Book Review

Jonathan Haidt - "The Anxious Generation", Review by Penelope Wright

Jonathan Haidt - "The Anxious Generation" - Book Review by Penelope Wright

Book Review - “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.” by Jonathan Haidt


By Penelope Wright, Director, Hartford College


When you see a book reviewed and spoken about as a book all parents should read, it truly is intriguing. “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.” by Jonathan Haidt is one such book.

Haidt is described as a Social Psychologist ‘who is relentless in his scientific pursuit of the truth’. His 2015 book “The Happiness Hypothesis” contains this cracker of a quote:

“Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality. It is only because our emotional brains work so well that our reasoning can work at all.”

For any of us with children with mobile phones and multiple screens, it isn’t hard to look at what is happening to communication, play time, discovery, independence and creativity. As their parent, it seems innate (without requiring empirical evidence), that while the number one way to communicate is with or through a screen, sophisticated emotionality may be taking a hit.

Our children’s lives are steeped in technology. I recently read a review of yet another book on screens and young people – “Unlocked: The Real Science of Screen Time” by Professor Pete Etchells. It seems to approach screen time from a slightly different angle. Both authors realise for our children (and us) there will be no getting away from connectedness via screens. That is the world our children live in. Acknowledging that must be our starting point.

We know that issuing instructions or asking for help from a child with their head in a screen is like talking to a wall. Haidt’s introduction has a great analogy for smartphones - your teenage daughter wants to go to Mars as part of the first permanent human settlement. What sort of consent would you be prepared to give? Every parent would look to minimise risk, check safety data, check the history of others’ experience, want to know what was going to happen up there, require adequate supervision and know the promised benefits. Yet the techno-optimism associated with the internet and everything it has done for adult lives (including our work lives) means that assessing the effects on children of exposure to new technology, screens and social media has largely been kicked along, to be dealt with if and when we see a problem.

Haidt knows we can’t turn back time but he is pointing out we wouldn’t let our children do lots of things unchecked until they were old enough to make that choice for themselves. Yet we seem to have stepped away from managing the effects of the screen on our children. The short-term pacifying effect does make it so much easier to let our children have more screen time when every day there are 100 things to do and only a few hours to do them. In the long run, we have Haidt and his research to show us that the real pain will be felt by our kids, society and our collective futures.

Haidt’s book gives us facts that confirm our observed experience. The shift from free play to the virtual world profoundly affects adolescent development. He also looks at the parallel side of parents feeling the need to protect their children and consequently restricting a child’s activity to what feels safe. This is perhaps part of the reason screens are so comforting for parents. It feels like good parenting to keep a child happy, quiet and in one place, where we think they are safe.

Haidt says that the small-scale challenges and setbacks of childhood are traditionally a vaccine for life’s greater and more complex challenges as the child gets older. In a few short years, we have at our adolescent child’s developmental expense, transitioned from play-based to phone-based childhoods and none of us did so knowing what would happen.

Haidt summarises the effects as “Four Foundational Harms – Social Deprivation, Sleep Deprivation, Attention Fragmentation and Addiction”. It’s ironic that in giving our children devices to keep them safely out of harm’s way in the real world, we may be inadvertently making it harder for them to succeed in life – to develop skills such as reading, learning, focussing, making friendships and knowing how to play well with others.

Haidt has startling research – research every parent ought to read for themselves. His keen observation is that as the brain develops, we expect children to develop ‘executive function’ (the ability to make plans and execute them) as they progress through high school. Yet a phone-based childhood appears to interfere with the development of executive function, in part because heavy users are addicted.

Girls and boys suffer differently from social media use. Boys, it seems, fall into digital pits where screens occupy many, many hours of a day robbing them of real-world agency (while creating enormous depths of avatar agency). Playing or watching video games, endless YouTube clips of other people doing stuff, and pornography. It all adds up to evidence that boys are pulling away from engagement with the real world with negative effects on mental health and hope for a successful future. Some boys will undoubtedly turn the skills they learn from mastering the virtual world into a successful career – but then they still have real life to engage with in order to create successful relationships and fulfil responsibilities that exist between people. For most, the necessity of performing a real job in the real world will still be there.

Part 4 of the book is called “Collective Action For Healthier Childhood”. It is a rallying call. Chapter 8 has a great discussion of what might be called openness to experience awe and wonder in the world around you. It is something many bioethicists say is missing in peoples’ life choices.

What to do? Haidt says it's not one parent wagging a finger at the other parent saying, “It’s your device” or “you bought it for him”. Parents and carers need to be on the same page, always. Don’t let theoretic perfection get in the way of progress.

Haidt’s book is worthy of discussion, along with other books in the same vein. We should be looking at how much agency we are nurturing in our sons. We all have to seek the appropriate balance between the good that technology brings on one hand, and the need to ensure our children are maturing and achieving independence in ways where technology does not inhibit them - making their own informed choices. There is no useful moral panic about technology – it is a reality and it is up to parents to set the boundaries for what helps and what hinders.

When parents can do this collectively, the more the better. Haidt’s book has got me thinking about two parts of the same problem – the development of real world agency and the use of technology as part of their normal life. How do I allow my children the space, time and safety to experience the world independently and take risks. How do we make time to be without phones, screens or the panacea of a device to keep them safe. It’s going to be noisier, messier and surely a little more uncertain in the short term, but ultimately it should allow my children to flourish into the great independent adults I know they can be.

The first thing I am doing is asking as many people as possible to read this book.

So I invite all parents interested in collective action to talk to friends and start together. Work out what can be done to step away and thereby help our sons to leave the screens and experience more of the world for themselves To read more, focus better, play more, not be an avatar, take risks and be the best version of their real life.