The Anxious Generation: Jonathan Haidt’s 5 Best Ideas for Parents

Words by
Jake Cutler

JUN 03, 2024

The Anxious Generation: Jonathan Haidt’s 5 Best Ideas for Parents

Jonathan Haidt’s, “The Anxious Generation,” has been getting a lot of press. From podcasts and TV interviews to book reviews in just about every major publication out there — a lot of people have been talking about it. 

In the book, Haidt provides a lot of research (70+ pages of references ) to argue that, yes, there is a mental health epidemic among youth today, and that it stems from two causes: underprotection online and overprotection in the real world.

“If we really want to keep our children safe, we should delay their entry into the virtual world and send them out to play in the real world instead.”

—Jonathan Haidt

Is Gen Z the Most Anxious Generation?

Despite the research Haidt uses to support his argument that Gen Z is seeing an unprecedented mental health decline, not everyone agrees. The response to Haidt’s book has been mostly positive but, of course, there are some critics out there.

The primary objection is that Haidt’s interpretation of the data goes too far when it claims that smartphones and social media are causing mental health issues. Critics also argue that the data is less clear than Haidt claims, and that pinning the blame solely on social media will distract us from pursuing other solutions.

Mental health decline following smartphone and social media boom in 2010 shows a significant increase in anxiety and depression in teenagers

I personally find Haidt’s argument (and evidence) more convincing than any of the counterarguments I’ve read. But more than that — and as a parent myself — I think those critics are missing the point.

Most of the debate over the book feels like academic hair splitting on data sets and definitions of correlation and causation that are disconnected from the “in the trenches,” day-to-day demands of parenting. But that’s what I loved about the book. 

I preordered the book and prioritized reading it mostly because it’s so closely related to the work I do for Gabb. But I almost immediately found myself reading the book purely as a parent. And to me, as a parent, it has provided a much clearer picture of the challenges facing my own kids — and empowered me with information to make better decisions with them.

So what follows comes from that angle. Rather than giving the world another general “The Anxious Generation” review, here are five big ideas from the book that have already had a positive impact on my own parenting.

1. Play-based vs. Phone-based Childhood

One claim that no one seems to argue with is that childhood today is much different than it was for previous generations.

Haidt labels this new type of childhood “phone-based” and argues that it has not been a good change. In his own words, “The Great Rewiring of Childhood, from play-based to phone-based, has been a catastrophic failure. It’s time to end the experiment.”

The reason phone-based childhoods are terrible for kids is that, “Healthy brain development depends on getting the right experience at the right age and in the right order.” And life online does not provide that.

This can be problematic for people of any age but is especially dangerous for kids because, “Humans have…several ‘sensitive periods,’ which are defined as periods in which it is very easy to learn something or acquire a skill, and outside of which it is more difficult.” 

kids playing on a playground versus a bunch of kids sitting on their phones

Puberty is one of the sensitive periods so any child who spends huge chunks of their own journey through puberty on social media is going to be impacted especially deeply by it.

From Haidt:

“In a real-life social setting, it takes a while—often weeks—to get a good sense for what the most common behaviors are…but on a social media platform, a child can scroll through a thousand data points in one hour… Social media platforms are therefore the most efficient conformity engines ever invented. They can shape an adolescent’s mental models of acceptable behavior in a matter of hours.”

A play-based childhood, on the other hand, is exactly what we have evolved to need for proper development.

According to Haidt, “Hundreds of studies on young rats, monkeys, and humans show that young mammals want to play, need to play, and come out socially, cognitively, and emotionally impaired when they are deprived of play.”

And not all play is created equal. “Free” play is the most important for kids’ healthy development. 

Haidt writes, “Physical play, outdoors and with other children of mixed ages, is the healthiest, most natural, most beneficial sort of play. Play with some degree of physical risk is essential because it teaches children how to look after themselves and each other.”

This large-scale shift from play-based to phone-based childhoods has created all sorts of problems but Haidt emphasizes four “fundamental harms” that have come as a result:

  1. Sleep deprivation
  2. Social deprivation
  3. Attention fragmentation
  4. Addiction

2. Discover Mode vs Defend Mode

Discover mode and defend mode are Haidt’s own terms used in place of two well-established terms in the field of psychology: Behavioral Activation System (or BAS) and Behavioral Inhibition System (or BIS).

Here’s the gist: Through millions of years of evolution, all animals have developed these two subsystems in our brains to respond to the mix of opportunities and threats we all encounter. When we’re in discover mode, we’re flooded with positive emotions and excitement. When we’re in defend mode, we stop what we’re doing, our bodies flood with stress hormones, and we’re pretty much consumed by identifying a threat and escaping it.

All animals experience both of these modes at different times but we all also have a default setting toward one or the other.

Some animals, such as those on the top of their food chains (like whale sharks) default to discover mode and are serene and confident. Other animals, like deer or rabbits, face constant threats so they default to defend mode and are skittish and quick to run away.

whale shark and deer in the woods

Haidt explains, “In humans, the default setting is a major contributor to their individual personality. People who go through life in discover mode (except when directly threatened) are happier, more sociable, and more eager for new experiences. Conversely, people who are chronically in defend mode are more defensive and anxious, and they have only rare moments of perceived safety.”

He argues that because of the huge technological evolution that put smartphones and social media in everyone’s hands by about 2010, kids born after 1995 are more likely to be stuck in defend mode.

“Children did not evolve to handle the virality, anonymity, instability, and potential for large-scale public shaming of the virtual world,” Haidt explains. “They are on permanent alert for threats, rather than being hungry for new experiences.”

Then this statement (my italics for emphasis): “If we want to help young people thrive—at home, in school, and in the workplace—shifting them into discover mode may be the most effective change we can make.”

So how does Haidt suggest we shift our kids to discover mode?

With the play-based childhood explained above: “Kids are antifragile and therefore they benefit from risky play, along with a secure base, which helps to shift them over toward discover mode. A play-based childhood is more likely to do that than a phone-based childhood.”

3. Agency vs Communion

Haidt leans on a large body of gender research to explain the varying impact of technology on boys and girls. For girls, the impact of social media on mental health has been especially devastating. For boys, a general mental health decline exists but hasn’t been as severe — and the main reason has been a move away from real-world activity, with pornography and video games being the primary technological culprits (specifically when addiction occurs).

In Haidt’s words, “Girls and boys are similar psychologically in most ways…but there are a few gender differences that show up widely across cultures and eras. One that is useful for understanding media effects is the distinction between agency and communion.”

happy teenagers

An oversimplified explanation of agency and communion is that agency is about standing out (through qualities like assertiveness, efficiency, and competence) and communion is about fitting in (through caring for others, empathy, and cooperativeness). 

Desires for both agency and communion weave together for all of us throughout our entire lives but they’re especially important for young people who are developing their identities. And while Haidt acknowledges that gender differences have both cultural and biological causes, the fact remains that differences exist: “Researchers have long found that boys and men are more focused on agency strivings while girls and women are more focused on communion strivings.”

So with that as context, here are the major impacts of technology over the last two decades on girls and boys respectively.

The Impact on Girls

Haidt explains, “Around 2013, psychiatric wards in the United States and other Anglo countries began to fill disproportionately with girls.”

The main reason for the sudden uptick according to Haidt? Social media. 

Here are a few quotes from the book where he makes his case:

“Taken as a whole, the dozens of experiments that Jean Twenge, Zach Rausch, and I have collected confirm and extend the patterns found in the correlational studies: Social media use is a cause of anxiety, depression, and other ailments, not just a correlate.”

“There is a clear, consistent, and sizable link between heavy social media use and mental illness for girls, but that relationship gets buried or minimized in studies and literature reviews that look at all digital activities for all teens. Journalists who report that the evidence of harm is weak are usually referring to such studies.”

“The more time a girl spends on social media, the more likely she is to be depressed. Girls who say that they spend five or more hours each weekday on social media are three times as likely to be depressed as those who report no social media time.”

Haidt draws from the psychological tendency toward communion in girls to explain a few ways that social media platforms have been so attractive and damaging to them in particular:

  1. Girls are more affected by visual social comparison and perfectionism
  2. Girls’ aggression is more relational
  3. Girls more easily share emotions and disorders
  4. Girls are more subject to predation and harassment

In essence, social media companies have exploited a psychological tendency. The result for these companies has been billions of dollars. The result for girls has been an unprecedented decline in mental health.

The Impact on Boys

Boys have been experiencing a “slow decline since the 1970s in achievement and engagement in school, work, and family life,” but technology has significantly sped up the decline: “Beginning in the late 2000s and early 2010s, American boys’ rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide began rising. Boys across the Western world began showing concerning declines in their mental health.” 

Haidt’s explanation for boys is not quite as straightforward as for girls but the general combination of too little protection online and overprotection in the real world still applies.

“Boys have increasingly disconnected from the real world and invested their time and talents in the virtual world instead.”

—Jonathan Haidt

While this has led to decreases in things like physical fights, car accidents, and unplanned pregnancies (all good declines), it is concerning because it has led to a huge decrease in risk-taking generally, which is crucial in boys’ development.

A big portion of the blame, from Haidt’s perspective, is the cultural de-emphasis on free play and real life experiences.

When relatively affordable devices and access to high-speed internet became common across the Western world by the 2000s, boys suddenly had what seemed to be suitable digital substitutes for the risk and adventure they’ve always needed — available at all times and with little effort.

Haidt emphasizes two sources of particular concern for boys: pornography and video games. Haidt cites evidence that both can cause real problems for users but the evidence suggests this typically applies in cases of heavy, or addicted, users. For most boys, he argues, the biggest problem is that porn and video games are distracting boys from pursuing healthier activities instead.

Haidt explains, “Porn separates the evolved lure (sexual pleasure) from its real-world reward (a sexual relationship), potentially making boys who are heavy users turn into men who are less able to find sex, love, intimacy, and marriage in the real world.” 

Speaking of video games, he explains, “Video games can cause severe problems for a substantial subset of heavy users…where the key is not just the quantity of play; it is the role that games have come to play in their lives…. [T]hey impose a large opportunity cost; they take up an enormous amount of time.”

To be clear, all of these specific subsets of technology — social media, easily-accessible pornography, and video games — influence both girls and boys. But Haidt points out that studies make it clear that there are significant differences in the way girls and boys have been impacted generally.

To sum all of this up in Haidt’s own words: “Human children and human bodies need to be rooted in human communities.”

4. Collective Action vs Individual Action

One of the biggest challenges for parents now is that safely leading a child through today’s digital world can feel overwhelming. How do I shield my kids from online dangers without excluding them from the things all their friends are doing? Or, in Haidt’s words, “Few parents want their preteens to disappear into a phone, but the vision of their child being a social outcast is even more distressing.”

What we’re confronted with is something called a collective action problem. Haidt explains it this way:

“Social scientists have long studied traps where each individual does what she thinks is best for herself (such as overfishing in a local pond), even though, when everyone makes the same choice, it leads to a bad outcome for all (the pond stops producing any fish). If the group could coordinate (such as by setting a limit on how many fish each resident can take), the long-term outcome would be far more fish for everyone.”

happy community verses a single person on a computer

This applies to both sides of the problem Haidt has framed for us (underprotection online and overprotection in the real world). Here are a couple examples applying the idea of collective action to tech and free play:

“Social media is not like sugar. It doesn’t just affect the person who consumes it…Social media [harms] the social lives even of students who stayed away from it.”

“It was easy to send kids out to play back when everyone was doing it, but in a neighborhood where nobody does that, it’s hard to be the first one.”

Haidt goes on to explain four different types of collective action:

  1. Voluntary coordination: “Parents can support each other when they stick together.”
  2. Social norms and moralization: “A community can come to see a personal decision in moral terms and express its revulsion or condemnation.”
  3. Technological solutions: “A new product or invention can change the options and incentives for everyone in a community at the same time.”
  4. Laws and rules: “Governments can make laws…Institutions can set policies.”

For me as a parent, seeing the problem framed this neatly makes solutions feel within reach. Numbers 1 and 2 are localized — it feels possible to influence my local community. And influencing my local community can bleed over into influencing numbers 3 and 4 through collective consumer and voting behavior. 

5. Hope vs Despair (spoiler alert: there is hope)

Many of the parents I’ve talked to about the book initially feel a little overwhelmed at the title alone — the thought of reading an entire book about this stuff only increases the stress they’re already feeling. After reading the book, however, I came away feeling far more hope than despair.

Haidt spends a good chunk of the book discussing solutions. He starts by providing suggestions for governments and tech companies, such as: raising the age of internet adulthood to 16, facilitating age verification, discontinuing punishments for parents who give children real-world freedom, and encouraging more play in schools.

It seems to me that actions like these are unlikely to happen if individuals don’t start speaking out, which leads to full communities speaking out, which leads to the collective action needed to pressure tech companies and governments to enact the changes our kids deserve.

kids walking outside versus 3 teen boys looking at their phones

Here’s how Haidt puts it:

“The most important lesson here is to speak up. If you think the phone-based childhood is bad for children and you want to see a return to play-based childhood, say so. Most people share your suspicion, but they are not sure what to do about it. Talk with the parents of your children’s friends… if you act together to delay smartphones and social media, then it will be easier for you and your children to reject the phone-based childhood and choose real-world community instead.”

None of the ideas Haidt proposes in “The Anxious Generation” are presented as a silver bullet for the issues facing adolescents today or a shortcut to effective digital parenting.

What they do (or, at least, what they’ve done for me personally) is provide additional perspective that makes it a little easier to have meaningful conversations with other parents and to make good parenting decisions myself. To me, this is empowering.

Parenting “frameworks” or pre-packaged “steps” don’t do it for me. Either they’re too complicated to be practical or they’re too rigorous and formal to feel authentic. My kids are little humans, I don’t like interacting with them like they’re a work project to be managed.

Speaking to that idea, Haidt summarized much of his book with this one line: “What young children need is a lot of time to interact with you, with other loving adults, with other kids, and with the real world.”

How this plays out can look a million different ways. In fact, it should look different.

Whether you’re debating between passing down an old iPhone vs buying a safe kid phone, deciding when to give access to social media, or what school to enroll your child in, there should be a lot of variables you consider that are specific to your family and your kid.

The five ideas pulled from Haidt’s book don’t replace that reality, but they can be used to inform the decisions you make.

What do you think?

Have you had a chance to read “The Anxious Generation”? What jumped out to you? Do any of the ideas shared here resonate? Let us know in the comments below.

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