Social Media Messed Up Our Kids. Now It Is Making Us Ungovernable

Credits

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and author of “The Anxious Generation.”

In a conversation with Noema editor-in-chief Nathan Gardels, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt discusses the impact of social media on truth in politics, the mental health crisis of today’s youth, and what to do about it.

Nathan Gardels: For those who haven’t read your book, “The Anxious Generation,” can you summarize the main thesis?

Jonathan Haidt: It all begins with a mystery: Why is it that mental health statistics for American teenagers were pretty flat, with no sign of any problem, from the late ’90s through 2010 to 2011? That is true whether we look at depression, anxiety or self-harm. And then, all of a sudden, in 2012, it’s as though someone flipped a switch, and the girls began getting much more anxious, depressed and self-harming. It was true of boys too, but it’s not been so sudden. It was more gradual in the early 2010s.

We first discovered this on college campuses because the students who entered universities from 2014 to 2015 were very different from our stereotype of college students who want to have fun, who want to drink and party.

The students arriving in 2014 to 15 were much more anxious. And they were especially triggered by words or jokes, speakers or books. It was that observation that led Greg Lukianoff to propose the hypothesis that college is doing something to kids to make them think in this distorted way. That was the basis of our book “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

But now it’s becoming clearer that what we saw and wrote about in that book wasn’t just happening to college students, but actually to all teenagers born after 1995. And it was not only observable in the U.S., Britain and Canada but a lot of other countries as well. What happened? Why was it so sudden? So that’s the mystery.

Was it some chemical dropped in the water supply all over North America and Northern Europe, along with the South Pacific? Or was it the massive change in the technological environment of childhood in all these countries simultaneously? This seemed the obvious hypothesis.

So, the first chapter of “The Anxious Generation” discusses what actually happened to teen mental health. And then the rest of the book seeks to unravel the mystery. It’s not just about “social media is destroying everybody.” It’s a more subtle and interesting story about the transformation of childhood — a tragedy that occurred in three acts.

Act I, which I only hinted at in the book, was the loss of community. So, if you look at America, especially in the years just after World War II, social capital was very high. The best way to make people trust each other is to have someone attack them from the outside — come together, fight a war and win. Social capital was very high in the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s, and then it begins to drop over succeeding decades for many reasons.

Robert Putnam talked about this in “Bowling Alone.” You have smaller family sizes; people retreat inside because now they have air conditioning and TV and they’re not out in the front yard socializing as much. So, for a lot of reasons, we begin to lose trust in each other. We begin to lose social capital. That’s Act I of the tragedy.

Because of that, Act II happens, which is when we take away play-based childhood. Children used to always play together. It didn’t matter if it was raining or snowing, if there was a crime wave or drunk drivers, kids went out to play. Like all mammals, we evolved to play, in order to wire up our relatively large brains.

But in the ’90s, we decided it was too dangerous for kids to be out and about. They’ll get kidnapped or sexually abused, we thought, because we no longer trusted our neighbors. So, we locked our kids up out of fear of each other. In other words, over protection. This is the coddling part.

Then, after losing strong communities and play-based childhoods, we’re ready for the third act in the tragedy: the massive, sudden transformation of childhood between 2010 and 2015 into a phone-based childhood.

In 2010, the vast majority of teens across the developed world had cell phones. But they were flip phones or basic phones, with no internet browser. All you could do with them is text and call. That was pretty much it aside from some games. It wasn’t for constant communication. And that’s good. Kids could text their friends and say, “Let’s meet up at 3 p.m.” It was a simple tool. There was very little high-speed internet then and no front-facing camera. There was Facebook, but no Instagram. That’s the way things were in 2010.

“All of a sudden, in 2012, it’s as though someone flipped a switch, and the girls began getting much more anxious, depressed and self-harming.”

In 2010, kids in the U.S. and other Anglo countries still had a recognizably human childhood. They would meet up in person, even if they now had less freedom to roam. By 2015, that all changed when about 80% of those kids had a smartphone with a front-facing camera and a bunch of social media apps. So now we have the selfie culture. Almost everyone now has high-speed internet and now everyone can display video.

In short, by 2015 we have what I call “the great rewiring of childhood.” And that’s why in 2012, which is the year, incidentally, that Facebook bought Instagram, when online life changed, especially for girls, who flocked onto Instagram. And it was right after that when we first noticed the widespread upsurge in anxiety, depression and self-harm.

Gardels: The main criticism of your thesis is that you are mistaking correlation for cause and being too technologically determinist. How do you respond to that?

Haidt: First of all, my story is not just about technology, it is sociological. It’s a cultural psychology story. It’s about the change of childhood and human development.

To those who argue these changes could have been caused by any number of factors, I say a couple of things. First, whatever other factor you might think was more determinative, did that happen in New Zealand and Iceland and Australia all at the same time? No one can identify such a factor. Nobody has proposed an alternative theory that works internationally.

Second, it is true that the data is mostly correlational. If you have 300 correlational studies and 25 experimental studies, I would say the data is mostly correlational. The scientific debate has been focused on a very, very narrow question: Do the hours spent on social media tell you anything about the level of mental illness, especially depression and anxiety? There’s a clear correlation in these studies.

But we also have experimental studies, which I cite in the book. I go into great detail about the difference between correlation and causation. Every week, every month, we have more experiments indicating the causality of anxiety-inducing technology.

There are so many causal pathways by which a phone-based childhood harms different kids in different ways. Let me just take the example of sextortion, a very common crime online. There are international sextortion gangs that display avatars of beautiful, sexy young women. An avatar flirts with a boy that she finds, usually on Instagram. And then she convinces him to swap nude images. Boom. Then the sextortionist reveals himself, not as a sexy girl but as a man who now has all the content he needs to ruin you: “I’m going to show this picture of you and your penis to everyone, because I have all your contacts, unless you pay me $500 in two hours.”

The boys panic, and some of them have killed themselves because of the shame. The FBI has identified 20 suicides that were direct results of sextortion, which means there are probably hundreds of cases they didn’t catch, and far more kids who were traumatized by the experience and the shame. Now, is that just a correlation? Would these boys have killed themselves anyway, even if they had not been sextorted? I don’t think so.

Gardels: What are the specific remedies you propose for parents to protect their kids?

Haidt: The key to the whole book is understanding collective action problems, which are sometimes referred to as “the tragedy of the commons,” where each person acting in their own interest ends up bringing about an outcome that’s bad for everyone. If you’re the only one who doesn’t put your sheep out to graze, if you’re the only one who doesn’t fish in the pond, you suffer while everyone else continues to do what they’re doing.

One of the main reasons that we all are giving our kids phones now at age nine or 10 — it gets younger all the time — is because the kid comes home from school and says, “Mom, everyone else has an iPhone, I have to have an iPhone, or I’ll be left out.”

This is a collective action problem because any parent who does the right thing and says, “No, you’re not going to get one until you’re mostly done with puberty,” is imposing a cost on their child. All over the developed world now, family life has devolved into a struggle over screen time and phones. This is terrible. So, the trick is to realize we’re in this problem because everybody else is in this problem.

“All over the developed world now, family life has devolved into a struggle over screen time and phones.”

We’re so deep into this that it is very hard for any family to get out of it by themselves. Some parents are tough and just say “no,” but the status environment doesn’t change for the kids.

What I’m trying to do with the book is to say, if we team up with a few other families, if a small group of parents can get the whole school or school district to say “no,” then they escape and we can change the situation very, very quickly.

What we need is the adoption of four norms that can break the back of the collective action problem.

One: No smartphone before high school. Just keep it out of middle school. Let the kids at least get through early puberty, which is the most sensitive period. You can give them a flip phone if you absolutely need to text. I understand the need to coordinate.

Two: No social media before the age of 16. Social media is entirely inappropriate for children, it cannot be made appropriate because what you’re basically doing is saying, “How about we let the entire world get in touch with you? Let’s let all the companies try to sell things to you, let men all over the world who want to have sex with you contact you, and try to trick you into sending photos.” There’s no way to make this safe. So just recognize that social media is a tool for adults. Eleven-year-olds don’t need to network with strangers.

Third: Schools need to be phone-free. Imagine that when I was a kid growing up in the ’70s, if we had been allowed to bring in our television sets and our radios along with all sorts of toys and games and put them on our desk and use them during class. That’s what teachers are facing today. Disgusted and frustrated that they can’t get through to students, teachers are quitting.

Also, global test scores have been dropping, since 2012. This did not begin with Covid. It began around 2012. The result is a massive destruction of human capital. So, it’s just kind of obvious. You can’t have kids have the greatest distraction device ever invented in their pockets while they’re in class. All kids must check their phones during the day. If others are texting, they have to be texting back. So, just lock up the phone in the morning to give it back at the end of the day.

Four: We need to restore a play-based childhood. Kids need more independence, free play and responsibility in the real world. If you’re going to roll back the phone and don’t restore play, a child can have no childhood. So, roll it back and instead, give them adventure and fun with other kids.

Us parents need to overcome our own fears and let our children learn how to play with each other. Kids playing in groups are very safe. That’s how they learn to get along. That’s how they’re going to resolve disputes in life.

If we do these four things I’m pretty confident that rates of mental illness will come down within two years. Experience so far shows that phone-free schools get great results within a month. In various childhood independence projects, you get results within a month. If any community does all four of these, I believe they’re going to see pretty big drops in depression, anxiety, self-harm and other problems in short order.

Gardels: Do you worry that more prosperous parents with the means and time to be attentive to their kids will follow your advice, while the less well-off, busy working two jobs with less time for their kids, won’t? That this will just create a greater gap in society?

Haidt: Yes, I do expect that it will begin this way, with the most educated and wealthy families. But I think it will spread quickly as parents begin to see and hear about the benefits. Also, I should note that the most educated families apply the most limits, whereas children in low socioeconomic status, single-parent, or Black or Hispanic families have one- to two- hours more screen time per day, so going phone-free will disproportionately help them.

Gardels: Implicit in your remarks is you don’t have any faith in the Instagrams or TikToks of the world to be able to regulate themselves so they do less harm?

“What we need is the adoption of four norms that can break the back of the collective action problem.”

Haidt: Right now, as long as you’re old enough to lie about your age, you can go to Pornhub. You can open 20 Instagram accounts, you can open TikTok accounts. The law says you have to be 13 to sign a contract with a company to give away your data without your parents’ knowledge. But the law is written in such a way that there’s no responsibility for the companies if they don’t know your real age. As long as they don’t know your real age, they can’t be held liable for serving you eating disorder content or sex and violence.

We’re talking about five to 10 companies here that own our children’s childhood. They have a lot more influence over our kids than we do in some ways. And they have no responsibility. They are literally protected from lawsuits by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields them from liability for the content on their platforms.

This is a completely insane situation. And they’re making huge amounts of money. So no, I don’t expect them to do anything until they’re forced by legislation, or by enormous losses in court.

Gardels: Your book has obviously hit a chord with parents and with school authorities. Do you have any sense of how the TikTok crowd or kids themselves see it?

Haidt: When you survey kids who’ve been through this, it’s really hard to find members of Gen Z who are opposed to what I’m saying. In fact, I actually haven’t found any. They almost always say, “Yeah, you know, you’re right. This really messed us up. But, you know, what are you going to do? This is just the way things are, and I can’t quit because everyone else is on.” There’s just an extraordinary sense of fatalism. We don’t find any young people organizing to protect their rights to have these things. The older kids generally say, if we could get everyone off, we should do that.

Gardels: The Chinese cyberspace authorities have no qualms about imposing limits on social media. Here are the rules:

  • Children under 8: Can only use smart devices for 40 minutes per day and can only consume content about “elementary education, hobbies and interests, and liberal arts education”
  • Children aged 8 to 15: Can use their phone for no more than one hour per day
  • Children aged 16 to 17: Can use a handset for a maximum of two hours per day
  • Minor mode: Requires mobile devices, apps and app stores to have a built-in mode that would bar users under 18 from accessing the internet on mobile devices from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Perhaps they will produce more mentally healthy kids?

Haidt: China is engaged in a battle with the United States for cultural and economic supremacy. Since our young people are giving away all of their available attention, there’s a good chance that they will be less creative and less productive. They don’t have any spare attention to actually do anything. I imagine that makes the Chinese government happy.

The worst single product for American children is TikTok. It sucks up more of their time, energy and attention than any other product. And it harms them. It doesn’t do anything good for them. TikTok has more influence over our kids than any other organization on the planet. So, there are many reasons to think that that is a danger not only to our kids, but to our country.

It seems the Chinese are doing the right thing by using their authoritarian system to reduce the damage to their own children.

Of course, authoritarian solutions are not right for us, but we can do similar things through democratic solutions, through community and civil society. One thing Tocqueville praised Americans about is that when something needs doing, say the townspeople need to build a bridge, they just do it. They don’t wait for the state like in France. They don’t wait for the King like in Britain. Americans come together as citizens, elect a leader, raise money and then they do it.

So, I’m hopeful that my book presents norms that we adopt ourselves, even if we never get any help from Congress or lawmakers. Doing it ourselves — in groups of parents organized around schools — is a very American solution to what I think is one of the largest problems facing America today.

“TikTok has more influence over our kids than any other organization on the planet.”

Gardels: To go back to the coddled generation argument. What do you make of all these kids in college today putting up barricades, occupying administration buildings protesting the war in Gaza?

Haidt: Most of the activism of the college kids has moved online. That tends to be very ineffective and creates a culture that is bad for activists. I put some research in the book showing that before 2010, being politically active was actually associated with better mental health. You were engaged, you were part of a group, you were energized. After 2010, activists, especially progressive activists, are the least happy people in the country. They are marinating in beliefs about oppressor versus victim and embracing the untruths of the coddled. That was certainly true until very recently.

Now it’s true these protests are in person. That’s at least better psychologically for them. They are physically present and interacting with others on campus.

Even so, I think there are signs that it’s different from previous generations. One is that the present protestors are expecting accommodation, often seeking not to be punished for missing classes and for delayed exams. In other words, they are expecting a low cost to themselves. In previous periods of activism, civil disobedience meant if you break the law, then you pay the consequences to show how committed you are to the cause.

To be sure, today’s actions are communal, which is always very exciting. It’s not as though Gen Z is incapable of acting in person; though, I would point out, it’s overwhelmingly at the elite schools that this is happening.

Gardels: One of the reasons that we have such a paralyzed and polarized society is that the public square has virtually disappeared. Until social media turbocharged fragmentation, there was a common space where competing ideas could be contested in the full gaze of the body politic.

As the philosopher Byung-Chul Han has observed, the peer-to-peer connectivity of social media redirects the flow of communication. Information is spread without forming a public sphere. It is produced in private spaces and distributed to private spaces. The web does not create a public.

The possibility of arriving at a governing consensus through negotiation and compromise is being shattered by a cacophony of niche propagandists egging on their own siloed tribe of the faithful to engage in an endless partisan battle. Indeed, Rene DiResta at Stanford calls the niche ideologues “the new media goliaths” who have supplanted mainstream platforms in terms of influence.

In short, the digital media ecosystem is disempowering the public sphere.

In this sense, social media is not only messing up our kids but undermining the basis of democratic discourse.

Do you agree with that?

Haidt: Absolutely. In an article for the Atlantic in 2019, I made the case, basically along the lines of Han, that massive changes in information flows and the way we connect people change the fundamental ground within which our democratic institutions are operating. And it’s quite possible that we are now so far outside the operating range of these institutions that they will fail.

I’m extremely alarmed about the future of this country. If you read Federalist #10, the Founding Fathers, who were excellent social psychologists, were very afraid of the passions of the people. They didn’t want us to have a direct democracy. They wanted cooling mechanisms of deliberation through reason. The system of governance they devised, with its checks and balances, is really like a complicated clock that they thought could last a very long time precisely because it was realistic about human frailties. And they were right.

Then all of a sudden in the later post-war era — first with television, then the internet and, especially, now peer-to-peer media, it is all going awry. With television, at least there were editors. Jonathan Rauch wrote an amazing book called “The Constitution of Knowledge,” both about the Constitution and how knowledge is constituted.

He discussed how we make knowledge in universities and science and medicine. But he also discussed the U.S. Constitution and how the community of knowledge makers are governed by certain rules and checks and balances. We developed editors, filters and other mechanisms to vet truth.

All that’s going away now. Or at least the institutions are so weakened as to be feeble. I’m very alarmed. And, at the same time, what’s replacing them are the sorts of peer-to-peer networks that you’re talking about.

“Until social media turbocharged fragmentation, there was a common space where competing ideas could be contested in the full gaze of the body politic.”

In the history of humanity, when you connect people, there could be disruptions. But in the long run, that’s good. It increases the flow of knowledge and increases creativity. You get more value when you connect people. So, the telephone was great, the postal system was great.

Social media is not like those earlier innovations. I think the best metaphor here is to imagine a public square in which people talk to each other. They debate ideas or put forth ideas that may not always be brilliant. They may not always be civil, but people can speak while others listen. Sometimes people are moved by persuasion or dissuasion.

I think the Founding Fathers assumed that’s about the best we can hope for. Imagine one day, and I’ll call it 2009, that all changes. There’s no more public square. Everything takes place in the center of the Roman Colosseum. The stands are full of people who are there to see blood. That’s what they came for. They don’t want to see the lion and the Christian making nice; they want the one to kill the other. That’s what Twitter is often like.

It all becomes performative and comes at a superfast pace. Just as television changed the way we are and made us into passive consumers, the central act in social media is posting, judging, criticizing and joining mobs. Donald Trump is the quintessential person who thrives in that environment. If not for Twitter, Trump never could have been president. So, when our politics moved into the Roman Colosseum, I think the Founding Fathers would have said, “Let’s just give up. There’s no way we can build a democracy in this environment.”

Gardels: Just as republics have historically created institutional checks and balances when too much power is concentrated in one place, so too don’t we need to foster checks and balances for an age when power is so distributed that the public sphere is disempowered?

What I have in mind are the citizens’ assemblies indicative of the public as a whole, which deliberate issues in a non-partisan environment and, outside the electoral sphere where partisans vie for power by any means necessary, are able to come to a consensus through pragmatic, common sense solutions?

Haidt: It’s possible to create these small artificial communities where you lock citizens away together for a week and have them discuss something. They work pretty well from what I know, and they come up with solutions. But it’s not clear to me how you could use that to run a country. The way people feel about let’s say, Donald Trump, has very little to do with some ascertainment of fact.

If you use the word power, then I’m a little bit confused. But I think I see what you’re getting at. If we change the word to authority, it is clearer to me. When I wrote “The Righteous Mind,” I was on the left then and really tried to understand conservatives. Reading conservative writings, especially Edmund Burke and Thomas Sowell, was really clarifying on the idea that we need institutions. We need religion, we need gods, even if it is not true. We need moral order and constraint.

The progressive impulse is to tear things down and make things new. The conservative impulse is to protect authority structures because we need them. Without them, we have chaos. Of course, there are times to tear things down. But I think during the 2010s everything has been torn down, to some extent. This is a time we need to build.

I am very concerned that there is no longer any source of authority. There is no trusted authority, there is no way to find consensus on truth. It seems that the truth-seeking mechanisms, including the courts, came up with the answer that the last presidential election in the U.S. was not stolen. But there’s no real way to spread that around to the large portion of society that believes that it was.

With AI coming in, the problem of the loss of authority is going to be magnified tenfold or even a hundredfold when anyone can create a video of anyone saying anything in that person’s voice. It’s going to be almost impossible to know what’s true. We’re in for a wild ride if we’re going to try to run a democratic republic with no real authority. My fear is that we will simply become ungovernable. I hope not, I hope we find a way to adapt to living in our world after the fall of the tower of Babel, the fall of common understandings and common language.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

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Samatha Pingree