Beyond the Haidt Hysteria: Teens are Much More than ‘Anxious’

June 12, 2024

It’s impossible to have missed the recent media coverage of, and deference to, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Anxious Generation. It’s a tome that argues for four ‘new norms’ to free young people from their smartphones and the scourge of social media.

Once you wade through the deluge of data, you’ll find much of what Haidt proposes makes sense, superficially at least. Those who grew up without the internet and nostalgically lament their analog childhoods have especially joined the nodding chorus.  But when we dig into the nuance of what he's *actually* saying (and suggesting as solutions) I find myself pulling a monocle emoji face. 🧐

Dissenters of Haidt have never suggested we hand out iPhones at the maternity ward. No one believes there should be a TikTok free-for-all in schools.  As well as examining the statistical complexities, the selective slicing and dicing of datapoints and correlations, many screen and internet researchers encourage folks to consider how to effectively operationalise the technology under our skulls to mitigate the potential effects of the devices we choose to buy for our kids for Christmas, their birthdays, Eid and Bar Mitzvahs. 

The mother of all battles: screentime management

Something that bugs me is that several of the ‘solutions’ (ban smartphones in schools, restrict social media until 16) fall disproportionately on the shoulders of women to implement and take action on. We know that women and mothers* bear the brunt of the screentime mental load when it comes to monitoring, mentoring and managing devices and the huge variety of online activities that we engage in - invariably labelled bluntly as ‘screentime’.

We also know that women represent a large part of the teaching workforce and that enforcing bans can be deleterious to the relationships that support engagement in learning. Don’t mind the fact that phones bans still don’t have much evidence for being effective.

These solutions also seriously fail to address how we prepare young people for the online world when they do dive (often headfirst) into the (often, rough) digital waters.  Smartphone bans on their own are like building a higher pool fence without bothering to check the gate latch is working or to teach any digital swimming lessons. We cannot fence the ocean/internet! So it’s imperative that we explicitly teach the cyberpsychological skills to learn to surf the technological waves that keep rolling rapidly towards us.

And don't get me started on his take on the contagion effect of gender fluidity. Because that requires an exploding brain emoji 🤯 and the magnifying glass emoji 🔎  (spoiler alert: you will find no evidence for it).

If merely talking about and being aware of gender questioning and transgender humans creates an increase in trans folks and people who identify beyond hetero norms, then what does literally labelling a whole generation of people as anxious do to their anxiety levels? It makes me anxious just thinking about it.

Society’s distain for adolescents

Haidt’s suggestion that children and young people need more independence, free play and responsibility is something I can get behind.  Except, here’s the problem – society is easily annoyed by children, and especially teens. They are noisy, sometimes smelly, they yearn novelty and to take risks. They’re expensive to upkeep but they don’t pay taxes (yet).

Governments aren’t planning for, let alone building enough space for children to play, climb and run. Some would even suggest there’s been a war on play waged. No wonder they turn to devices when they’re offered by exhausted parents keen to catch a break.

In Australia, teenagers who created BMX tracks in lock-down got sent home and had their tracks destroyed. When teens hang out at in public spaces they represent ‘gangs’ or when they gather at Westfields, they’re labelled mall rats.  When they stay home and play Minecraft or Fortnite they’re ‘addicts’. When they want to indulge in frivolity and fashion they’re being idle and trivial, but when they organise School Climate Strikes they’re berated for their activism, called stroppy (how dare they require a liveable planet!) and told their actions won’t make a difference. Yet, people are actually flummoxed that their mental health is plummeting?

Governments want to solve the housing crisis by building high density boxes (rapidly) for people to live in ‘affordably’ without much consideration to liveability or the provision of green and/or community spaces.  Then in 15 years we’ll call for investigations and summits into why young people are addicted to AR/VR/XR and  ‘goggle time’

Even those ardently arguing for age verification to keep the gate firmly closed on social media ignore that this legislation and accompanying technology is 12-18 months away at best. There are plenty of ways we can immediately and at no cost change the digital tide, if we really wanted to invest in young people’s skills and wellbeing – we don’t need to wait.

An actionable antidote

My suggested antidote to the Haidt hysteria (because no-one ever implemented a sustainable solution while in a state of freak-out) is Professor Pete Etchell's second book Unlocked: the science of screen time and how to spend it better.

It's for practical people who want to learn to live well (forget ‘thriving’ at this point, ‘surviving well’ is my humble goal) alongside the complexities and nuance of what we do with our screens.  While there are real and present dangers (which can be spotted and mitigated) of underdeveloped minds becoming reliant on and influenced negatively by online activities, there also opportunities and possibilities when we’ve been empowered with the skills required to live well, connected.

How families choose to engage with the digital world is of course entirely up to them. There is no single ‘right’ way, no solid playbook, no one size fits all approach.  Anyone who sprouts pious advice that involves calls to ‘be the parent, say no!’ or ‘just turn it off’ should be regarded with suspicion and most likely have not spent more than 7 minutes parenting in the last decade.

My experience during this time is that families who use intentional, informed and intelligent strategies to master their device use, have strong communication skills and stable authoritative foundations often avoid many of the digital disasters we fear the most.

These sustainable strategies of moderation seem to stick much more strongly than the relatively fleeting fear-based restrictions that are common reactions to these shrieking smartphone-panic narratives. But that doesn’t make for much of a clickable headline, re-sharable soundbite or thumbs up emoji now, does it?


*Recognizing the rich and diverse ways that ‘motherhood’ is expressed.

Written by

Jocelyn Brewer

Jocelyn is a Warrane/Sydney-basedregistered psychologistwith a special interest in the psychology of technology and staying human in a digitallycolonised, AI-infused world.

Jocelyn’s 2009 Psychology Honors thesisexplored the impacts of increasing access to Internet enabled laptops on acohort of grade 10 boys and the emerging area of Problematic Internet Use(PIU), colloquially known as ‘Internet Addiction’.

In 2013, Jocelyn created Digital Nutrition™ – a framework to guide parents andtechnology users understand the virtual nutritional values of the online mediacontent we consume via apps and games on tablets and screen technology. Sheprovides a range of courses, keynotes and coaching.

Jocelyn is an affiliate of theCyberpsychology Research Group at Sydney University, where she completed aMasters of Applied Science (Cyberpsychology) in 2021 on the relationshipbetween smartphone use and self-control in a cohort of 7th graders.

During the pandemic, Jocelyn was introducedto NYC based Kelly Cloutier. Over the Zoom and across time zones they founded MetaWell – a flexible toolkit of resourcesto help you live well online.