Jonathan Haidt on how to reduce kids’ mental distress caused by smartphones and social media

Virgin Radio

9 Jul 2024, 10:51

Jonathan Haidt talks to Chris Evans at Virgin Radio

Credit: Virgin Radio

Leading social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s new book, ‘The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness’, is out now.

In the book, he argues that the decline of free-play in childhood and the rise of smartphone usage have caused increased mental distress among teenagers. Joining the Chris Evans Breakfast Show with webuyanycar, he said: “I can summarise the whole book in a single sentence; we have overprotected our children in the real world, and we have underprotected them online.”

He told Chris: “At the heart of the book is a story about how we got here, and it really focuses on the years 2010 to 2015. That's what I call the Great Rewiring of Childhood.”

Jonathan, who is a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, explained: “The reason why all thought this was okay was that the 90s were amazing. So, we're beginning to crack down on play, we're bringing our kids inside, we don't want to let them out, but we've got these computers, and these computers have the new internet, and the new internet was fantastic. 



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“We all remember, ‘I can just type in a question, I get the answer instantly!’ This is what humans have dreamed of for 1000s of years. And so the millennials, they grew up with this early Internet, and they're fine. The millennial generation is fine. They're creative, they take risks. They started companies. And so we thought, ‘Well, computers are good, they're good for our kids. The internet is good. It's good for our kids.' That was the early internet.”

He continued: “Everything changes around 2007. The iPhone comes out. It's not bad at all, at first. But then you get the app store and push notifications. You get the front-facing camera in 2010. Instagram is popular in 2012. High-speed internet. 

“So, in 2010 young people, we can still call them millennials, were using their flip phones to connect with each other and meet up. And that's good. By 2015 young people, now we can call them Gen Z, are on the smartphone between five and 15 hours a day, high-speed data, front facing camera, posting on Instagram, not seeing their friends anymore. They're doing the phone instead of the friends.”

Jonathan - who has written more than 100 academic articles and given four TED Talks - added: “In 2010 kids still had a play-based childhood. But in that five year period, everything changes all around the developed world, and kids have a phone-based childhood, and that you cannot grow up to be a healthy human being.”

Speaking about the impact all this had on girls, he explained: “All the graphs of levels of depression, anxiety and self-harm, they were very stable from the 90s through 2011 there's really no sign of any problem. Up to 2011 all of a sudden, in 2012, 2013 all those lines start going skyward. 

Describing it as “a complete transformation of girls' mental health,” the psychologist said: “If you have an 11,12 year old girl, the worst thing you could do for her is put her on a platform where every day is going to be comments on her face, her hair, her breasts, her eyes. I mean, it's crazy to do this to early adolescent girls, but we do.”

So, what can parents do to help fix the problem? Jonathan pointed out four things. “It's just normal in the UK to give a five-year-old your old smartphone. This is craziness,” he said. “By the time they're older, they insist on getting it because everyone else has it. So what we have to do is get out of this collectively. Four norms we can break out of this. One, no smartphone until age 14. Wait until they're at least through early puberty.

“Two, no social media till age 16. Social media is wildly inappropriate for kids. I mean, the sex, the violence, the addiction, the manipulation, the men who want to see them naked. It's insane.”

Continuing, he said: “The third is phone-free schools. And this is happening really fast. Listeners, if you want to do one thing to really save this generation, contact the head of your kid's school and say, ‘Please go phone free.’ And phone free means from Bell to bell. It does not mean just during class. 

“For all of human history until yesterday, parents could not contact their kids during math class. You can't be texting with your kids, but, but we had this brief period from 2012 until today, when parents can be in constant contact with their kids even during math class.

He added: “The head of school, they need to hear from parents say, ‘Please, let my child have six hours a day to listen to the teacher and to and to talk with other kids,’ because they're not doing that. When schools go phone free, one of the things they say is, ‘In between classes, we hear laughter again. We haven't heard that in a long time.’

“And the fourth, which is, in a way, the most important and the most neglected, because it's the hardest one; If we're going to take away a lot of the screen time and we're going to give our kids back a play-based childhood, we have to give them play. 

“So the fourth norm is more independence, free play and responsibility in the real world. Our kids feel useless. They say, ‘My life is useless.’ All they're doing is video stuff. Give them chores, give them freedom, give them groups to play. By age eight, nine, ten we were all out on our bicycles. We were all out having adventures that made us grow. We've got to give that back to our kids.”

The Anxious Generation: How The Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness is out now.

For more great interviews listen to The Chris Evans Breakfast Show with webuyanycar weekdays from 6:30am on Virgin Radio, or catch up on-demand here.