Jonathan Haidt Wants You to Take Away Your Kid’s Phone

Jonathan Haidt is a sixty-year-old social psychologist who believes that your child’s smartphone is a threat to mental well-being. His new book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” which hit the No. 1 spot on the New York Times’ hardcover nonfiction best-seller list, has struck

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Jonathan Haidt is a sixty-year-old social psychologist who believes that your child’s smartphone is a threat to mental well-being. His new book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” which hit the No. 1 spot on the New York Times’ hardcover nonfiction best-seller list, has struck a chord with parents who have watched their kids sit slack-jawed and stock still for hours, lost in a welter of TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitch, Facebook, and more. Haidt blames the spike in teen-age depression and anxiety on the rise of smartphones and social media, and he offers a set of prescriptions: no smartphones before high school, no social media before age sixteen.

When Haidt published “The Coddling of the American Mind,” with Greg Lukianoff, in 2src18, he joined the culture wars, arguing that American colleges had come to value emotional safety over rigor; a self-described liberal and “David Brooks sort of meliorist,” he pushed back at the concepts of trigger warnings and microaggressions. But now his concern is not just with what he views as the overprotection of the young in the real world; it is also with a lack of protection for the young in the virtual world. Tech companies and social-media platforms, Haidt insists, by “designing a firehose of addictive content” and causing kids to forgo the social for the solitary, have “rewired childhood and changed human development on an almost unimaginable scale.”

In our recent conversation for The New Yorker Radio Hour, Haidt mapped out his argument in an orderly and professorial fashion. We talked about his theory, his research, his politics, and his opponents. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

I read for a living, and I fully confess that when I’m reading, I have to put my iPhone on the other side of the room. Otherwise, its presence is always suggesting that something very interesting must be going on in my pocket. How does the phone truly operate in our minds?

For those listeners who remember the original iPhone in 2srcsrc7—I got my first one in 2srcsrc8—the original iPhone was an amazing Swiss Army knife. It was one of the greatest inventions of humankind. It was just marvellous. I pulled it out when I needed a tool. So if I wanted to get from point A to point B, hey, there’s a mapping function. If I want to listen to music, hey, there’s an iPod. That was amazing, and it was not harmful to anyone’s mental health.

But then a couple things changed in rapid succession, and the smartphone changed from being our servant to being our master, for many people. In 2srcsrc8, the App Store comes out. In 2srcsrc9, push notifications come out. So now you have this thing in your pocket in which thousands or millions of companies are trying to get your attention and trying to keep you on their app. In 2src1src, the front-facing camera comes out; in 2src1src, Instagram comes out, which was the first social-media app designed to be exclusively used on the smartphone.

So the environment that we were in suddenly changes. Now the iPhone isn’t just a tool; it is actually a tool of mass distraction. And we’re adults—we can deal with it. We’ve dealt with television. Most of us might feel like, If I got a handle on this, I could get some more work done. But adult mental health did not tank. The story for teens is completely different.

Before we get to mental health even, let’s get to differences in generation. I was raised in the “You’re sitting too close to the television, your eyes will burn out, your brain will turn to jelly from watching ‘The Three Stooges’ ” generation. But we survived radio. We survived television. Why is this so different?

One of the arguments I get is ‘Isn’t this just another moral panic? Socrates said writing was going to do us in! Whatever the young people are doing is going to be terrible’—and then it turns out not to be. So, I understand. It’s the boy who cried wolf. But this time is incredibly different. Because before, kids are watching TV and then, much later, there is a crime wave, but it can’t be tightly linked to TV. The evidence doesn’t show that when kids watch TV, they go out and hurt people or kill. They didn’t really find much about TV causing these problems, and there wasn’t really a mental-health issue.

This time, there’s never been anything like it. Here’s what happened: the Internet came in two waves. In the eighties and nineties, we got personal computers. And then we got dial-up Internet. Slow, but it allowed you to connect to the world. It was amazing. The technological environment in the nineties was miraculous. We loved it. The millennial generation grew up on it. Their mental health was fine. A lot of the indicators of teen mental health were actually steady or improving in the late nineties, and all the way through the two-thousands—even up to 2src11. And then in 2src12 and 2src13: boom. The graphs go way, way up. Mental health falls off a cliff. It’s incredibly sudden.

So you can give me whatever theory you want about trends in American society. But nobody can explain why it happened so suddenly in 2src12 and 2src13—not just here but in Canada, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, northern Europe. I’m waiting for someone to find a chemical that was released just in those areas that especially affects girls, and especially young girls. If someone can find that, you’ve got another story.

You put a name to this, that period between 2src1src and 2src15. You call it the “great rewiring” of childhood. What’s happening, then, in a granular sense?

What I mean by “the great rewiring” is this: the day that you change your flip phone for a smartphone, and you have a front-facing camera, Instagram, high-speed data—that’s the day that this device can become your master. Not for all kids, but for a lot of them. Kids are much more subject to this idea of “When the thinking gets hard, I start looking for entertainment.” I mean, I do this myself. When I’m trying to write something and it’s hard, I say, “What’s the weather? Let me go look at the weather. What’s in my e-mail?” I’m looking for anything that’s more interesting and easier than the thing I’m trying to do. But I have a fully-formed prefrontal cortex. Teen-agers don’t. Theirs is still in the child form. It’s not very good at impulse control. And so as long as you have all these toys and games and interesting things happening on your phone, it’s going to call you away. And that’s without social media.

Modern social media comes out in 2srcsrc3 and 2srcsrc4, with MySpace, and Facebook, and Friendster. That wasn’t particularly toxic. But then as the News Feed gets more important—Facebook pioneers the News Feed—they develop the Like button, which gives them huge amounts of information. They can algorithmicize your News Feed now. Twitter invents the Retweet button in 2srcsrc9. Facebook copies it with the Share button.

Once we get super-viral social media in 2srcsrc9 and 2src1src, a lot of things change. Now it’s not just “Hey, I’m bored, let me play a video game.” It’s “My phone is pinging me saying, ‘Someone cited you in a photo. Someone linked you in a photograph. Someone said something about you. Somebody liked your post.’ ” We’ve given these companies a portal to our children. They can control and manipulate them, send them notifications whenever they want. And the kids don’t seem to turn off the notifications. They seem to leave them on.

What you’re describing, if I’m understanding your book correctly—and I spent a lot of time with it—is a change in human consciousness.

Absolutely. And there’s a long history of interesting scholarship on how tools change our consciousness. Tools change our consciousness about how we relate to the world. Media theorists in the twentieth century talked about how TV makes you much more passive. You sit, you watch, you’re entertained. Everything becomes about entertainment. So when you get a change in technology, whether it’s a change in what we do or how we communicate or how we can affect the world, it changes our consciousness.

When I think back on my own adolescence, there was a lot of watching television, a lot of wasting time. Was that so much more socializing or psychologically healthy than spending time with the smartphone?

Well, watching television, though our parents complained about it, when you look back on it, my recollection was that it was usually social. You’re with another person, you’re talking about the show, you’re going to stop and go get something to eat. So you’re together. It is social.

Now what happens? I’ve heard stories from Gen Z. They go over to their friends’ houses sometimes—not that much—and they’re on their phones separately. One might be watching her shows on Netflix. One might be checking her social. So even when they’re physically together . . . There’s a wonderful phrase from the sociologist Sherry Turkle: “Because of our phones, we are forever elsewhere.” We’re never fully present.

You write that you want to raise the age of “Internet adulthood” to sixteen. Are you talking about preventing kids from accessing all of the Internet or just opening things like Facebook and YouTube?

The way that regulation works in the United States—Congress did only two things, and both of them ended up being terrible.

The first was the COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. The question there was how old you have to be before you can give away personal data, and a company can monetize your data, without your parents’ knowledge or consent. Representative Ed Markey—now he’s Senator Markey—was a lead author on the bill, and he thought, after consultation, sixteen. Sixteen is the age at which you get your driver’s license; you’re a little more independent. But various lobbyists united to push it down to thirteen, and there is zero enforcement. The way the law is written, companies can’t take your data without parental consent unless you’re thirteen—but they only enforce this if they have positive knowledge that you’re under thirteen. So Congress basically said, How about if kids can go anywhere on the Internet as long as they say they’re thirteen?

That’s one terrible law. And then Congress said, How about if companies have no responsibility for kids, and they can feed them whatever they want, and the parents can’t sue them?

What kind of legislation are you proposing?

The most important thing that we can do—the thing that is a game changer—is to raise the age from thirteen to sixteen.

Raise the age from thirteen to sixteen to do what exactly?

To be treated as an adult who does not need parents’ permission to sign a contract and give away your data. I don’t think we should be letting eleven-year-olds do that. And right now, we let them do it as long as they say they’re thirteen.

Now, you write—and this is a crucial part of your book—about sharp rises in rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm that began showing themselves in a very concerning way in the twenty-tens. And you say that girls were hit hardest. Why does it affect girls differently than boys?

There are several reasons. The first is that when kids got smartphones—and then tablets come in very soon, and all these devices—they made different choices. Boys gravitated towards coalitional violence. You know, sports-team things. They gravitate to video games and especially multiplayer video games, which are amazing. They also spend a lot of time on YouTube. They’re on social media; they’ll have Instagram accounts and things like that. But they’re not as into it as the girls are.

The girls spend a lot more time on social media. They went especially for Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest—the visual platforms. And their interactions are asynchronous. So the boys are laughing it up at the same time, together. Even if they’re in separate rooms, at least they’re communicating. But the girls are spending an hour crafting the post and the picture, and they’re waiting for other kids to comment on it, including strangers, and sometimes adult men. They’re waiting for strangers and friends to comment on it. And it’s not play. It’s performance. It’s brand management. So that’s just one of many reasons why social media affects girls more. It draws them in. It plays on their insecurities.

But the problem is, and I don’t think you’d disagree with me on this, that there are aspects of social media, just as there are of the Internet writ large, that can be terrific—whether it’s about finding community, or staying connected to friends, or interest groups that you can join and learn from. How do you separate the wheat from the chaff? How do society, technology, legislation, or parents possibly separate out that which you describe as legitimately harmful from what is potentially beneficial, or fun, or harmless?

We could do the same thing for guns and alcohol and heroin and everything else. All of them have positive uses and negative uses. But we have a sense that with some of them the negatives so outweigh the positives that we don’t even let adults use them. I definitely see that there are some benefits to social media for adults. We have a need to find information and network. The Internet is not the same thing as social media. People say to me, “Oh, you know, during COVID, thank God for social media, because without that, how could kids have found each other?” To which I say, “Well, I guess they could have used the phone, texting, Skype, Zoom, the rest of the Internet, Google. . . .” You know, the Internet is marvellous.

I do a little demonstration. I ask people, “Suppose a demon came to us in the nineties with three boxes, magical floating boxes. And he said, ‘Here’s the first box.’ You can open as many as you want, but if you open a box, it’s going to take fifteen hours a week from you. The first box is the Internet. You get this amazing thing, but it’s going to take fifteen hours a week from you. Would you open it? Are you glad we have the Internet? Everyone is. All hands go up. Everyone is glad we opened that box. We think that time is actually worth it.

The next box is the smartphone. You open it up. If you get this thing, it’s this incredible digital Swiss Army knife. It’s going to take another fifteen hours a week. So now you’re up to thirty hours a week on this. Do you want it? What do you think? Are you glad we have smartphones? At that point, most hands go up. “I love my iPhone. I’m glad we have smartphones.” The great majority of adults say, “Yeah, I’m glad we opened that box.”

And once you think of it this way—you’ve already got the Internet; you’ve already got a smartphone. You’re at thirty hours a week. Now there’s a third box: social media. Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, TikTok. It’s going to be another fifteen hours a week. So now you’re up to forty-five hours a week. What do you think? Are you glad we opened that?

The great majority of people say no. The great majority of people say, “I wish we hadn’t opened that one.” People intuitively know, once you point out that social media is not the Internet. I’m not talking about keeping kids off the Internet. I’m talking about not allowing them to sign a legal contract. It’s not enforceable because they’re minors, but it is a contract—the terms of service—to give away their data, and some rights, to a company that does not have their interests at heart. That is using them as the product to sell to their customers who are the advertisers. That’s what I don’t want done to eleven-, twelve-, thirteen-, fourteen-year-old kids. I think they should be sixteen before they can be exploited in that way.

I also read your earlier book, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” And in it you critique emotional safety—the notion that we worship or valorize safety above all else. How does that jibe with your understandable desire to safeguard our emotional safety in this book?

Sometimes you want a high level of safety; sometimes you want a low level of safety. If there isn’t much in the way of danger—we don’t want to force kids to wear a bike helmet when they’re playing in a field. So it depends on the context. And my argument in the book is that we have vastly overprotected our children in the real world. We have to give them more freedom. And we have vastly underprotected them in the virtual world. We can’t even sue the companies that are harming them.

A lot of kids are getting severely damaged in many, many different ways. So am I contradicting myself? No—we’re overprotecting in one place, and I’m saying, “Lighten up, let your kids out.” And we’re underprotecting in another, and I’m saying, “Don’t let your kids spend nine hours a day on the Internet talking with strange men.” It’s just not a good idea.

You mentioned earlier in our conversation a critique of you as somebody who’s worried about moral panic or inciting it. How would you describe the critique, and how would you answer it?

The critique is what we started off with, which is that this is no different from comic books and television. And, you know, in Thomas Jefferson’s time, in the eighteenth century, it was novels that were supposed to excite sexual passion. So, it’s structurally logical to make that critique of me, but then we have to adjudicate it. And I’m speaking for Jean Twenge as well, who wrote “iGen,” and that Atlantic article that said how the smartphones destroyed a generation. Of course, she didn’t make up the title. The Atlantic did. They’re very good at making up catchy titles.

Was the title wrong?

At the time, it was risky.

What was the title again?

The title was “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

Excellent title. From an editor’s point of view.

It sure is.

But was it wrong? Was it inappropriate for the piece?

At the time, many psychologists criticized her. They said, “You don’t have the data. You’re instilling panic.” And what she had was about three years of data in which these rates were going way up. Because it only really starts in 2src13. And so she had 2src13, 2src14, and 2src15 data. It takes about two years by the time we get the data published. She had only three years of rising problems. So, at the time, it was a risky title, and it could have been wrong—but it wasn’t.

The mental-health data has gone up every year since then. Now we have a bunch of experiments. It’s not all correlational. There are now dozens of experiments. Not all have shown a significant effect, but most do. We have longitudinal studies. And there’s the eyewitness testimony from the kids themselves. Now, if you talk to members of Gen Z and you say, “Would you rather live in a world in which TikTok were never invented?,” most of them say yes. They’re in a trap. I ask my students, “Why don’t you get off?” And they always say the same thing. “I can’t, because everyone else is on.”

So, back to your question. I’m glad that I live in a world in which there are skeptics who keep alarm-ringers honest. We see moral panics all the time and they end up being nothing. And it is up to me to say, “Actually, this time is different, and here’s why.” And that’s what I tried to do in “The Anxious Generation”—to say, “This time really is different.” In 2src17, it wasn’t so clear. But I’m finding that now that COVID is behind us and our confusion is lifting, our kids are messed up. It wasn’t from COVID. It was actually in place before COVID. Everybody sees it. Most journalists who interview me will say, at some point in the interview, “You know, I read your book and this is happening to my daughter. She’s right out of your book.”

Am I wrong to discern a politics emanating from your work? Your book “The Coddling of the American Mind” could be put in a line with other books with similar temperament and argument, like Allan Bloom, for example, in “The Closing of the American Mind.” Maybe you think I’m being unfair, but some think you are alarmist, an old guy panicking about the latest cool thing. An impression begins to form that Jonathan Haidt is a social conservative in some matters. Is that fair? Or is it wrong?

We live in an age of polarization with negative politics, where you’re judged by who you criticize. I’ve always thought of myself as a liberal. But the meaning of that has changed over the years, as the left has changed and as the right has changed. I still think of myself as a John Stuart Mill liberal. I want to live in a world, a liberal democracy, which creates conditions under which people can live lives that they want to lead. I’m also a David Brooks sort of meliorist, like, Let’s do the social science. Let’s think about systems. Let’s think in a really subtle way, not just in a narrow, quantified way. Let’s bring in cultural trends and let’s see—can we make things a little better? And so when I saw universities kind of going off the deep end in 2src15, my co-author Greg Lukianoff and I were very alarmed. Does that make me a conservative?

You were seeing it in your own students?

I was seeing it in students at N.Y.U., and hearing it from other professors, and the stories were coming in from all over.

To answer your question: I love being a professor; I feel as though I am a member of an honored guild that stretches back to Socrates and Plato. And I see my institution getting corrupt. In social sciences, it’s not that people are doing things for money. But what I saw as corruption, I started talking about in 2src11, was that in my field, everyone is on the left. All social psychologists are on the left. I gave a talk in 2src11 where I went through many steps to find a conservative. I found one. I did find one. But everyone else is on the left. And I said, “You know, this is going to be a problem for us.”

Did you have an explanation for the “why” of that?

Yes. Part of it is normal self-selection based on personality. The arts are always going to lean left. It’s just the nature of the psychological differences between those with a conservative and liberal temperament. So the arts, the social sciences, especially sociology. If you’re questioning the social order, you’re more likely to be on the left—so there’s a natural ratio. And in the twentieth century, it was about three to one in psychology. Three to one, left to right. Let’s say that’s the natural ratio. I would never expect it to be fifty-fifty.

That was a quantifiable thing?

Yeah. There were a number of surveys of who professors voted for. There were self-reported surveys of whether you’re liberal or conservative, and they all converged on about the same thing. But my concern was not that we need balance. We don’t need evenness, but there has to be someone in the room who’s willing to speak up and say, “That doesn’t make sense.” And what I was seeing was any conclusion that was conducive to the progressive view would get waved into publication. “Oh, yeah, we want that one to be true.” But any conclusion that went against it would have to climb mountains, and the reviews would be scathing.

So just for example, Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, at Cornell, had a line of work looking at gender bias in the sciences. To what extent do women in the sciences face a disadvantage in hiring and promotion? And what they found was that, over all, it’s a benefit. That over all—I can’t remember which decades they were looking at, but I think it was in the twenty-first century—at least in recent years, there’s not a bias against women. There’s a bias for them. I think that’s a perfectly plausible finding. It was incredibly difficult for them to publish that. Because what you need to show is that there is sexism and racism everywhere. That is the popular view.

Now, my argument in 2src11 was, If we go down this road, if we continue to make fun of conservatives—which we do, you know; it was really a hostile climate for conservatives in the academy—if we continue to do this, we’re going to hurt our own science, and we are going to lose any support from Republicans and red states.

I’d been writing about the decline of trust in higher ed. Look, you asked me what my politics is. My mission is to use my research in moral psychology and that of others to help people understand each other across divisions and to help important institutions work well.

To return to social media and mental health: How do we put the genie back in the bottle? Tech companies have shown absolutely no interest in making changes that would be beneficial, like age verification. Frances Haugen, a Facebook whistle-blower, said that Instagram had been studying and trying to attract preteens and even considering how to reach still younger kids. So if tech companies aren’t going to do anything, what could be realistically possible with our current government, which gets nothing done and doesn’t seem to understand these issues very well?

On this, I’m actually somewhat hopeful. First, we shouldn’t expect the tech companies to go out of their way and lose users and profit to help our kids. It would be nice if they did, but, you know, once Facebook goes public and it has shareholders and a very high share price, it has to keep returns rising. The way things work in a free-market society, we don’t expect companies to not hurt people out of the goodness of their heart.

They’re going to behave like oil companies.

That’s right. We expect market mechanisms to matter. So if you hurt your customers, they’re not likely to come back. But this is a market failure because the kids are not the customers. The kids aren’t giving Facebook money. The kids are the product. Their attention is the product. The customers are the advertisers. So we have a market failure.

I used to teach a course at Stern on professional responsibility and basic business ethics. We always start the course off with understanding market failures, because when you have an efficient market with no market failures, you tend to have very few ethical problems. The only way you can get rich is by making other people better off. You make a product they want, they buy it, everyone’s happy. But there are four kinds of market failures, and companies are really incentivized to use them if they can, because they can make above-average profits if they do this.

The most important one, the really big one here, is called externalities. If I’m making tires and you’re making tires, and I dump all my toxic things in the river and you have to recycle them, I’m going to wipe you out because I have lower costs. And so that’s why we have government regulations that mandate a level playing field. You can’t impose costs on anyone else. Harmful externalities are all over the place with social media, and the government needs to step in, I think, to say, “You can’t do this.” And there are a lot of lawsuits against Meta and Snapchat now. So we’ll see how those go.

The second market failure is monopoly. Social-media companies are not full monopolies. There is competition, but the law of networks is such that once you become super big, it’s very hard to displace you. There are monopoly issues and over-control of a market. We don’t have an efficient market in social media.

The third is asymmetric information. If each party is fully informed about what’s happening, then we let them make their own decisions. But, here, we have no idea what’s happening. Research scientists can’t get data from Facebook or any of these companies. They know everything about our kids. They can target us. We know nothing about what they’re doing. So there’s a huge information asymmetry.

And the fourth market failure is the exploitation of public goods. So we have the ocean in common, and we don’t want people destroying it for profit. Sidewalks are also a kind of common good. We don’t let restaurants expand onto the sidewalk without some sort of regulation. And all of human attention is kind of a public good. What happened in just a few years is that a few companies, especially Google and Facebook, basically monopolized human attention for billions and billions of people. They took huge amounts of it, and we don’t have it back.

I’d be remiss in not at least presenting a critique of your book to you by professionals. So, there was a review in the science journal Nature, and it’s gotten a lot of attention for saying that your assertions that digital technologies are somehow rewiring our kids’ brains and causing an epidemic of mental illness is not quite supported by the science.

She said I have no evidence.

Well, I’m a polite guy. Candice Odgers, writing in this essay, says, “The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, the largest long-term study of adolescent brain development in the United States, has found no evidence of drastic changes associated with digital-technology use.”

Her main charge was that I have no evidence. She said that I don’t know the difference between correlation and causation, and that she could use my writing in her Introductory Statistics class. And that’s just not true. When the data was mostly correlational, when it was almost all correlational, that was a fair criticism. And when Jean Twenge first wrote, that was a fair criticism. But there have now been dozens of experiments. So there are a variety of sources of data, different kinds of experiments.

So she just missed that?

Well, note her wording. She said that I have no evidence, and that was just an incorrect statement because I do have evidence. She is free to say, “I disagree with it. I think these studies have problems.” That would’ve been fine, if she’d said, “He presents experiments, but I think that they’re wrong.” That would have been a reasonable thing to say.

She was too categorical.

Yeah, to say that I have no evidence, I thought, was not really correct. So that’s what I said in my response.

So if it’s not social media causing these issues that you describe in kids, what else could it be?

That’s a good question. That’s the second problem with that review in Nature. I keep asking for alternative theories. I keep saying, “O.K., you don’t think it’s the smartphones and social media. What is it?”

Well, the world is terrible—that’s an alternate theory. That kids have a greater sense of ecological imperilment, that the politics of the world are pretty awful, that we’re facing an election in November just as we did in 2src16 . . .

Oh, sure. Things are terrible. I agree with you. Things are terrible today. But go back to Obama’s first term. How terrible were things in Obama’s first term: 2srcsrc8 to 2src12? We have the global financial crisis. We’re recovering. The economy is getting better and better in his second term. That’s when mental health collapses? That’s when kids suddenly decide, Oh, my God, things are so terrible? And it’s not high-school kids who are reading the newspaper, perhaps. Middle-school girls are the ones who are most devastated by this. I don’t think you could make a case that all of a sudden, in 2src13, eleven- to fourteen-year-old girls suddenly freaked out about the political state of the world. And this happened not just here but in Canada, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand. . . . None of that makes sense.

You and I grew up—I don’t know how you felt about this, but I thought, There probably won’t be a nuclear war this year, but what are the odds we’re gonna go twenty years? It seemed to me, like, There’s a good chance there’s gonna be a nuclear war, or that overpopulation is gonna kill us. I mean, there were a lot of things wrong with the world in the seventies, but our generation didn’t get depressed by it.

Finally, what will happen to the anxious generation, if nothing changes? Will they grow up feeling lonely and disconnected forever? Or is this something they grow out of?

We don’t know. What we can say is that young people in their twenties used to be the happiest people. There was what was called the U-shaped curve of happiness, where young people in their late teens and twenties are the happiest along with people in their sixties and seventies. And people in middle age were less happy. That was true across the world until a few years ago.

A working paper co-written by David G. Blanchflower, who’s an expert on this topic, was recently posted. The U-shaped curve of happiness is over internationally. He looked at thirty-four countries, and he found that the late teens and early twenties are actually the least happy now, or the most anxious—whatever the measure is. So, there’s been a huge change in young people. They used to be the happiest, and now they’re the least happy. Are they going to grow out of this in their twenties? It doesn’t look like it yet.

So what’s going to happen to Gen Z? There could well be lasting changes in their brains because we didn’t protect them in puberty and puberty is such an important time.

Essentially in the wiring of their brains.

The brain is literally rewiring, literally in the sense that neurons are seeking each other out. Neurons are fading away if they’re not used, synapses are forming or fading away. That happens very rapidly in the first couple of years of life, then it slows down. But in puberty it speeds up. So puberty is a time of really important rewiring, and traditional societies would give young people some guidance into how you make the transition to adulthood. We don’t do that. We give them an iPhone and an iPad and we say, “Here, we’re going to let you be guided into adulthood by a bunch of random people on the Internet chosen by algorithm for their extremity—that’s how you’re going to rewire your brain.”

So it is possible that there are lasting effects and that Gen Z, for the rest of their lives, will be more anxious and fragile. That is possible—we just don’t know. But the optimistic thing I can say is that there’s a lot they can do to make themselves better quickly.

I teach a course at N.Y.U. Stern called Flourishing. It’s an undergraduate positive-psychology course. And one of the most important things I do with the class is to go through their notifications with them. Two hundred to five hundred a day is typically how many the students get. And I say, “Turn off notifications for everything except for five apps. If you could only keep on five apps, like Uber—you surely want to keep on Uber and Lyft because you need to know, Is the car coming or not? But do you need an update from the New York Times or from The New Yorker or anybody else?”


Okay. The New Yorker. I tell them that. The New Yorker is different.

Thank you. I appreciate that.

But most of them get a notification every time an e-mail comes in. So if they get a piece of spam on e-mail, they get interrupted in their daily life. This has just become normal. They haven’t learned to protect their attention.

I try to convince them that your attention is the most precious thing you have. You could make huge amounts of money; there’s no limit to how much money you could make. But there’s a very severe limit on how much attention you have. You can’t get more of it. So who are you going to give it away to? Tell me which companies you’re going to allow to take your attention every day.

Once you phrase it like that, they turn off almost all their notifications, and we get remarkable results. They say that for the first time, they can think clearly. They’re able to do their homework. They’re less anxious. Modern life is fragmenting all of us, and it’s really doing a number on young people. If we reverse that, we improve their mental health.

But it seems that it requires the same discipline that it once did for someone to go off to a Zen Buddhist monastery to do what you’re prescribing.

No, turning off notifications is easy. We do it in class. Self-control is hard, but turning off notifications is easy. ♦

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