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Do phones ruin childhoods? Academic Jonathan Haidt on why he thinks so

 (Jonathan Haidt)
(Jonathan Haidt)

Jonathan Haidt has never been interviewed by a Gen Z journalist before. “You are the first!” the bestselling author and NYU professor exclaims, with distinctly academic excitement. No doubt he is eager to test his theory that my peers and I are chronically stressed and depressed, though by the end of our chat it is he who seems more despairing, as he laments the death of Western democracy at the hands of technology and extremism: the latter buoyed by the first, and a sure-fire sign that Trump is likely to win the 2024 election unless something is done urgently to change how social media works. “Trump would not have won in 2016 were it not for Twitter,” Haidt says.

Haidt is one of those rare culture warriors whose brand hinges on no-nonsense centrism. His 2019 book, The Coddling of the American Mind, co-authored with Greg Lukianoff, examined the culture of safetyism and tribalism that emerged on college campuses around 2014. It turned Haidt into a mouthpiece for moderate liberals who felt alienated by the Left.

Despite his aversion to the bombast and tunnel vision of the fringes, Haidt can flirt with similarly one-sided and flamboyant statements. Western society suffers from spiritual devolution, he tells me today; we are plagued by a culture of overdiagnosis; and the mimetic effect of social media has led girls to parrot each other’s mental health disorders. As a professor, he has had girls come up to him saying, “All my friends are depressed and anxious, so I have to act like I am too” (he paraphrases). In our collective effort to destigmatise mental illness, we have unwittingly started to “valorise” it — an unfashionable view recently echoed by Mel Stride, the Work and Pensions Secretary, who suggested that having 20,000 people out of work each month due to mental ill-health was a sign that mental health culture had gone too far. “Those are tragic numbers,” Haidt says, and points to the “catastrophic economic consequences” of a “phone-based childhood”.

Recent generations of parents have over-coddled children in the real world but failed to protect them online

Haidt was born in New York City in 1963, the grandchild of Jewish immigrants who fled Russia and Poland. He grew up in a Democratic household and studied philosophy and psychology, eventually earning a PhD in the latter from the University of Pennsylvania. He calls himself a “social scientist”.

Haidt believes today’s youth lacks a sense of purpose, and this is part of the reason for Gen Z’s record rates of anxiety and depression. His new book, The Anxious Generation, sets out a double-edged theory that recent generations of parents have over-coddled children in the real world but failed to protect them online. Over-coddling does not equip children for real-world challenges while the lack of “age-appropriate guardrails” on the internet has exposed Gen Z to harmful content at too young an age.

This comes at a watershed moment in the mental health crisis. Last weekend, it was revealed that child antidepressant prescriptions in England hit 500,000 last year. Before we meet, Haidt appeared on the Today Programme with Esther Ghey, mother of Brianna Ghey, who was murdered in Warrington last year, where they reiterated their call for a smartphone ban for under-16s (an idea that is gaining traction: two weeks ago, a poll of 2,496 parents in England showed 58 per cent backed it).

The Anxious Generation feels uniquely timely but also sits in close dialogue with Haidt’s previous work. It traces a (rather tenuous) link between tribal politics and paranoid or ‘helicopter’ parenting. Because over-coddled children have not had the space to learn adaptability and resilience through unsupervised play, they become oversensitive, furtive and distrusting, and thus more likely to fall prey to group-think. He calls this ‘defend mode’.

Though Haidt is keen to focus primarily on the new idea of ‘unsupervised play’, his fame lies in his anti-woke views. Even today, the professor has difficulty escaping the campus culture wars. He tells me ‘defend mode’ is bad news for higher education, where students need to challenge their and others’ beliefs. He has had a “front row seat” to universities becoming “structurally stupid”. “We used to be very smart places where smart people said smart things, now we’re very stupid places where smart people are silent while other people say stupid things.”

By contrast, his theory continues, children who have enjoyed unsupervised play are more likely to spend their lives in ‘discover mode’. They are open to new ideas; better at handling stress; happier. Speaking to this paper’s proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev, on the Brave New World podcast, Haidt makes it sound easy. “When my kids were seven, eight, nine... we would take them to the science museum — where every kid is with their parents. We’d tell them: run around, explore on your own, we’ll just be down here in the cafe. They found it thrilling.”

Jonathan Haidt speaks onstage during Unfinished Live at The Shed on September 22, 2022 in New York City. (Getty Images for Unfinished Live)
Jonathan Haidt speaks onstage during Unfinished Live at The Shed on September 22, 2022 in New York City. (Getty Images for Unfinished Live)

But how will parents keep their kids off the phone when they too operate in a world governed by devices? Haidt himself has 21.9k followers on Instagram. For him, additional online surveillance is not incompatible with a more independent childhood: by keeping children safe online, he believes we allow them more space to build real-world resilience. The next step, then, is for parents to trust their children and let them take risks.

Haidt thinks the rise in helicopter parenting came about following the “collapse of adult solidarity”. People “stopped trusting other adults” as TV began reporting on child abduction round the clock, which made the problem seem bigger than it was. Since the Nineties, we have seen a steep drop in “the risks to children from crime, violence, drunk drivers, and other sources”, he writes in The Anxious Generation, so why are we now protecting kids more? Could it be, I wonder, that such risks have declined because parents have been more protective? When I draw Haidt’s attention to a case like Madeleine McCann’s, I realise he does not know who she is.

Parents should worry less about children disappearing, and more about them developing depression

Still, he stands firm in his belief that we have overstated the risks. “FBI statistics show there are only 100 true abductions every year” in a country of 350 million people (“ballpark”). By true abductions, he means those by strangers. In short, parents should not be paranoid about their children disappearing, but worried about them developing anxiety and depression with which they aren’t equipped to cope, and which social media worsens. For this, he calls my attention to the contiguous rise of social media and suicide rates.

Suicide is a leading cause of death in the US, Haidt says, claiming 49,449 victims in 2022. For those in the US aged 10 to 24, the rate remained stable between 2001 and 2007 (around 6.9 per 100,000) but from 2011, as social media became ubiquitous, it rose 60 per cent through to 2021, where the rate was 11.0 per 100,000. “Children today are more likely to die from suicide than from murder,” Haidt says. Whatever one thinks of his full diagnosis, that is a terrifying thought, and with The Anxious Generation, Haidt offers a way out.

The Anxious Generation is out now and the audiobook is available on Spotify Premium, Audible and Audiobooks.com.

To hear Jonathan Haidt speaking to Evgeny Lebedev on the Standard’s Brave New World podcast head here