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How To Rescue ‘The Anxious Generation’ From The Smartphones Ruining Their Lives

Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Anxious Generation, offers context and depth to the oft-discussed issue of how smartphones and social media caused the teen mental health crisis.


In The Anxious Generation, Jonathan Haidt marshals the evidence for returning to a play-based, rather than phone-based, childhood. Parents must band together to bring their kids back to reality and health.

During my freshman orientation in the fall of 2016, I remember reading a post from a classmate explaining why a classroom phone ban was unfeasible: “Sometimes, if I’m about to have a panic attack, I just have to look at a picture of a cat immediately.” This was met with comments expressing sympathy.

This was the early days after the Great Rewiring, a term Haidt uses for the period from 2010 to 2015, when teens’ lives moved online and their mental health plummeted. The sad irony of my classmate’s approach is that dependency on cat pictures to avoid momentary discomfort does not reduce anxiety, it exacerbates it. As Haidt wrote in The Coddling of the American Mind, young people seem to live by the phrase, “What doesn’t kill me makes me weaker.”

This is contrary to nature, where resistance strengthens bone and muscle tissue, and exposure to bacteria builds up the immune system. Challenge induces growth. What’s more, this approach is contrary to how kids were raised until very recently. Getting dirty, getting into scrapes, and taking risks all used to be ordinary and essential.

Physical free play creates a virtuous cycle. Kids test their capabilities and learn to negotiate with their peers. Counterintuitively, less supervision can lead to fewer injuries in the long run because kids feel more responsible for their own safety. This builds their confidence and social skills.

Moving childhood online short-circuits this whole process. “Fortnite,” texting, and pornography are cheap facsimiles of risk-taking and social connection, and they leave kids uncertain and lonely rather than confident and mature.

Moving Beyond Cliché

Of all Haidt’s books, The Anxious Generation is the least groundbreaking. His hypothesis is well-worn: “Smartphones and social media caused the teen mental health crisis and an in-person, play-based childhood would be better.” Instead, his major contribution is offering context and depth to these oft-discussed issues.

For instance, social media’s particularly harmful effect on teen girls is commonly stated, but Haidt drills down past generalities like, “Women are more relational,” “Girls are insecure about their bodies,” and “TikTok spreads social contagions.”

He explains that researchers have long found that boys and men are more focused on agency — building individual status through efficiency, competence, and assertiveness. Meanwhile, girls and women are more focused on community — integrating with a larger group through caring for others, cooperativeness, and empathy. As a result, social media preys on women’s community-oriented impulses, diverting their attention from physical, local relationships and role models.

A young girl on TikTok, in about an hour (assuming an average of three seconds per post), could see a thousand posts that indicate what “normal” girls look like and what “popular” girls do. This amount of content, combined with the tallies of likes and comments that make status seem so objective, leads Haidt to call social media “the most powerful social conformity engine ever created.” The problem is that “normal” girls are filtered and curated and “popular” girls are often narcissistic and unwell.

It’s well-documented that teen girls have shown an uptick in self-diagnosed disorders ranging from gender dysphoria to Dissociative Identity Disorder to Tourette’s syndrome. All these disorders have prominent influencers who showcase their symptoms to attract followers. Haidt explains how women historically are most affected by “sociogenic” epidemics (epidemics triggered by stress and spread by social forces, not biological factors).

This resulted in occasional dancing “manias” in medieval Europe, including the “Dancing Plague of 1518,” in which about a hundred villagers danced themselves to death. Other common symptoms of sociogenic epidemics include fainting, nausea, and hyperventilation — and even laughter. In 1962, a laughter epidemic broke out in a Tanzanian village and lasted on and off for about a year.

Previously, these outbreaks were unusual and localized, but the internet allows teen girls across the world to catch these epidemics. One British TikTok influencer, Evie Meg, by her own admission, appears to have spread the tic of shouting “beans” to suggestible teen girls around the world. Perhaps it fits that a platform like TikTok, which was initially a vector of viral dance trends, has easily shifted to tic-filled Tourette’s clips.

The Solution of a Measured Thinker

Haidt is a rare dispassionate, nonpartisan researcher who sticks to the data, to his detriment and his credit. He belabors the point on how social media and smartphones caused the mental health crisis. If you aren’t convinced by now, one more graph won’t do anything. But this same levelheaded approach lends him credibility when he recommends potential solutions to this “collective action problem.”

Since smartphone adoption is so widespread, withdrawing at an individual level can lead to social ostracization. Instead, Haidt advises groups of parents to create a mutually supportive subculture that prioritizes free play and delaying smartphones. Wait Until 8th is a popular pledge to delay smartphone adoption until high school, while the Postman Pledge is a distinctively Christian response by concerned parents who want kids formed by books and sacraments rather than smartphones and social media.

Haidt is adamant that having smartphones in school is “kryptonite for learning” and harmful to social dynamics. He profiles Mountain Middle School in Durango, Colorado, where they went phone-free in 2012. Immediately, students began talking with each other before class instead of scrolling, and the school’s academic performance soon attained Colorado’s highest performance rating. The principal, Shane Voss, said when he walks into a school without a phone ban, “It’s kind of like the zombie apocalypse, and you have all these kids in the hallways not talking to each other.”

Haidt then describes various potential government interventions, like raising the minimum age to use social media to 16 and strictly enforcing age verification. Additionally, free play in the U.S. is hindered by horror stories of parents giving their kids some freedom only to have Child Protective Services called on them. Haidt believes the definition of “neglect” in the U.S. is too broad and counterproductive.

All of these solutions seem reasonable, but tech companies will not willingly forgo revenue, our government has not proven capable of or even interested in regulating these technologies, and schools will not change without coordinated parental pressure. Thus, the burden falls to us parents, friends, and teachers to do what we can, if only in our local communities, to shift the conditions of childhood. Until we do, we should expect this crisis to continue.

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