to go phone-free. This proposal’s potential benefits go beyond improving children’s development. Teachers, for example, may have an easier time getting kids to focus on lessons and controlling their classrooms.

Finally, while Haidt acknowledges arguments that high anxiety and depression rates may owe in part to over-diagnosing and greater willingness to self-report, he also presents evidence that rates of suicide and self-harm among Gen Z have genuinely increased. Particularly striking: self-harm has nearly tripled in frequency from 2010 to 2020 among adolescent girls.

Haidt’s subtitle, which suggests a mental-illness crisis, is the one regrettable aspect of his new book. This prominently placed language is an overgeneralization and a sign of concept creep—two concepts that Haidt warned of in The Coddling of the American Mind. Most mental illnesses have not shown the same sharply rising trends as have anxiety and depression.

The distinction is important, primarily because a bloated and ineffective mental-health industry stands to gain by declaring a “mental-health crisis.” The industry benefits not by treating individuals with the most severe disorders and reducing their symptoms but by making children more fragile. The field has an obvious incentive to legitimize the idea that common negative emotions could be alleviated with medical or therapeutic intervention. Doing so grows the industry’s client base.

As with any medical care, mental-health treatments and therapeutic interventions are not without risk, particularly for those receiving them preemptively, as Abigail Shrier describes in Bad Therapy. It’s worth noting that, while there is some evidence increasing rates of anxiety and depression are causally linked with social media use, they also link to some extent with mental-health initiatives and parity laws passed in the U.S., U.K., and Canada that have made it easier to get insurance-covered therapy and mental-health care.

Instead of calling this a mental-illness crisis, which suggests abnormal brain functioning, we might ask instead: What behavior and emotions would we expect from normal brain functioning? Looked at in this way, kids probably should experience more anxiety and sadness, given their greater exposure to extreme content and constant notifications. This is not to say that suicide and self-harm trends aren’t disturbing; but teens are often feeling anxiety and sadness in response to stimuli that naturally produce such feelings. Perhaps the problem doesn’t require medical or therapeutic interventions, then, but good, old fashioned face-to-face play.

Thankfully, Haidt does not call for “mental-health solutions.” For the vast majority of children, mental-health treatment will not be necessary. Kids are resilient. Just as a smoker who quits will immediately boost his life expectancy, kids who spend less time and attention on platforms designed to be addictive and anxiety-inducing have a chance to bounce back. Haidt’s proposals can help give them that chance.

Photo: Jatuporn Tansirimas/iStock/Getty Images Plus


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