Religion & Liberty Online

The Smartphone Generation Isn’t All Right

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A new book lays out an impressive array of evidence that kids today are suffering from an addiction that older generations never had to worry about: obsession with the screens in their hands. It’s a cause for worry—especially among the kids.

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The evidence is almost incontrovertible. Economic growth through free trade, globalization, and burgeoning markets have allowed for unparalleled worldwide wealth. Less than 10% of the world population lives on subsistent wages, and many of the countries still mired in poverty are destitute largely due to human-caused exigencies like war and corruption. Progress seems to be ever in our favor. Some have called this the “great enrichment,” while others say we are living in an era of “superabundance.” The increased use of terms like “innovation” and “entrepreneurship,” coupled with the growth in technological sectors, has led us to believe that we are all better off because of these advances. But is that true? While there needs to be two cheers for capitalism, shouldn’t we also be honest with ourselves when faced with clear evidence about tradeoffs, opportunity costs, and negative social externalities that are created alongside all this material progress?

This juxtaposition—that we can consistently create things that make our lives materially better but suffer major unintended (even intended, as we will see later) social and cultural consequences—is what struck me while pondering Jonathan Haidt’s latest bestseller, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness. Can we be simultaneously richer in wallet and poorer in spirit?

Haidt, a social psychologist from NYU, is simply continuing a line of reasoning begun in his previous bestsellers: The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind. He had intended to write a book on how social media was damaging American democracy but was overwhelmed by a more damning thesis when he began researching the topic more closely. “I realized the adolescent mental health story was so much bigger than I had thought. … And it wasn’t just about social media. It was about the radical transformation of childhood into something inhuman: a phone-based existence.”

The two major themes that dominate the structure of the book are Haidt’s concern for the loss of a play-based childhood and the arrival of a phone-based childhood. He weaves the story of how children and adolescents need an abundance of free play in order to learn basic skills that will increasingly allow them to master more advanced communal relations. Borrowing from developmetal psychologist Peter Gray, Haidt explains that “physical play, outdoors and with other children of mixed ages, is the healthiest, most natural, most beneficial sort of play. Play with some degree of physical risk is essential because it teaches children how to look after themselves and each other.” He uses this idea to illustrate that, although statistically we live in demonstrably safer cities, children have become smothered by overprotective parents and other authorities who fear that harm is around every corner and seek ways to mitigate it on all fronts in the real world. Yet, when it comes to the internet and the virtual world, children are left vulnerable and open to all kinds of real threats, like hardcore pornography, incessant bullying, and social isolation. According to Haidt, “Overprotection in the real world and underprotection in the virtual world are the major reasons why children born after 1995 became the anxious generation.”

One of the strongest points of the book (and a curiously obvious, if not illusive, fact to many) is that the real world, characterized by four main features—embodied engagement, synchronous living, one-to-one communication, and a high bar for entry and exit into communities—is the opposite of virtual culture. A disembodied, asynchronous, one-to-many communication, coupled with a low bar for entry and exit, leads to a kind of existential schizophrenia when bouncing between both the real and virtual spaces we inhabit. This is particularly destabilizing for children.

Over the course of 200 pages, Haidt illustrates the change that phone-based culture has had on adolescents, using extensive notes, survey data, and graphs. Much of this culture has been consciously created to be addictive by the companies designing the data-mining software and apps that keep kids hooked into the platforms. Haidt quotes insiders from Facebook, Instagram, and many other companies that confirm that these are volitional choices at the leadership level.

Haidt demonstrates this especially well when exploring how girls and boys are affected differently by a phone-based life: girls are being harmed by social media in ways that boys are not. One in seven girls are considered “super-users,” exemplified by someone who spends 40 hours or more online per week. Haidt explains that girls are more communal than boys and that this causes them to be particularly vulnerable online in four ways: they are more affected by visual comparison and perfectionism, their aggression is more relational, they more easily share emotions and disorders, and they are more subject to predation and harassment. These traits lead to increased depression, decreased self-worth, and emotional exploitation on a scale not previously understood.

Boys, on the other hand, face an interesting mix of effects that have been occurring more gradually. Traditionally, boys do riskier things in the real world: they break more bones, rebel against authority, and push boundaries in obvious, external ways. While these traits have been changing over several decades, a major shift came with the onset of the smartphone. The “safetyism” mentioned above, combined with the psychological effect of multiplayer video games and smartphone usage, have led to a major pullback from face-to-face interactions. Boys are content now to be alone, stimulated not by the real world of play and exploration but by one individually cultivated for consumption of pornography and highly addictive and curated fantasy gaming worlds. Among the results is a deformation of sexual habits and an isolation that keep young men from enjoying real-world experiences that can rival their online escapades, resulting in even weaker ties to the community and increased meaninglessness. While boys usually exhibit higher rates of externalizing disorders, Haidt shows that, since 2010, “both sexes shifted rapidly toward the pattern associated with females.” The rapid increase of internalizing disorders are happening across the spectrum.

Haidt employs many different statistical models from all over the Western world to show that these patterns aren’t concentrated only in America. He has been criticized by some who say this is mostly correlation without causation but does an admirable job of showing his work and even civilly and promptly responding to his critics, which is a rare trait today. He handles much of this ongoing engagement on his website.

People familiar with Haidt’s previous works will find this book a logical extension of his thought. In fact, he has a chapter on spiritual practices that echo several ideas from The Righteous Mind as he seeks to grapple with the way social media “trains people to think in ways that are exactly contrary to the world’s wisdom traditions: Think about yourself first; be materialistic, judgmental, boastful and petty; seek glory as quantified by likes and followers.”

Haidt ends the book with a few chapters (leaning heavily on Lenore Skenazy’s work) on how to recover, at least to some degree, the play-based adolescence that he explains is necessary for children to grow up well-adjusted. This part will be the most practical for many people who share his concerns. You would have to be quite maladjusted to have observed the issues Haidt describes in these pages and not realize they are a net negative for the social, emotional, and spiritual lives of children. Look around a restaurant or an airport the next time you’re out: it’s not just children who are affected by smartphone addiction. In fact, Haidt argues that parents need to be role models and lead the way by breaking from their continuous “partial-attention” in their own lives.

Haidt sees his solution to smartphone addiction as a classic example of a collective action problem. In other words, if a group can unite around a common problem, changes can happen rapidly. His desire is that governments, schools, tech companies, and parents join hands and “reverse the disastrous transition from play-based to phone-based childhood.”

This is the one part of his book I find more aspirational than feasible, especially due to the speed of change and adaptability within these platforms. He argues that this problem could be reversed in two years if four foundational things would change through collaboration between the aforementioned entities: no smartphones before high school, no social media before age 16, phone-free schools, and far more unsupervised play and childhood independence.

While there is some growing interest in schools banning phones, I believe the heavier lift comes in the home. Armed with the avalanche of evidence regarding the potentially harmful effects of smartphone use, parents have the main responsibility to model and enforce rules around it. This will be a countercultural act. Jacques Ellul said it best: “If there is no self-control to begin with, it will not come through possession of a device.” Returning to (or learning anew) the thick strands of historical wisdom about theological and moral habits and how they apply to our built environment would be life-giving. Progress comes in many forms, and we should be just as concerned (if not more so) about the emotional and spiritual flourishing of our children as we are with their financial well-being.

Nurturing our children to see the fundamental distinction between the mesmerizing, disembodied world presented to them within the device in their hands and the inestimable worth of the embodied people and places all around them should be an essential parental task.

Dan Churchwell

Dan Churchwell serves as the director of program outreach for the Acton Institute, where he manages external relationships with foundations, higher education institutions, businesses, and NGOs. He has taught and lectured widely on issues related to the intersection of philosophy, theology, and economics. His current research interests include media ecology, technological ethics, and the future of work.