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How Big Tech rewired childhood

Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation shows how smartphones have damaged the teenage mind – and urges us to fight back.

By Ed Smith

I recently observed an extreme example of a common sight. On a busy train to London, an older teenager was suffering from acute anxiety, bordering on panic. Beset by waves of mounting agitation, the routine of learned coping techniques (such as controlled breathing) always gave way in the end to frantic rummaging around for an object in their pocket: the iPhone. By this point, the smartphone was doing its usual thing of pinging, flashing and buzzing. Initially, the process of urgently (but distractedly) scanning, scrolling and swiping at the touchscreen offered a moment of psychological release. But this was immediately followed by a new wave of anxiety, and with it a refreshed cycle of unease.

Superficially, the smartphone appeared to act as a release for hyper-anxiety. More fundamentally, it was feeding those cycles of hyper-anxiety. Pretending to be the cure, the phone was closer to the illness. If I’d been a novelist, I would have found my opening scene: how we live today; what tech has done to people; our bewildered state.

Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist at New York University, uses a social scientist’s tools to address this theme: how smartphone addiction has created an unprecedented explosion of mental illness, especially for the generation that entered teenage years when the devices became ubiquitous (in the late 2000s and early 2010s). Haidt argues that this cohort was effectively offered up to Big Tech companies like guinea pigs in a cruel case study. Back then, we lacked a clear understanding of what smartphones – and in particular social media – do to the teenage mind. Interweaving distressing analysis alongside practical advice, The Anxious Generation lays bare the lasting damage.

Haidt describes recent decades as a double assault on the habits that support healthy development. First, we overestimate risks in the real world, causing parents to be unduly cautious about allowing children to play and strike out independently. Too panicky at street level, parents have simultaneously been too lax about the real risks intrinsic to teen life in the virtual world.

Haidt presents a contrast between a “play-based childhood” (in decline) and “phone-based childhood” (on the rise). “Play is the work of childhood,” he argues, “and all young mammals have the same job: wire up your brain by playing vigorously and often.” Play is a forum for making mistakes (without high consequence) and learning to connect. Without making mistakes in an unstructured environment, we fail to develop antifragility. Haidt draws an analogy with a closed artificial ecosystem created in the 1980s. The designers discovered that many trees grew fast, only to fall over before maturity. What was missing? Wind. Under the stress of wind, tree roots have to grow stronger and wood cells have to develop extra hardness, an altered state known as “stress wood”. “Stress wood is a perfect metaphor for children,” Haidt concludes.

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But unstructured play has been undermined by “helicopter parenting”, which imagines dangers around every corner: “We decided that the real world was so full of dangers that children should not be allowed to explore it without adult supervision, even though 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 through the Wild West of the virtual world, where threats to children abounded.”

Those threats were not only anonymous predators, but also more routine catastrophes. “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” wondered Sean Parker, a former president of Facebook, in 2017. Social media firms learned to manipulate teenagers’ inattentiveness while simultaneously co-opting their inbuilt desire to compare themselves to others (particularly bad for the mental health of teenage girls).

Haidt cites Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron”, which envisages an American dystopia in which being excellent at anything (and therefore un-egalitarian) has been made illegal. The preferred weapon of “handicapping” exceptionally bright people is to make them wear an earpiece which buzzes roughly every 20 seconds to sabotage sustained concentration. Stopping attention is the lever by which intelligence can be flattened.

Social media and phone addiction among teens achieves all this and more. Haidt reveals how some habits, if not learned in teenage years, become out of reach in adulthood. In Haidt’s account, the teenage brain – when abandoned to social media’s pincer movement of self-projected narcissism and ceaseless superficial content – is blocked from developing real-world resilience and coping strategies.

Some doors, once closed, cannot be reopened. As we all know from experience and observation, human receptivity (and hence growth) is not linear. “It’s like cement hardening,” Haidt argues. “If you try to draw your name in very wet cement, it will disappear quickly. If you wait until the cement is dry, you’ll leave no mark. But if you can catch it while it’s in the transition between wet and dry, your name will last forever.”

When I was starting out as a professional cricketer at 18 years old, a great coach explained the critical differentiator that defined the best players. “Concentration,” he said, “is the absence of irrelevant thought.” In time, I realised that concentrating, really attending, didn’t just drive “success” in terms of runs scored and matches won, but also something more fundamental. A sustained state of attention was also highly correlated with how you felt, or, at a push, with being happy. I think many ex-sports professionals might say they miss the banter and the buzz, but really miss concentration even more.

If you don’t learn concentration as a teenager, though, you most likely never will. That’s the compelling thesis at the heart of Haidt’s book. Social media acts as a sly “blocker” on the essential mix of resilience and attention that forges character and achievement. In 1890, William James described attention as relying on “withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others”. Conversely, the absence of focus and attention leaves us “confused, dazed, scatter-brained”. Nicely prepped – James might have added had he been writing 130 years later – for another numb scroll down the Facebook feed.

If you deliberately tried to invent an aggressive tax on young talent, you’d be hard pushed to do better than what Silicon Valley has already achieved. Which is why tech execs don’t let their own kids near the digital dope they push at ours. “The value of phone-free and even screen-free education,” Haidt concludes, “can be seen in the choices that many tech executives make about the schools they send their own children to, such as the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, where all digital devices – phones, laptops, tablets – are prohibited.” (Of course they are happy to profit when less privileged schools take the opposite path, creating a generation of “forever elsewhere” teenagers.)

I made a similar point seven years ago in these pages: “This dichotomy will define the next generation: disciplined people creating addictions for ill-disciplined ones, and then profiting from that dependency.” Haidt’s book suggests I was more right than I’d like to have been. In the same piece, I mentioned Petter Neby, founder of Punkt, a tech company that manufactures modern “dumb” phones (solely for making phone calls and sending texts). Neby argues that a measure of boredom, properly understood, is an essential bridge towards creativity. If we stay just interested enough by surface trivia – as we do on social media – then we never cross the bridge into the fully fledged imaginative world. Creativity relies on space as well as stimulus. The world is not, in fact, in your pocket – but what’s in your pocket may well stop you having anything interesting to say about the world.

You know where Haidt is headed with his prescriptions to address the pandemic he describes: “No smartphones before high school; no social media before 16; phone-free schools; far more unsupervised play and childhood independence.” Impossible due to peer pressure? It’s certainly going to be hard. But parents can overcome their own collective-action problem by clubbing together. What about government policy – is it now too late? Haidt says it never is: when the Titanic sank, they at least modified the two sister ships.

Has the brain really been “rewired” (as the book’s subtitle holds), or is Haidt blurring science and metaphor here? Your personal reading is unlikely to hinge on an assessment of the academic studies but instead on your intuition about whether Haidt is loosely right. (I think he is.) His closing analogy describes the profusion of digital tech into kids’ lives as like smoke seeping into our homes. We surely sense the danger. But not strongly enough – so far – to do much about it. And that is what Haidt wants to change.

Though that is more an aside than a conclusion, Haidt’s book made me reflect on something else. Our digital lifestyle isn’t only ugly on the inside; there is also scant attention to beauty on the outside. The world’s brightest and best have effectively been bought by firms whose purpose is to perfect techniques that induce people to waste their lives hunched over a glass rectangle. They take life and turn it into lumpen data fodder. Some legacy. You could see Silicon Valley as finishing off the job well started by clueless town-planners. First, convert towns and cities into a giant ring-road, then feed their inhabitants Instagram in their bedrooms.

Last year, I spent an evening in a small Italian city with my seven-year-old daughter. We walked across the square for dinner, two people in a crowd of real people in a real place attending to real pleasures, seeking nothing in particular and yet gaining more than we could articulate. A public space drawn up 500 years ago was enriching the lives of two foreigners, who would pay nothing more than the price of two pizzas for the pleasure. Though I loved it at the time, on reflection, those hours feel bittersweet now. On the one hand, the grandeur of Renaissance ambition and its restless need to build lasting human spaces for transient human beings. On the other, the cynical vision of today’s de facto social architects: a wasteland of clickbait and its psychological sugar-rush, disembodied lives, no legacy beyond a careless trail of data to be packaged up and resold to the highest bidder, a voided public square, a stylised virtual world flattening and demeaning what’s left of the real one.

I know it’s banal to say we’ll all be dead soon enough. But wouldn’t it be nice to leave something behind? Perhaps that empty, guilty feeling is another driver of collective anxiety.

Ed Smith is director of the Institute of Sports Humanities

The Anxious Generation
Jonathan Haidt
Allen Lane, 400pp, £25

Purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from Bookshop.org, who support independent bookshops

[See also: How Big Tech made us screen addicts]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul

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