Anxious Generation — How Safetyism and Social Media are damaging the kids

I just finished reading this book the other day. Written by Jonathan Haidt, "Anxious Generation" deals with a concept he calls the "Great Rewiring." Essentially, he proposes that two forces at play nowadays have led (and continue to lead) an entire generation to significantly higher rates of mental illnesses.

One of these forces is unfettered access to social media. He draws a distinct line between the generic overuse of computers or the internet and the use of social media. The former began back in the 90s (or maybe even the 80s), but no dramatic increases in mental illness occurred back then. In those days, you'd be spending too much time in front of your screen, and the worst that could happen was you'd worsen your eyesight, end up somewhat socially inept, or even get a job in the industry once you grew up. He highlights that this was mostly observed among boys rather than girls, and the effects weren't as negative.

Nowadays, this is no longer the case. It's actually girls who bear the brunt of the effect, and the impact is far from harmless. He convincingly connects the dots between the social validation loop masterfully (ab)used by all modern social media, the early age that social media starts being used (early teens), and the statistics that show the incidence of mental illnesses just as platforms like Instagram started their growth in the 2010s.

The mind gets stuck in a loop where it continuously seeks validation and requires us to put up an almost perfect appearance for others. There's no way this is healthy for a young mind to go through. He even shows research indicating that school-aged kids might actually be taking a toll in cognitive performance due to this. A study done on kids taking exams shows there's an actual difference between taking the test without your phone in the room, with your phone in your pocket, and with your phone on the table right in front of you. You can guess which produces the best results and which produces the worst, as their minds are frankly always on standby, wondering what's going on in their social network.

In addition to social media use, he also talks about the other big issue that leads to his Great Rewiring: helicopter parenting.

The net effect of this is that kids have far more extended boundaries set on them (except on their phones!). For example, nowadays, parents expect their children to be free to go and do groceries alone or play outside without adult supervision only at around the age of 10 to 12 (if not even higher). Gen X, in his research, remembers this as having happened for them around ages 6, 7, or 8. On one hand, I feel like this claim rings true; on the other, I'm also wondering if there might be a case of some rosy retrospection or wishful thinking.

Far from stopping there, he mentions other significant societal efforts that are thwarting children's growth, such as having playgrounds where kids don't exhibit any risk of harming themselves. Instead of preparing the kids and making them capable of (literally in this case) tackling obstacles, we're removing obstacles and coddling them.

Kids also become overprotected in other ways, such as not hearing other views or not being able to handle opposing views. No wonder academia is nowadays the exact opposite of free speech and the scientific method.

The trend of not keeping tabs on what kids are doing online (as opposed to offline, where the boundaries are much stricter) leads to what he deems a phone-based childhood. The kids are growing up playing with their phones rather than playing outside with other kids, learning the ropes of, well—life.

He suggests solving these regressions by reverting some societal safetyisms. He comes up with what he calls a "Ladder from Childhood to Adulthood" and presents checkpoints of what type of behavior one ought to expect their child to exhibit. For example, at six, the child should have a certain level of household responsibility. At eight, they might not require adult supervision to play outside, and maybe they get a dumbphone to stay in touch. Within this framework, the use of social media should come only at age 16, unlike the current state where it's supposedly age 13+ but in reality, this is not enforced at all.

Apart from these two major angles of the Great Rewiring, he also touches on the spiritual aspects (albeit he's an atheist), but that's not that important. He's somewhat activist about all of this, so he has a website dedicated to it all over here (not just a book commercial).

All in all, it's a fairly interesting book, and I'll probably take a look at some of his other writings.