Kids and Smartphones

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In this Vox article about “This is your kid on smartphones,” Sean Illing discusses her interview with Jonathan Haidt, a professor at NYU, about his best bestselling new book called The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.

The book has provoked a ton of commentary and criticism, which isn’t all that surprising. This is a huge topic of importance for basically anyone with children, and there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about some of the causal connections here. But Haidt has a fairly convincing story to tell and it’s worth engaging with whether you fully buy his argument or not.

– Sean Illing, The Vox

Below are the main points of Sean’s interview with Prof. Haidt, which was assisted by ChatGPT-4o.

  • Current Mental Health Data:
    • Youth mental health has been a longstanding concern, with a gradual rise in depression and anxiety since the 1950s.
    • There was a significant spike in the ’70s and ’80s, but this receded in the ’90s and 2000s. Millennials, as teenagers, exhibited better mental health than Gen X.
    • Stability in mental health was observed until around 2012-2013, after which a sharp increase in anxiety, depression, and self-harm was noted.
  • Impact of Smartphones and Social Media:
    • Haidt attributes the decline in mental health to the transition from a play-based childhood to a phone-based one.
    • The deprivation of unsupervised outdoor activities began in the ’90s, but a more drastic decline coincided with the advent of smartphones around 2010.
    • He likens the situation to the leaded gas issue, suggesting that sometimes a single factor can have a massive impact.
  • Evidence and Experiments:
    • Haidt references various studies to support his claims, including experiments, correlational, and longitudinal studies.
    • The majority of studies indicate a strong correlation between social media use and mental health issues, particularly in girls.
    • While some studies show no effect, the overall body of research suggests a causal relationship.
  • Counterarguments and Skepticism:
    • Some argue that increased transparency and reduced stigma around mental health contribute to higher reported cases. However, Haidt is skeptical, noting the de-stigmatization trend started earlier without a corresponding rise in reported cases.
    • Others suggest that social media may amplify pre-existing mental health issues. Haidt acknowledges this but emphasizes that social media likely exacerbates these problems.
  • Changes in Diagnostic Criteria:
    • Changes around 2015 in diagnostic criteria could affect global data, but the significant increase in issues was observed earlier, in 2012-2013.
    • Critics might cherry-pick data, but broader CDC data supports the observed trends.
  • Broader Implications:
    • Haidt argues that the detrimental effects of smartphones on attention and real-world connections are evident.
    • He stresses the urgency of addressing these issues, likening the situation to past public health crises where action was taken despite incomplete certainty.
    • The risk of inaction is high, potentially leading to another generation facing severe mental health challenges.

Haidt stresses the importance of acting on current evidence rather than waiting for absolute certainty. He draws comparisons to public health actions taken against tobacco use and climate change, arguing that the potential cost of inaction on social media’s impact on mental health is too high. While skepticism is valuable, it should not hinder necessary preventive measures to protect youth mental health.