The Anxious Generation by Jonathan Haidt review: The awful power of smartphones on children

 (Allen Lane)
(Allen Lane)

Forget horror; this is one of the most terrifying books I have read. We all know our phones aren’t great for us, but Jonathan Haidt sets out their true cost in such excruciating detail you will want to look away instead of a mind-numbing scroll through Instagram.

Smartphones, he argues, are addictive, disrupt sleep, fragment attention and deprive people of real-world interaction.

But their effect on children is so much worse, he says, arguing that the brains of youngsters who use them during the vulnerable developmental stage of puberty are changed as a result, and it is this that is causing an epidemic of mental illness in the young.

Tech companies have “rewired childhood and changed human development on an almost unimaginable scale”, by designing a “firehose of addictive content” that has displaced physical play and in-person socialising.

This book, littered with terrifying phrases, such as “phone-based childhood” and refers to phones as “experience-blockers”, comes at a time when the impact of phones on teenagers is a hot topic.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan last month published guidance saying schools should be entirely phone-free. Last week, MPs on the education select committee heard it has become a rite of passage for all children to get a mobile phone by the time they leave primary school, if they haven’t already got one.

Concern among parents is growing, with grassroots movements such as Parents United for a Smartphone-Free Childhood being set up.

It is likely this book will add weight to their arguments.

Unsurprisingly, Haidt agrees that giving children access to social media should be delayed. The current minimum age of 13 for opening an account is too young, he says, pointing to evidence that for girls the worst years for using social media, in terms of mental health, is 11 to 13, and for boys it is 14 to 15.

“Thirteen-year-olds should not be scrolling through endless posts from influencers and other strangers when their brains are in such an open state, searching for exemplars to lock onto.” He adds: “They should be playing, synchronising and hanging out with their friends in person.”

Parents everywhere will be nodding their heads — but it’s not much help for those whose teenagers are already down the rabbit hole and who may feel utterly disheartened by the stream of evidence he puts forward showing the damage that has been caused.

Haidt pinpoints the year 2010 as the time when the “rewiring” of childhood began and mental health problems spiralled.

It means Generation Z — those born after 1995 — were the first to be affected because they were going through puberty around this time.

Several tech trends converged during these years; the rapid spread of high-speed broadband in the 2000s, the arrival of the iPhone in 2007, the introduction of the “like” or “retweet” buttons on social media and the front-facing cameras which made selfies so popular.

The average number of notifications on young people’s phones amounts to 192 alerts each day

What made matters worse, he says, was a change in parenting style leading up to this tech explosion, with the rise of “fearful parenting” where children were much less likely to be left unsupervised or allowed to play risky, real-life games. It meant screen time became more attractive for parents wanting to keep their children safe. Ultimately, children ended up over-protected in the real world but under-protected online.

He writes: “Gen Z became the first generation in history to go through puberty with a portal in their pockets that called them away from the people nearby and into an alternative universe that was exciting, addictive, unstable and… unsuitable for children and adolescents.”

Some of the statistics Haidt quotes are truly shocking — one study found the average number of notifications on young people’s phones amounts to 192 alerts each day. No wonder it’s hard to concentrate.

But for heavy users such as older teen girls the ballpark figure is one interruption every minute.

“This constant fragmentation of attention takes a toll on adolescents’ ability to think and may leave permanent marks in their rapidly reconfiguring brains,” Haidt writes.

In a chapter on why social media harms girls more than boys, Haidt claims that social media use is a cause of anxiety and depression, not just a correlate. There is a “clear, consistent and sizable link” between heavy social media use and mental illness in girls.

It is hard not to feel hopeless at the enormity of the problem he sets out, despite a whole chapter of advice on what parents, schools and the government should do next. Some is hard to follow, like when he says parents of young children should avoid using screens as “pacifiers, babysitters or to stop tantrums”. Tell that to a frazzled parent trying to work while the kids are sick at home.

Even Haidt admits he and his wife used Teletubbies to “mesmerise and calm our children”, but adds: “If we had it to do over again we’d do less of it.”

But watching a TV show as a child is not the same as being glued to a smartphone 24 hours a day.

The way to tackle the latter problem is through collective action. We are not helpless, Haidt argues, and calls on people to “speak up and link up”.

It’s a persuasive and rousing argument, but with adults also in thrall to their phones, is there the will to change?

Anna Davis is the Evening Standard’s education editor

The Anxious Generation is published by Allen Lane (£25, out March 26)