Inside Story

Virtual anxiety

Jonathan Haidt probes the causes of young people’s mental distress with refreshing humility

Nick Haslam Books 18 March 2024 2084 words

“Haidt marshals high-quality evidence for the decline in young people’s wellbeing over the past decade.” Heiko119/iStockphoto

It’s now common knowledge that we are in the grip of a mental health crisis. Stories about rising rates of diagnosis, surging demand for treatment and straining clinical services abound. It is hard to avoid feeling that the psychological state of the nation is grim and getting grimmer.

The truth of the matter is more nuanced. The National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing, carried out between 2020 and 2022 by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, tells us that 22 per cent of Australians had a mental disorder in the previous twelve months and 43 per cent within their lifetime. Large numbers, no doubt, but no larger than the 20 per cent and 45 per cent figures obtained when the study was conducted in 2007.

But hidden in these aggregated figures is a worrying trend. Among young people aged sixteen to twenty-four, the twelve-month prevalence of mental disorder rose from 26 per cent to 39 per cent, and that increase was especially steep for young women, up from 30 per cent to 46 per cent. When half of this group has a diagnosable mental illness — an underestimate, because the study only counts a subset of the most prevalent conditions — something is clearly very wrong.

A similar story of age- and gender-biased deterioration is told by the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey. When an index of mental health is tracked across iterations of the survey from 2001 to 2021, older and middle-aged adults hold relatively steady but people aged fifteen to thirty-four, and especially young women, show a relentless decline beginning around 2014. The pandemic, the usual all-purpose explanation for recent social trends, can’t be held responsible for a rise in psychiatric misery that preceded it by several years, so what can?

Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation offers a provocative but compelling answer to this question. Haidt, an American social psychologist known for influential books on well-being (The Happiness Hypothesis), moral psychology and political polarisation (The Righteous Mind) and upheavals on US college campuses (The Coddling of the American Mind, written with Greg Lukianoff), argues that some of the usual explanatory suspects are innocent. They don’t account for why declining mental health disproportionately affects young women, why it is occurring now or why the trendline started to dive in the early 2010s after a period of stability.

The prospect of ecological catastrophe, for example, weighs most heavily on younger people but every generation has experienced existential threats. Wars, natural disasters, and economic crises are conspicuous reasons for distress and despair, but world events have always been terrible. It is not obvious why they should disproportionately make young women anxious and depressed while leaving older and maler people unaffected. The stigma of mental illness may have declined so that people have become more willing to acknowledge it, but increases in the prevalence of mental ill-health among young people are not confined to subjective reports but also found in rates of hospitalisation and suicide.

The chief culprit, Haidt proposes, is technological. Smartphones and social media have rewired young minds to an unprecedented degree, replacing “play-based childhood” with “phone-based childhood.” Portable devices with addictive apps and algorithms engineered to harvest attention and expose children to damaging content have wrought havoc on young people’s mental health. They have done so in ways that are gendered and most severely affect generation Z. Born after 1995, these young people are the first to have gone through puberty in the virtual world.

Haidt marshals high-quality evidence for the decline in young people’s wellbeing over the past decade. Graph upon graph show inflection points in the early 2010s when mental health and related phenomena such as feelings of social connection or meaning in life start to trend downward. These trends are not limited to the United States but occur more or less in lockstep around the Western world. Their timing indicates that it is not the internet or social networking sites themselves that are damaging, but the transformation that resulted from the advent of smartphones, increased interactivity, image posting, likes chasing, algorithmic feeds, front-facing cameras and the proliferation of apps engaged in a race to the bottom to ensnare new users.

Haidt argues that the near-universal use of smartphones in children and especially pre-teens is driving the increase in mental health problems among young people. Coupled with over-protective parenting around physical risks in the real world has been an under-protection around virtual risks that leaves children with near-unfettered access to age-inappropriate sites. Like Big Tobacco, the developers of social media platforms have designed them to be maximally addictive, have known about the harms likely to result, have made bad faith denials of that knowledge, and have dragged their heels when it comes to mitigating known risks that would have commercial consequences.

There are many reasons why phone-based childhood has damaging effects. It facilitates social comparisons around appearance and popularity, enables bullying and exclusion, exposes young children to adult-focused material, and serves individualized content that exploits their vulnerabilities. It fragments attention and disrupts sleep, with implications for schooling as much as for mental health. Smartphones also function as “experience blockers,” reducing unstructured time with friends and the opportunities for developing skills in synchronous social interaction, conflict resolution and everyday independence.

Haidt is emphatic that the problem of phone-based childhood is not just the direct harms it brings but also the opportunity costs: the time not spent acquiring real-world capabilities and connections. Added to a prevailing culture of safetyism that attempts to eradicate risk and prescribes structured activity at the expense of free play and exploration, the outcome is a generation increasingly on the back foot, worried about what could go wrong and feeling ill-equipped to deal with it. Well-documented developmental delays in a range of independent and risky behaviours are one consequence, and the rise of anxiety is another.

When many children and adolescents report that they are almost constantly on their phones we should therefore not be surprised that they feel disconnected, lonely, exhausted, inattentive and overwhelmed. Haidt argues that many of these emotional and social effects are common to young people as a group, but some are gendered. Girls are more likely to be entrapped by image-focused networking sites that promote perfectionist norms, decrease their satisfaction with their bodies, and expose them to bullying, trolling and unwanted attention from older men. Boys are more often drawn into videogames and pornography, which foster social detachment, pessimism and a sense of meaninglessness, sometimes combined with bitter misogyny.

Haidt reminds us not to think of children as miniature adults, but as works in progress whose brains are malleable and developmentally primed for cultural learning. “Rewiring” may be an overstatement — brains never set like plaster and cultural learning continues through life — but the preteen years are a sensitive period for figuring out who and what to look up to, a bias easily hijacked by influencers and algorithm-driven video feeds. Older adults can be moralistic about adolescents who won’t disengage from their phones, but when those phones are where life happens, and when the brain’s executive functions are only half-formed, we should understand why shiny rectangles of metal and glass become prosthetic.

What to do? Haidt has a range of prescriptions for parents, schools, tech firms and governments. Parents should band together to encourage free play, promote real-world and nature-based activities that build a sense of competence and community, limit screen time for younger children, use parental controls, and delay the opening of social media accounts until age sixteen. Schools should ban phones for the entirety of the school day, lengthen recess, encourage unstructured play, renormalise childhood independence and push back against helicopter parenting. There is a social justice imperative here, Haidt observes, as smartphone use seems to disproportionately affect the academic performance of low-income students.

Responsibility for intervening can’t be left to individuals and local institutions alone. Governments and tech firms must recognise their duty of care and come to see the current state of affairs as a public health issue, much like tobacco, seat belts, sun exposure or leaded petrol. Tech firms must get serious about age verification and increasing the age of “internet adulthood” at which young people can make contracts with corporations hell-bent on extracting their time and attention. Governments can legislate these requirements, design more child-friendly public spaces, and remove penalties for healthy forms of child autonomy such as going to a playground without a parent, currently criminalised in the United States as “neglect.”

The Anxious Generation is a passionate book, coming from a place of deep concern, but most of it is written with the cool intonation of social science. The work is accessible and clearly intended for a wide readership, each chapter ending with a bulleted summary of key points. There is a refreshing humility about the empirical claims, which Haidt accepts can be challenged and may sometimes turn out to be wrong, referring the reader on to a website where updates on the state of the evidence will appear.

The part social media plays in mental ill-health is in dispute, for example, although the evidence of a correlation with heavy use is not. Haidt offers up studies supporting the causal interpretation but acknowledges that nothing is straightforward where human behaviour is concerned. Nevertheless, he is justified is arguing that his “Great Rewiring” hypothesis is now the leading account of the origins of the youth mental health crisis. No other contender appears capable of explaining why things seemed to start going wrong around the globe somewhere between 2010 and 2015.

Critics of The Anxious Generation are likely to argue that Haidt’s hypothesis is simplistic or that it amounts to a moral panic. Both charges would be unfair. A single explanatory factor rarely accounts for something as complex as a major social trend, of course, but identifying a dominant cause has the pragmatic benefit of prioritising interventions. If phone-based childhood is the problem then we have a clear target for possible solutions.

As explanations go, Haidt’s isn’t quite as simple as it might seem in any case. The advent of smartphones and all-consuming social media may take centre stage, but earlier cultural shifts that amplified the sense of risk and promote over-protection set the scene and compounded young people’s vulnerability. Haidt’s account of the elements of smartphone use that are most damaging is also highly specified rather than a wholesale rejection of the virtual world.

The mental health field often extols the complexity of its subject matter, which sits at the jumbled intersection of mind, brain and culture, but that recognition can hamper the search for agreed interventions. The usual calls to boost clinical services are understandable, but solutions that address individual distress in the present fail to tackle the collective, institutional and developmental sources of the problem.

Some proposed solutions, such as efforts to build online social connections, may be ineffective because they fail to foster the embodied, real-world connections that matter. Other supposedly compassionate responses, such as accommodating student anxiety with diluted academic requirements and on-demand extensions, may make anxiety worse by enabling and rewarding avoidance. Haidt arguably overlooks how much mental ill-health among young people is being inadvertently made worse by well-meaning attempts to accommodate it and by backfiring efforts to boost awareness and illness-based identities.

The charge of moral panic is equally problematic and doesn’t stick for three reasons. First, evidence for the harmful consequences of phone-based childhood is now documented in a way that past worries about new technologies were not. Second, Haidt’s proposal focuses on the welfare of young people rather than social decay. Although he argues that phone-based life can cause a form of spiritual degradation, his critique is primarily expressed in the register of health rather than morality. Third, although Haidt articulates a significant threat, with the partial exception of social media companies he is not in the business of lashing villains so much as promoting positive, collective responses and a sense of urgency.

The youth mental health crisis is real, and it shows no signs of abating. The human cost is enormous. If rates of mental illness among Australians aged sixteen to twenty-four had remained steady since 2007, around 350,000 fewer young Australians would be experiencing one this year. The Anxious Generation is vital reading for anyone who wants a sense of the scale of the problem and a clear-eyed vision of what it will take to tackle it. •

The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness
By Jonathan Haidt | Penguin | $36.99| 400 pages