Smartphones Killed the Video Star

When mom asked for my phone password in high school I nearly died. She had noticed, she’s told me since, that I hadn’t been myself. Aware that my online life was embarrassing and not actually me, I pleaded with her to give back my phone, hoping, praying she wouldn’t discover any f-bombs or vain mirror selfies.

Mom trusted that the life on my phone was a lie. And it was—I couldn’t explain to her why I said mean things online, why I cussed virtually but not in real life, or why I bragged about underage drinking. My parents didn’t recognize the version of their daughter that a screen shielded. As more children get exposed to social media and the internet earlier, more parents face a similar uncomfortable truth: Parents have no idea what happens to their children online. Any parent who wants to find out should turn to Jonathan Haidt’s latest, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, which explains the uptick in youth mental illness and offers solutions that families can implement to help reverse the trend.

Haidt has discussed the dire state of younger generations in past works, like in The Coddling of the American Mind, which the social psychologist cowrote with Greg Lukianoff in 2018. Coddling describes the effects that “safetyism,” a parent’s sometimes overbearing desire to protect their child from all forms of harm, had on younger generations. Coddle-culture stunted children’s growth, forced them to become fragile, and stopped them from becoming resilient. The shift away from freedom-driven parenting styles of past generations, and toward a helicopter-parent style, somewhat explained the rise in anxiety and depression.

Such “defense-mode” parenting, Haidt now suggests, coincided with the advent of technology to create the perfect storm. Parents in the 1980s raised their children in a cautious manner due to rising crime rates and stories about deranged serial killers. And while more protective parenting methods might’ve been justified at the time, Haidt explains, their effects were disastrous. In protecting children from the supposed physical dangers of the outside world, parents also deprived children of real-world experiences. Kids no longer had freedom to grow up around other kids, wander neighborhoods, or fall without a parent to pick them up.

Lucky for parents who now needed something to do with their children, and children who needed something to do during childhood, a virtual playground replaced almost every hallmark of a “normal” childhood.

“It’s not just about smartphones and social media; it’s about a historic and unprecedented transformation of human childhood,” Haidt writes. This transformation deprived children of sleep, attention spans, and social interaction—between 2012 to 2019, children spent about an hour less time per day with friends in face-to-face settings. Puberty, a time “when we should be particularly concerned about what our children are experiencing,” is also a time “when the brain is more vulnerable to the effects of sustained stressors, which can tilt the adolescent into mental disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse,” Haidt adds. Children became addicted and attached to their devices, at the expense of in-person social learning and free-play.

Spikes in mental illness started after Apple released the fourth generation iPhone in 2010, Haidt notes, a device that debuted a front-facing camera. Instagram was also released in 2010, so for the first time, smartphone users had social media in their pockets. During the 2010s, smartphones went from being a device that made the world more accessible to being a world unto themselves.

“Online social networks, which can be useful for helping adults achieve their goals, may not be effective substitutes for real-world communities within which children have been rooted, shaped, and raised for hundreds of thousands of years,” Haidt writes.

Children’s brains recognized virtual connectivity’s deficits. Girls reported a 145 percent increase in depression during the period of the Great Rewiring (2010-15), and boys reported a 161 percent increase. No phenomena, other than the rise in social media, is attributed to this stark rise in depression, anxiety, self-harm, or suicidal behavior. The only alternate explanation for such a sharp increase in episodes is that kids in the 2000s inherited the most depressing version of the world. But previous generations faced world wars, the nuclear crisis, higher mortality, the Great Depression itself, and still emerged without one-third of the population wanting to slit their wrists. Depression, moreover, especially affected girls in the 2010s. Smartphones explain this. Girls are naturally more insecure while going through puberty, and social media prey on the worst of their insecurities.

If some other not-yet-quantifiable, unseen factor is responsible for the miserable state of children—if Haidt is wrong—parents lose nothing by adopting his prescriptions: no smartphones before high school, no social media before 16, phone-free schools, and far more unsupervised play and childhood independence.

Haidt isn’t a disgruntled boomer raging against a machine that he misunderstands. He puts into words what I wish I could have years ago. There is no area of life social media avoids: Conflict resolution, romance, friendship, decision-making, the ability to sense emotion, empathy, leadership, are all behaviors children will learn online. American teens spend about five hours per day scrolling through the filth on TikTok and Instagram—watching influencers do everything from promote eating disorders, to glorify terrorism, to encourage sex work or theft.

The next generation’s hope rests with the young adults who narrowly missed the Great Rewiring and who can resonate with Haidt’s message that social media, enthralling, whimsical, addicting as it can be, is something the next generation would be better off without.

Fear generated the radical shift between parenting methods in the ’80s. Parents may one day associate a similar fear with the virtual world as they once did with the real world; after all, child predators exploit children more online than offline today. Social media is just as accessible to children with good intentions as it is to adults with evil intentions. Haidt’s goal is for parents to at least see what smartphones do to their children. Kids are sad, anxious, fragile, undeniably addicted to screens, and in despair. Many transform into different people when they’re offline. Maybe parents will “eventually realize, as we did in the 20th century, that we sometimes need to protect children from harm even when it inconveniences adults.”

The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness
by Jonathan Haidt
Penguin Press, 400 pp., $30

Haley Strack is a Buckley Fellow at the National Review.

Original News Source – Washington Free Beacon

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