The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness by Jonathan Haidt


Review by Walter Cummins

We’ve all probably witnessed similar scenes afternoons when school is out, middle schoolers gathered in groups, all fixated on their smartphone screens and ignoring each other. By the time they get to college they’ll probably be like those I heard an acting instructor lament. She had to teach them what the interaction of a human conversation is all about—what it means to communicate with eye contact and facial expressions as they exchange words and sentences. For Generation Z it doesn’t come naturally when thumbs on a miniature keyboard is their basic mode of expression.

Jonathan Haidt is very worried about this generation and those that follow, so many young people who are growing up under the thrall of smartphones, missing real human contact, experience with the natural world, and the pleasures of play. He sees the consequences in the statistics of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and other forms of mental illness.  He blames smartphone addiction and calls for a fundamental remaking of the manner in which parents, teachers, and society in general work with children in the timing of their access to digital devices and their opportunities for engagement with each other and their physical surroundings.

For Haidt, the destructive consequences of the smartphone are not accidental results of youngsters embracing a technology but rather the outcome of a deliberate campaign by internet seducers like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok to trap potential consumers at the earliest of ages to become the prey of advertising: “By designing a firehose of addictive content that entered through kids’ eyes and ears, and by displacing physical play and in-person socializing, these companies have rewired childhood.”

Beginning with Gen Z, the first in history to have access to such devices, young people have become immersed in “an alternative universe that was exciting, addictive, unstable, and—as I will show—unsuitable.”  According to Haidt, a psychologist who teaches at NYU’s Stern School of Business, the not fully developed frontal cortex of the brain, necessary for self-control and delayed gratification, is vulnerable to the plethora of temptations on the tiny screen. It becomes as addictive as tobacco, drugs, and alcohol have been to millions.

For almost all users, the harm of this addiction is an overall disengagement from the real world around them, with loss of functional development and ability to cope. Worse for a sizeable minority, especially female, is the impact of loneliness, depression, self-doubt, and anxiety, even leading to suicide attempts and completion: “Gen Z’s mental health outcomes are so much worse than those of the millennials.”

Haidt fills the book with many comparative graphs and references to studies that show the significant changes in adolescent behavior and mental issues that began with Gen Z. The timing, coincident with the timing of the smartphone release, he argues, is proof of cause and effect. But what he hasn’t done conclusively—as critics of his theories assert—is provide a convincing argument that the smartphone is an ultimate cause rather than one contributing influence in a significant social upheaval that is the consequence of a complexity of social, economic, and lifestyle changes, with the smartphone only one factor.

A phenomenon Haidt emphasizes to support his thesis may actually undermine it with a counter cause. That is the rise of helicopter parenting, as revealed in part though the findings of studies of the ages children are given freedom to engage in activities like walking to school on their own or playing without adult supervision. Another set of graphs shows the rise in age for the same time period as smartphone use. He sees a growth of parental fears beginning in the 1990s that led to much greater parental supervision and a dampening of youthful curiosity to explore:

This is the world in which Gen Z was raised. It was a world in which adults, schools, and other institutions worked together to teach children that the world is dangerous, and to prevent them from experiencing the risks, conflicts, and thrills that their experience-expectant brains needed to overcome anxiety and set their default mental state to discover mode.

But, contrary to Haidt’s thesis, these youngsters were troubled before immersion in Instagram. The insecurities of a threatening world may have provided a vacuum to be filled by the smartphone for a generation already vulnerable and insecure. Why were the adults around them so fearful?  Some find the reason in the combination of economic insecurity, obtrusive parenting, family instability from divorce, and growing fears about child safety that led to a social malaise of angst.

Although smartphones began to appear in the 1990s, it wasn’t till the 2000s that they became as dominant as they have. By then teens and preteens, acculturated to a world of dangers and restrictions were ripe for a device that provided freedoms they were denied in the physical world. Their frontal cortexes welcomed this new alternative.

While all that Haidt fails to consider questions the accuracy of his total blame on the smartphone, his analysis of the mental unease or worse faced by young people seems to hold up. But his proposals for certain restrictions on smartphone access are an unlikely source of a cure because the young are contending with so many other disturbances when they look away from their screens.