Author Jon Haidt has a solution for social media addiction

SCIENCE & TECH: Author Jon Haidt has a solution for social media addiction



“Suppose that when your first child turned ten, a visionary billionaire whom you’ve never met chose her to join the first permanent human settlement on Mars … Would you let her go?”

“Of course not,” writes Jonathan Haidt.

But the social psychologist argues in his upcoming book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” that parents have made a similar bargain with Big Tech — by sending children to a virtual planet for untold hours every day.

Haidt, a NYU Stern professor of ethical leadership, writes that the past decade has seen “the radical transformation of childhood into something inhuman: a ­phone-​based existence.”

In fact, as he points out, teen girls are spending an average 20 hours a week — effectively a part-time job — on social media.

NYU professor Jonathan Haidt says screen time is making young people depressed and anxious. Getty Images for Unfinished Live

It’s bred the most depressed and anxious generation in history, studies show.

Haidt, whose book is out March 26, argues that smartphones and social media have contributed to a “great rewiring” of childhood — causing sleep deprivation, social deprivation, attention fragmentation, addiction and spiritual degradation.

The result, he says, is the most depressed and anxious generation in history. But boys and girls have been hit differently.

“Social media really does a number on girls,” Haidt told The Post. “It takes all the worst parts of middle school — social comparison, focusing on your looks, insecurity — and multiplies them by ten.”

Haidt calls the past decade the “Great Rewiring” of childhood.

His meta-analysis of studies looking at social media’s impact on young people revealed a link between heavy social media usage and poor mental health outcomes among girls.

When it comes to boys, however, there’s less of a one-to-one link.

“For boys, the story is less clear. There’s no one smoking gun,” Haidt explained. “They’ve just experienced a progressive withdrawal from the real world, where boys have historically exerted effort.”

He points to porn and video games as major contributors: “The trend is really accelerating as the virtual world becomes so magnificently enticing and attractive.”

Haidt is the father of a 14-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son. 

“We still have the same problem that all parents have, which is just trying to say stop spending so much time on your screens,” he said. “There is still a constant, a chronic tug of war over usage.”

The percentage of teens who agree with negative statements of self worth has exploded in the past decade.

Although he gave his son a phone in fourth grade and daughter one in sixth grade, because they walked to school in New York City, he wishes he’d given them flip phones rather than smartphones in retrospect.

But Haidt said both his children have benefited from a family rule of no social media until 16.  He recommends other parents do the same — and hold off on smartphones until high school. 

“We have to delay the phones but also give them engaging activities in the real world,” he said. “[Parents] have under-protected children online but we’ve also overprotected them in the real world. And we need to address both halves.

“Kids need to be anchored in the real world with real relationships, real responsibilities, real love. Virtual activities don’t substitute,” he added.

As a professor, Haidt said Gen Z has been receptive to his message — and eager for change.

Haidt says porn and video games are causing boys to withdraw from the real world. Monkey Business – stock.adobe.com

“They see the problems of their phone-based childhoods. They see that it’s a huge waste of their time,” he told The Post. “But when I ask them why they don’t get off TikTok and Instagram, they say they can’t because everyone else is on them.”

He sees it as part of a larger collective action problem — one in which individuals want to make a change but fail to do so because the group isn’t — that’s leaving us paralyzed, and glued to our screens.

“We’re trapped in a collective action problem that we haven’t been able to solve, even though most people hate what’s going on.”

“The Anxious Generation” is teeming with solutions — and entire chapters on what families, schools, educators and big tech companies can do to bring childhood back to Earth.

Haidt believes parents, schools and lawmakers all need to work together to fight social media addiction. WireImage

“We can solve this problem most of the way within a year if we just work collectively,” he told The Post. “These are collective action problems, and we can solve them with collective action, even if we don’t get help from our lawmakers.”

His proposed solutions include staving off smartphones and social media until the teen years, banning phones during the school day, and promoting unsupervised childhood play.

That, he says, is the shortcut to short-circuiting our collective action problem: “Each parent who takes action makes it easier for other parents in the community to do the same. Each school that goes truly phone-​free liberates all of its students to be more present with each other.”

And Haidt believes parents are ready for change.

“It’s like I’m pushing on open doors,” he told The Post. “Everyone is fed up with what phones are doing to their children and their lives. Wherever I go, whoever I talk to, they want to help, and they want to read the book.”



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