Can We Save Our Children from Smartphones?

Jonathan Haidt’s new book clarifies what we already know. 

He also has some ideas for reform.


Peggy Noonan

There’s a funny thing that happens in a nation’s thoughts. At some point everyone knows something is true, and talks about it with each other. The truth becomes a cliché before it becomes actionable. Then a person of high respect, a good-faith scholar who respects data, say, comes forward with evidence proving what everyone knows, and it is galvanizing. It hits like a thunderclap, and gives us all permission to know what we know and act on it.

That is my impression of Jonathan Haidt’s new book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing An Epidemic of Mental Illness,” that it has broken through and is clearing the way for parents’ groups and individuals to move forward together on an established idea. Mr. Haidt, a widely admired social psychologist who teaches at New York University’s Stern School of Business, has spent his career studying emotion, culture and morality, turning along the way to child development and adolescent mental health.

What we all know is that there’s a mental-health crisis among the young, that they seem to have become addicted to social media and gaming, and that these two facts seem obviously connected. Mr. Haidt says, and shows, that the latter is a cause of the former.

He tells the story of what happened to Generation Z, which he defines as those born after 1995. (They followed the millennials, born 1981-95.) Older members of Gen Z entered puberty while four technological trends were converging. One was the arrival of the iPhone in 2007, another the continuing spread of broadband internet. The third, starting in 2009, was “the new age of hyper-viralized social media,” with likes, retweets and shares. In 2010 came the front-facing camera on smartphones, which “greatly expanded the number of adolescents posting carefully curated photos and videos of their lives for their peers and strangers not just to see, but to judge.”

This became “the first generation in history to go through puberty with a portal in their pockets that called them away from the people nearby and into an alternative universe that was exciting, addictive, unstable and . . . unsuitable for children and adolescents.”

Pew Research reports that, in 2011, 23% of teens had a smartphone. That meant they had only limited access to social media—they had to use the family computer. By 2016 one survey showed 79% of teens owned a smartphone, as did 28% of children 8 to 12. Soon teens were reporting they spent an average of almost seven hours a day on screens. “One out of every four teens said that they were online ‘almost constantly,’ ” Mr. Haidt writes.

Girls moved their social lives onto social media. Boys burrowed into immersive video games, Reddit, YouTube and pornography.

The tidal wave came to these children during puberty, when the human brain is experiencing its greatest reconfiguring since early childhood. In puberty, as brain researchers say, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” What you do at that time “will cause lasting structural changes in the brain,” Mr. Haidt writes.

Suddenly children “spent far less time playing with, talking to, touching or even making eye contact with their friends and families.” They withdrew from “embodied social behaviors” essential for successful human development. It left them not noticing the world.

Signs of a mental-health crisis quickly emerged. Rates of mental illness among the young went up dramatically in many Western countries between 2010 and 2015. Between 2010 and 2024 major depression among teens went up 145% among girls, 161% among boys. There was a rise in disorders related to anxiety as well.

Some medical professionals were skeptical. Most pertinent studies were based on self-reporting: Maybe young people had simply grown more willing to talk about their feelings. Mr. Haidt looked at changes that weren’t self-reported—studies charting emergency psychiatric care and admissions. They too were up. “The rate of self harm for . . . young adolescent girls nearly tripled from 2010 to 2020.”

What Mr. Haidt calls the Great Rewiring isn’t only about changes in technologies. Parents over the past few decades made two big choices about how to keep children safe, and both were wrong. “We decided the real world was so full of dangers that children should not be allowed to explore it without adult supervision, even though the risks to children from crime, violence, drunk drivers, and most other sources have dropped steeply since the 1990s. At the same time, it seemed like too much of a bother to design and require age-appropriate guardrails for kids online, so we left children free to wander though the Wild West of the virtual world, where threats to children abounded.”

A dark irony: Parents are often physically overprotective of their children out of fear of sexual predators. But those predators have moved online, where it’s easy to find and contact children.

Mr. Haidt cites an essay for Free Press by a 14-year-old girl: “I was ten years old when I watched porn for the first time. I found myself on Pornhub, which I stumbled across by accident and returned to out of curiosity. The website has no age verification, no ID requirement, not even a prompt asking me if I was over 18. The site is easy to find, impossible to avoid, and has become a frequent rite of passage for kids my age. Where was my mother? In the next room, making sure I was eating nine differently colored fruits and vegetables on the daily.”

Mr. Haidt suggests four reforms:

• No smartphones before high school, only basic phones with no internet capability.

• No social media before 16. Let their brains develop first.

• All schools from elementary through high school should be phone-free zones—students can store their \devices in lockers.

• Bring back unsupervised play. Only in that way will kids naturally develop social skills and become self- governing.

Parents feel defeated and powerless. “It’s too late,” they tell Mr. Haidt, “That ship has sailed.” No, he insists. America has always found ways to protect children while mostly allowing adults to do what they want. Automobiles? Seat belts and car seats. Cigarettes? Age limits and a ban on vending machines.

We can’t abstain and allow a virtual world in which adults run free and children are defenseless. Concrete measures and collective action, to which Mr. Haidt devotes the last third of the book, at least offer improvement.

Near the end he quotes Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, on the inner thinking of the Silicon Valley pioneers who created the new world. In a 2017 interview Mr. Parker said they wished to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible.” The “social validation feedback loop” they created exploits “a vulnerability in human psychology.” The apps need to “give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you . . . more likes and comments.” He said that he, Mark Zuckerberg and Kevin Systrom, a co-founder of Instagram, “understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.” He added: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

We know now.