The Present Age
The Present Age
A Conversation with Siva Vaidhyanathan About "The Anxious Generation"

A Conversation with Siva Vaidhyanathan About "The Anxious Generation"


A few weeks ago, I had the chance to read a book called The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, by Jonathan Haidt. The argument made in the book went like this: with the rise of smartphones and other internet-connected devices, there’s been a massive uptick in mental illness among Gen Z youth and adolescents. Haidt connects these two, arguing that these don’t merely correlate, but share a causal link. I saw a lot of really positive coverage of his book, a lot of really fawning praise for his work, but something about it didn’t sit quite right with me. It all fit too neatly.

There was a review of the book published in Nature that tore into his findings, which I recommend people check out. I’ll link that in the notes here. But for today’s newsletter, I’m sharing an audio interview I conducted a couple weeks ago with Siva Vaidhyanathan, the Robertson Professor of Media Studies and director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, and one of Haidt’s more vocal critics.

In the interest of fairness, I’ll also be linking to the original book, some of the more positive praise it received, and some coverage of the controversy it’s caused. I hope you enjoy this special audio edition of the newsletter. Full transcript included, obviously.

Parker Molloy: All right, so it's so great to talk to you. And so I spent the past week reading Jonathan Haidt's book, The Anxious Generation. And I really wanted to chat with you about it because I know this is a topic on which you've done a lot of study on, and I've seen your social media posts about it. And yeah, so the basic argument that he makes throughout the book

The book is very repetitive. He repeats his thesis over and over. He makes the argument essentially that the rise of what he calls phone-based childhood, which he refers to as all internet-connected devices, has replaced play-based childhood. And that is primarily to blame for the Gen Z mental health crisis. So I wanted to know what he got wrong here.

Siva Vaidhyanathan: Sure, sure, sure. Well, let me start with what he got right. Right. First of all, it's indisputable that young Americans, especially girls and young women, are experiencing higher level of expressed mental distress and emotional distress than we have seen in some time. Right. So that that pretty much tells us that something is happening in this country and probably a few other countries that is creating some combination of suffering we have not seen before and an ability to express and a willingness to express that misery. Right. So, you know, it's a weird thing to look at historically and height doesn't tend to look at things historically, but, you know, life for most people in most of the planet is better than it has been ever in human history.

So in the long curve, you know, misery is down, but that shouldn't be a reason to not take seriously the stress, distress and suffering of so many millions of young people. Now, the other thing he gets right is at least in the American context, a steady change in tactics of parenting and the experience of childhood. That's well documented. You don't just need anecdotes to show you this. And it comes in many forms, of course, and it's largely class -informed. So we do see, and we've seen for decades, a sense of parents being both more protective of their children's loose time, right? And this can come from various sources. It can be influenced by the moral panic about drugs or the moral panic about kidnapping or exploitation or any of those things that has been circulating in our media for so many decades, convincing parents that they have to manage children's time precisely.

You know, along with the hyper competitive culture that we're seeing among the more privileged classes in the United States where everybody's struggling to get into the same 20 colleges and everybody is trying to sign up for the travel soccer team. You know, all of these things have definitely shifted the practice of parenthood and the experience of childhood. Now, for people who are not privileged,

Of course, we've seen the proliferation of demands on parents that take them out of their children's lives, right? So it's not like the free -range latchkey child phenomenon is gone. It's just alive among lower -income families and lower -wealth families, because of course, no one can afford childcare.

No one can afford a nanny. No one can afford for one parent to stay home and not work. All of those things that allowed, especially the one parent staying home and not working, which was a luxury long gone in this country, allowed for children to have that space and that security. And so all of these things are long-term changes over four or five decades we've seen. So what happens in the 2000s and what happens to crater mental health among young people? Well, I think it's important to remember that when you're talking about, first of all, as diverse a population as the United States and as complex a question as mental health is that

You should resist looking for one factor or even trying to isolate variables to find the main factor, the universal factor, the contributing factor. That is what leads us astray. Right. So this is what I think he does wrong. What I think he does wrong is he starts out with a very poor archaic theory of technology. And he starts out with an ahistorical approach to what has changed in American life in recent decades. But he still has this phenomenon that does speak to his thesis, which is that there is a demonstrable drop -off in well -being starting around 2010 or 2011, which is four years after the iPhone is introduced. And just as we start to see younger and younger people get smartphones or get mobile phones at all. And look, every child who has a mobile phone, everybody under 18 who has a mobile phone or has a smartphone has so for a particular reason. There was a conversation, they're expensive, there was a commitment, there were rules set down, there are reasons for it and there are often very good reasons for it. But collectively you do have this change.

So he sees a correlation here and it's irresistible to him because of course if he can spark panic about this, then he can create a tremendous amount of attention and then he can be the one stepping forward to try to, you know, prescribe a problem. But this isn't going to help, right? This isn't going to help because the problem is complex.

Let's concede that moving one's eyes from the park to the phone is not healthy. I think it would be hard to argue otherwise, right? We experience in our daily lives, it's just so obviously not as healthy as running and playing and playing kickball and softball and street hockey and all of those things, right? So at the same time, let's concede that people do engage with these screens and the apps on them for reasons that are important to them. It's not a default. People have particular uses and needs that they're satisfying by moving to these phones. So again, let's concede it's not great. But that leaves us a huge gap between not great or even bad on balance, and being the chief cause of this high level of distress. When a much more reasonable explanation, and I think a richer explanation, is that a number of factors work synergistically to affect not only an individual's mental health state, but collectively a population's mental health state. It's safe to say that there are people in our country in our communities who are better off because their screens, their phones, the apps on their phones allow them to build community, allow them to find people who have gone through similar experiences to whatever stress or distress they're experiencing, right? People who find mentors, people who find guides. This has been well documented among queer youth for many, many decades, right? That

that the ability to reach out beyond your immediate surroundings and find stories and role models and guides and peers could be crucial to surviving some of the most and thriving through some of the most stressful developmental moments that a person can go through. And so for someone in a hostile family or an uncaring or an unreasonable family, or an unreasonable community or church or whatever, these sorts of tools can be crucial. Now, who knows how many young Americans use these tools for that purpose, but we know it's not zero. We know it's significant and we know it's important to them. We also know that children whose families are dissolving or children whose families have lost wealth, houses, jobs, over the cascading economic crises, first the 2008 crisis and its long legacy wiping out American wealth, and then the COVID crisis, right? The sort of two convulsions happening in their lifetimes. How many found solace, community distraction, fun, joy through their screens when nothing else was available?

So going back to this question, remember, Haidt has a two-part diagnosis, but he and everyone reading him seems to be only focusing on the second part of the diagnosis. The first part of the diagnosis is that childhood has changed. We've gone from having a sense of free-range immersion in our immediate surroundings, our physical landscape, our communities, other people face to face, and shifted our behavior toward these screens and it has not been healthy, right? So you don't even have to go as far as height to say the problem is the phones. Maybe the problem is everything else in society, right? Maybe the problem is that everything else in society seems scary, unfriendly, unwelcoming, not permitted by certain parents, right? And the only reasonable escape is to go to one screen. Now Dana Boyd did tremendous qualitative research on these very questions about a decade ago before smartphones themselves were the screen of question and when there were plenty of other platforms accessible largely through computers that young people were starting to use.

And it was really clear from the deep interviews she did with hundreds of young people around the country that the strategies were worth paying attention to. That what the young people were saying is, yeah, there are things in my life that are suboptimal, that are stressful, that maybe my parents or my older siblings had ways of dealing with that are no longer available to me. There's no place to safely hang out, right? If I hang out in the community, the police are gonna mess with me or the mall security guards are gonna mess with me or the mall's closing down anyway after 2008, right? Pretty much all the malls in the country closed down, right? So all of these spaces, the parks, the malls, they're in disrepair or recession. And so the places where young people can learn to be themselves and be with others and figure themselves out.

They're disappearing from real space. So again, Dana Boyd documented all of this and that is a widespread analysis, right? It's not just one device. It's not just one technology. In fact, what we learn from that work and Dana Boyd was not the only one. There were a number of other people doing this sort of qualitative research on young people at this time of great change when social media was really booming even before people got phones, right? When the days of MySpace and early Facebook, what we see time and time again is that the problem is us, the problem is society, the problem is adults, and that young people are trying to cope, and they're coping by going toward an occasional endorphin rush, whatever else these devices offer them, everything from community and solidarity, and friendship to pornography and games and paranoia and conspiracies, right? You've got all of these potential temptations that can give one some sort of comfort, community or distraction in a society that is otherwise unfriendly and untrusting of many American young people.

So what I would say to John Haidt, if he cared to listen, is your data is too narrowly focused on big sweeping data sets. You're not actually listening to young people to ask them what are they experiencing and what are they deciding to do and why. Because they have autonomy in this. Young people don't have to pick up their phones. They don't have to install you know, Snapchat, that's their choice. They're doing it for a reason. Where are they getting out of it? You know, those are important questions that other researchers have gone through. Height had no interest in talking to the researchers who actually listen to young people about how they're living and why they do what they do.

Now, when I said he has a poor theory of technology, he has this idea that the presence of a technology in our lives has one necessary effect, right? That it's the technology that is the driver of social change, not ever considering the idea that the presence of the technology could actually be the response to the problem, not the problem. And so, of course, it correlates, right? And what we've seen in other people's studies, studies he tended to ignore or downplay, is that the young people who tend to suffer the most acute distress, mental illness, self-harm, other things like that, tend to be the ones who gravitate toward the use of phones and apps. And so if that's the case, if there's a correlation there, then it's just as likely, in fact, more likely that, first of all, people who are susceptible to suffering, let's say, self-harm or eating disorders are more likely to be affected by whatever content they're encountering that either encourages or triggers that behavior when they engage with their phones, with Instagram or Snapchat or TikTok or whatever, right? So if there's a causal connection, it's gonna be more acute among those already susceptible to or perhaps suffering from these conditions and just as likely, and this is what we hear when we talk to young people, is that those suffering through that are more likely to seek out community advice, solace, solidarity. And maybe even some answers on how they can change their lives. And so we've seen that in the qualitative work. We've seen it in the quantitative work as the response and that wonderful review in nature that pretty much took down Height's book, you know, makes very clear that that's something showing up in the quantitative work. And I have to say, I've seen it anecdotally. You know, I have an 18 year old daughter who has many friends who have gone through various experiences and, you know, rather all too common conditions. And these are the conversations that those girls have about why they do what they do and how they're coping. And, you know, it's a deeply sensitive and complex thing. And so when I first encountered Haidt's position, I don't even want to call it work, but position, through his Atlantic articles, I was immediately struck by the lack of voices of girls and young women. You know, they're not hard to find. And the scholarship interviewing them is not hard to find. And yet he doesn't seem particularly interested in their actual experience or perspective. He's only interested in launching a tirade.

He doesn't seem to be interested in listening. He's only interested in talking, which means he's less of a teacher and more of a preacher. And I think that's basically unhealthy. Look, you know, a lot of us, people in my scholarly community and intersecting scholarly communities have been trying for two decades to get Americans to think in more complex and sophisticated ways about the communication technology in our lives and constantly entering our lives. We want people to understand that these systems are socio-technical.

They involve both the actions of autonomous humans and the tendencies of highly designed technologies. And it's in that interaction between what we humans want to do, tend to do, and do to each other and the way these systems are designed, that's where the action is. That's where it's interesting. And so to say it's the technology or it's the humans, is a mistake, it's a fundamental misunderstanding of how technology works in our lives. Technologies, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, are extensions of our capabilities. A bicycle is merely an extension of my legs. It makes me a more efficient user of my legs, but the purpose is the same. Get from point A to point B. It just means I get to do it with less energy expended at a quicker rate.

A computer, as Steve Jobs reminded us, is a bicycle of the mind, right? It's something that is designed, at least in its current form, to extend our mental capabilities beyond our rooms and beyond our immediate capacity. So my computer is filled with spreadsheets and lists of things that I can't hold in my memory with any reasonable expectation.

But it's also used to render the thoughts I have when I want to put them in word form or video form or audio form. And the computer is an extension of my voice and my fingers in the sense that it can send these expressions to many other people as well. When you understand that, that that's all technologies are, extensions of things we already want to do.

Then there's no point in trying to make an argument that it's the phones or it's the people. It's of course in the interaction and the conversation. And to fail to understand that synergistic effect is to get everything wrong and then miss the diagnosis, right? So, Haidt's diagnosis is something close to prohibition. And it reminds me of like, you know, the fact that in the first two decades of the 20th century, there were many people making sincere arguments that alcohol abuse was causing great harm in society, that it was ripping families apart, it was causing violence, it was causing people to lose jobs, and the harms were so widespread and well-documented that we would be remiss not to make alcohol illegal.

But in the absence of understanding the motivations for that kind of drug abuse, we of course made the absolute wrong policy decision, one that empowered criminals, one that did nothing to stem the abuse of alcohol. It just made the abuse of alcohol a much more dangerous phenomenon. And that's why Americans undid that decision within a decade. It was clearly documented as a mistake.

There wasn't just a mistake of intentions. The intentions of prohibitionists were pretty good, although there was a whole lot of anti-Catholicism attached to it and anti-immigrant sentiment attached to it. So the undercurrents were not so good. But the actual claim like, you know, wouldn't society work better if people were not drinking alcohol all the time? Well, of course. But if you're going to address the problem, let's identify the problem. And the problem was then as now, life sucks.

Life was rough and people were escaping into the technology of the moment, you know alcohol or phones or You know Oxycontin or whatever right people escape into it, for good reasons and bad mostly in those cases -- Escapism in the case of phones. There are good functional reasons to do it if you are a parent working two jobs with contingent hours, you're working at a gas station and a Starbucks, and you're a single parent, you better have a smartphone to be able to manage your hourly commitment to both jobs and your transportation and whatever childcare you can hack together. And you better give your child a phone too, so that you can be in constant contact with your child. It's a necessary survival strategy in a society that has no safety net and no decent commitment to making sure that children lead safe and secure lives. So you want to address the problem of alcohol abuse? Maybe you do things to strengthen unions. Maybe you do things to strengthen the social safety net. Maybe you give women more legal autonomy to get out of marriages that are abusive. Maybe you do a dozen other things that we ended up doing in the 20th century to a large degree and at least reducing the overall damage of alcohol abuse in society without outlying alcohol. You can still regulate it in reasonable ways. So you want to address the problems of misery among young Americans? Let's do that. Let's do it seriously, like grownups, looking at all the factors. Let's talk about the fact that it's really hard to be a parent if you don't have health benefits at your job.

And, or you, for that matter, you depend on your job for health benefits. You know, like, in the absence of government single payer health, a whole lot of Americans' lives are much worse off, I would say most of our lives are much worse off than they could be. Right? Let's have that conversation. Well, what would that do to lift the overall quality of life in America? And therefore, lift the quality of life of children growing up in households where parents might have to change jobs, might lose their jobs, might have to work two part-time jobs to make it all work, right? Those are really crucial questions that we dodge by saying it is the phones.

Wow. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that it really does seem like a cop out when he points to the phones. A lot of his answers to this sound, some of them reasonable, you know: phones shouldn't be out during classes, obviously, you know, I mean, like that's fine. Others like passing the Kids Online Safety Act. That's less fine. That would have wide ranging implications for all of society. That would be very bad.

Right, exactly. That's a sledgehammer. Yeah. Right, right. Yeah, no, that's a sledgehammer. And look, even this idea of what the school's phone policy should be, my kid's high school has been wrestling with this for a decade. And during the last four years when my kid was in high school, we had monthly updates from the principal on tweaks to the cell phone policy and the state of the cell phone policy.

And my kid's school was slightly different in policy to some of the other public high schools in the area. And each one of them is dealing with pressures from parents, many, many parents, especially lower income parents, demand that their children have their phones with them and have them on at all times. Because that's the only way to cope with the turmoil of daily life for working class parents.

Many of the wealthier parents who are much more concerned about test scores and grades and peace and quiet were insisting on prohibition. And that's a vast generalization. Of course there were members of both communities taking the other position too. But my point is there were no simple answers that worked for every child. And the teachers and principals understood that and continue to understand it, which is why every school in America has not completely banned phone use, right? If the answer were that simple and everybody's quality of life would go up, then of course we would. But if you take seriously the testimony about people's real lives, you quickly see that it's not that simple. And there are issues that have to be considered, right? So,

And there have to be experiments and every school should have the money and patience and studies to support experimentation and report their results. Maybe having phones in a bag that allows no radio signals in during class is a good policy. That seems like a reasonable thing. And then when class changes go, people can pop out their phone and see if their parents texted them. You know, those seem like reasonable policies. Having a no camera policy in school seems like a reasonable way to deal with privacy violations and surveillance and bullying and other issues that happen to be accelerated by the presence of these technologies, although certainly not caused by because all of those things existed for centuries, right?

So that's how you have to look at these problems. And what really bugs me about Haidt is under the veneer of scholarly sober distance, he simplifies everything and fundamentally doesn't seem particularly concerned about the needs of young people in America.