The Anxious Generation

A social psychologist and a Professor discuss the end of the play-based childhood and the rise of the phone-based childhood.

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU’s Stern School of Business. He is also a member of Persuasion’s Board of Advisors. Haidt is the author of The Righteous Mind and, with Greg Lukianoff, co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind. His new book is The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Jonathan Haidt discuss the significant rise in mental illness among teenagers, particularly young girls; why social media has a negative impact on childhood development; and how we can mitigate the damage by cultivating phone-free norms and more childhood independence.

Yascha Mounk & Jonathan Haidt at Persuasion:
Yascha Mounk: It’s always a pleasure to have you on the podcast and particularly when you have an important new book which you have just published called The Anxious Generation, which really speaks to so many core concerns of what is happening in the United States, in Britain and around the world today.

Why should we take this trend seriously? Why should we think that there really is something unusual about the rise of mental illness and other ills among teenagers and particularly young girls? And why should we think that this really is down to the rise of the internet and of social media in particular? And now I’m asking this because of course there have been many moral panics over the course of decades, right? Why is this not a moral panic, but a real trend that’s going on?

Image insert by despardes.com (A Pakistani youth)

Jonathan Haidt: There certainly is a moral panic going on and it looks similar to previous ones. You know, the press gets involved, you get scare stories. But the question is, is it a justified panic or not? And with previous ones, like comic books, novels back in the 18th century—with previous ones there wasn’t clear data showing gigantic increases in mental health or suicide. Now there is. I’ll just trace it out for you.

The mental health of teens gets especially bad for Gen X: In the ‘80s and ‘90s Gen X has very high suicide rates. The millennials actually have slightly better mental health than Gen X. Jean Twenge was really the first to graph out these large data sets and to show that all of a sudden around 2012, there’s a hockey stick, and all the numbers begin to go up. We’re talking about rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide. Suicide begins a couple years earlier, but the other three are all right around 2012, plus or minus a year. Jean Twenge was the first to raise the alarm in her Atlantic article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” And a lot of psychologists attacked her for that and said, “You’re cherry picking…

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