Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt joins Zibby to discuss THE ANXIOUS GENERATION, a must-read investigation into the collapse of youth mental health in the era of smartphones—and a plan for a healthier, freer childhood. Jonathan attributes increasing rates of anxiety and depression among children, particularly girls, to two main factors: the overprotection of children and the rise of social media. He shares his recommendations, including delaying exposure to smartphones, phone-free schools, and encouraging independent, unstructured play.


Zibby: Welcome, Jonathan. Thank you so much for coming on Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books to discuss the anxious generation, how the great rewiring of childhood is causing an epidemic of mental illness.

Thank you. 

Jonathan: Thanks so much, Sydney. What a pleasure to be here. 

Zibby: It was so wonderful meeting you at the event that was hosted on your behalf at Tiffany's, which my gosh is so pretty. But anyway. 

Jonathan: That was, I couldn't believe that space. 

Zibby: I know. I know. I just kept taking pictures. I'm like, this is so beautiful.

Where, you know, where did this come from? But it was so great just to sit there on the floor and listen to you talk about all the important issues that are in the book and then of course to go through the book later for all the specifics. Tell listeners. basically the premise of the book, although it's pretty obvious from the subtitle, but just like give your little spiel about the book.

Jonathan: Sure. So the, the, the origin of the book is the fact that teen mental health began to collapse around 2012, 2013, very suddenly. We didn't know why we saw it first on college campuses. We noted that the students coming in in 2014, 2015, we're just really different, much more fragile, much more anxious. All of our mental health centers were flooded in 2015.

It wasn't like that in 2012. And so why, why did that happen? And there's two parts of the story. The first part is that we have vastly and grossly overprotected our children, blocking them from the kind of independence and pre play that all of us, if you were born before 1987 or so, if you were, you know, older millennial, we all had adventures outside.

We were on our own. We learned how to be self supervising. by being self supervising from around the age of seven or eight. Kids were out playing. And we stopped all that in the 90s. So anyway, the overprotection is a story that I told in my last book, The Coddling of the American Mind. And in that book, written in 2017 with my friend Greg Lukianoff, we have just a couple of paragraphs on how, well, you know, it might also be because of smartphones and social media.

I mean, the timing is right. Like we don't really know. The evidence is not clear. But, you know, the kids who went through puberty on smartphones and social media, especially Instagram, they seem to not be doing so, but that's just correlation. We can't prove it's causation. So that was what I thought in 2017.

Well, by 2019, we had a lot more data. The problem was a lot bigger than we thought. And it was international. That's what blew my mind. Once I saw. It wasn't just us. This was happening in Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand. It was even happening in most of the Nordic countries and they let their kids out to play.

The Nordic countries still to this day actually let their eight year olds walk around outside. Although I was talking with a Finnish journalist the other day, she said, yeah, we let our kids walk outside and they walk around looking at their phones all day long. So anyway, so the story in the book is that what really did them in, what really has damaged our kids and especially the girls is going through puberty.

On social media, this is no way, especially for a girl to go through that transition. Her body is changing. She's coming up with a new identity. She's learning new social skills. So the book, I can summarize the book in a single sentence. We have overprotected our Children in the real world and we have underprotected them online.

Zibby: So. You're one of the suggestions and you have a lot of conclusions in the book and how we can stop it because when I sit here and I listen to you say all this, I start panicking like, Oh my gosh, I've ruined my children. It's too late. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You know, one is intercepting this issue early, right?

Postponing, delaying kids. But I feel like that is easier said than done. And obviously, yeah. You, you are aware of this, you know, with all of your research, but kids are expect, expect it. They demand it. They, you know, how do you, even if you know that it's a danger, what can parents do? And what if it's, when is it too late?

Is it ever too late? 

Jonathan: Yeah. Well, it's, it's never too late to make things a lot better. So, you know, I, I do fear, my kids are 14 and 17 and if they'd had a fully normal childhood with a lot of outdoor adventure. I think they'd be tougher and stronger than they are now. So I do suspect we're going to see lasting effects, but you know, look, most kids are not mentally ill.

They're not, most kids are not depressed or anxious, uh, among girls. It's, it is about a third that girls, you know, 30 to 40 percent are having anxiety and depression difficulties. But so let's, let's take it in two steps. Let's let's first, let's talk about parents of young kids where it's not too late. So, you know, every kid is just mesmerized by the screens.

A lot of my family videos. Because I got an iPhone in 2008. My son was born in 2006. So he grew up with me having an iPhone. So many of our videos, he does something cute and then you see him reaching out. iPhone, iPhone. I want to see. Yeah, I want to see, I want to see. Yeah, exactly. And so, you know, as when we were kids with television, parents have to set limits.

They have to have, you know, Constraints. Otherwise this stuff will take up the entire, the entire life. So television, you know, you couldn't take it outside with you, but the iPhone or an iPad, you can take around with you around the house. So if your kids are young, you need to really delay immersion into the phone base, into the screen based life.

So keep in mind, stories are good. If you watch a movie with your kid, that's great. There's no problem there. If you're, if you're five, six, seven year old watches a cartoon, you know, a 15, 20 minute cartoon show, That's okay. That story is what you really need to have a reason to mess them up. It's the short form videos.

It's, it's the fragmented attention. It's the sitting there with the device and doing five things at once or in a row. That is really bad training for your child's brain to develop focus and the ability to stay on task and what we call executive function in psychology. So you want to delay, delay as much as possible.

And the, I'll just give you the, the, the four note, we'll start with the four norms or four norms that if we all do. It gets much easier. I mean, you know, you're right that it's easier said than done, but it's only easier said than done if you're acting alone. If you're acting with other families, now it gets much easier and much more fun.

So here are the four norms. No smartphone before high school. Just give them a flip phone when you send them out in fifth, sixth grade, whenever it is, give them a flip phone or a phone watch. Don't give them the whole internet in their pocket. The second norm, no social media before 16. This one is really important.

This is one where it would really help to have legislation raising the age to 16 and demanding enforcement. But even if we do this as a norm, even if we, you know, like my daughter, I won't let her have Instagram. If we had four other families. that we're doing this, it would be much easier for them. Third norm is phone free schools.

Zibby: Wait, clarification on that point. Sorry. When you say don't have social media, do you mean consume it or post on it? I mean, you can, you could say don't have an account, but can you look at other people's accounts? 

Jonathan: Right. So, the key, the key step is opening an account. We, this should be by law. It should not be legal for anyone to open it because when you open an account, what your child is doing is she's saying she's making, she's signing a contract with a company that says that she's given away her data and rights to the data.

She can say things about her family and the company can do whatever they want with the data and your parents don't know, they won't have to know and they don't, you don't need their permission. That's the way the law is written now. As long as you're old enough to lie and say that you're 13, you can go anywhere on the internet.

Oh, but if you say you're 18, they can of course go to porn sites. So, uh, the main thing is just don't let them open an account because when they open an account, the algorithms get to know them. The algorithm will feed your daughter or your son exactly what activates their, their deepest, uh, unconscious urges.

And if they don't have an account, we can't post. Posting is the worst, especially for girls. Girls must not grow up posting pictures of themselves and wait for people to comment on their bodies and their faces. Now, as for whether they can watch YouTube videos, of course, YouTube is technically social media, but the way we use it, it's not so much used by kids as like a place to post it, because it's more just like, you know, you, it's, it's how to do everything in the world.

It's, it's, it's entertaining. So YouTube is mostly an entertains. TikTok is much, much worse. All the short form video things are much, much worse. I would suggest don't keep your kid off YouTube, but I would suggest keeping them entirely off of TikTok. In fact, my daughter, she was, she, she transferred, transitioned from elementary, from middle to high school and she was watching TikTok, uh, and even though, um, I'd said, you can't have an account, but she was watching it still and she was failing her classes and we made a deal.

I mean, I ended up, she's a very good negotiator. She ended up negotiating for 50 a month. She'll stay off entirely. And we did that and her grades went right up right away. Interesting. So, um, so yeah, I'm not saying that they can never watch a video on it. I'm just saying really make sure that it's, um, you know, no posting at a tiny portion of their consumption.

Zibby: Okay. Good to know. What about the rise of eating disorders as well? 

Jonathan: I don't actually have good data on whether eating disorders are going up a lot or a little. Everything is up. Uh, of course, eating disorders was a big deal, you know, in the nineties when we, you know, when I was, you know, uh, in graduate school.

And so I haven't heard so much about eating disorders showing a huge rise the way anxiety and depression have, but we now see very clear evidence that a lot of girls get drawn into it because they're shown them. Anorexia content. So the thing to keep in mind here is that when you make the transition, you know, in puberty, all around the world, cultures help their kids make the transition from child to adult.

They guide them. They say, here's what you need to know. They give them role models and it's never the parent. It's always like, If it's a girl, so it's going to be a woman who is not the family. It's going to be an outsider as a mentor. And we don't do that anymore. We stopped that a long time ago. We don't really give them any guidance.

And then around 2012, when they all got on Instagram, we basically said, you know, how about we have random weirdos on the internet, be your guide. Like you can watch a thousand of them a day. And, you know, the ones that are most prestigious are obviously the ones you should copy. So why don't you just copy the popular ones, the influencers, and the results have been catastrophic, I would say.

Zibby: Yeah, I don't, I don't know the data, but I feel anecdotally this is, you know, younger and younger girls are having issues from, you know, the moms who are,

Jonathan: I think that's probably true just for some reason. I haven't found good data on that. Maybe the government doesn't track it as well as it does for depression, anxiety, but I'll bet you're right.

Zibby: There are Not to just belabor this whole social media point, but there are benefits to be feeling a part of a community, right? There are fine, but let's go through each and all of them. 

Jonathan: I'm very dubious. I'm very dubious of that. So let's let's okay for adults. Yes. Look, these technologies do a lot of things.

If you have a business, if you need to network, but 7th graders don't need to network with strangers. They certainly don't need to be talking to men in other countries. So let's talk about middle school. Tell me for a 6th 8th grader. Who's on Instagram? Tell me what the benefits are because I don't see them.

Zibby: Um, okay. I would say that there's, for the people who are authentic and who share their actual experiences and their insecurities and this, the notion that they are not alone in how they feel. And that there are people outside of their class or their school, or maybe they don't fit in at school, but they found a group of people who also love, I don't know, random sport, random thing, random interest, and all over the world that they can feel like, Oh, my world is not quite this small in this town, but I am not alone.

Jonathan: Okay. Yeah. For high school kids, I can, I can see that for six, seventh, eighth graders. 

I really don't, you know, to, to expose, to expose, you know, let's suppose you have this. You have a seventh grade dog who's very shy, a little bit anxious. And so she finds a community of people who are also shy and anxious.

This is a terrible thing to do to her. Do not let that happen. Because they will mutually reinforce each other's identity as shy, anxious people. So you won't overcome it. So, you know, we, a lot of psychological ideas that might make sense for adults. Are often just really bad for kids is to put Abigail Schreier has a book out called bad therapy.

I haven't read the book yet, but I've, I've listened to her, her podcasts. I think she's right about this. So yeah, a lot of the, everything that's put forward to me as a benefit, I just, if you look at it closely, you have to always look at the opportunity cost that is okay. So now your daughter is spending three hours a day watching videos of other people who share her disorder.

That's really bad, first of all. And the second of all, What is, where does that time come from? Um, since 2012, kids have very few hobbies. There's no time for a hobby. They don't do things. They don't read books. There's no time every available moment. If they're in an elevator, the phone comes out there on social media.

If they're in a car, right? The phone comes out social media or videos. So once you let them have a smartphone and social media. It's going to tape over almost every available minute for half the kids in the country. They say that they are online almost constantly. So even if they seem to be talking to you, they're not fully present.

They're thinking more about what's going on on the phone. What's going on on social media? What are people saying about the thing that I posted that I so that's why I say they're sort of taken away to an alternate universe. Which is completely unsuitable for human development, whatever minor benefits there might be, what you're giving up is so important that no, I just, I don't see, I just don't see the benefits of social media for children.

Zibby: Okay. Um, okay. 

Jonathan: I feel kind of strong about that one. 

Zibby: I'm just playing the devil's advocate. 

Jonathan: Please, go ahead. Play more. Playing devil's advocate. 

Zibby: That's all. You know. You've been out sort of touring and talking to groups of people about this book and blah blah blah. What Is there anything that you've learned?

Is there anything that's challenged what you thought at the outset or That made you, you know, surprised you and made you take note. Anything like that? 

Jonathan: Well, the, so there's been, so first of all, nobody in Gen Z, not a single Gen Z person I've ever found or heard of is saying that I'm wrong. Gen Z sees the problem.

They know the phones have messed them up. They do not like their childhoods. They do not like their phone based lives. My students at NYU, I say, so okay, you're spending four hours a day on TikTok. Why don't you stop this? I can't because everyone else is on. I need to know what's going on. So this is a trap and they recognize it.

So that's been, I was surprised that I expect, so I expected some pushback and I've gotten almost zero pushback other than from about six researchers who say that. I'm confusing correlations of causation, but I'm not, I've been writing about this for years. How do we know it's causation, not causation? I have a lot of articles on that.

If there's a section in my book. So that's been one big surprise is that there's, it's been not controversial. There's been almost no pushback. Another is that, is that it's become a global rebellion that is in Britain, started in Britain first in February in Britain, parents are up in arms. They are spontaneously getting together to delay smartphones, to try to keep smartphones out of their kids lives.

The government there is acting so Britain's a few months ahead of us, but here we are. We're now in May 2024. I'd say the parents rebellion is starting this month. I'm seeing, you know, wherever parents are constantly email me saying, I read your book. I bought a copy for all my all the. Parents are my kids friends.

I bought a copy for the principal. I bought a copy for the teachers. Parents are desperate for this all around the developed world. We've seen our kids become zombies hunched over screens and we've just, we knew something was wrong. So that's been a surprise is how quickly it spread. I don't have to persuade people.

I just, I just put the book out there and people say, Oh yeah, so this is what we do. Cause the book has a lot of specific suggestions and ideas for what to do. 

Zibby: Do you think that the phones will become like tobacco? Yes. 

Jonathan: Yes. Tobacco, they're much more addictive than tobacco. When in 1997 was the peak year of teens of high school students smoking, one third of high school students smoked, which means two thirds didn't.

Now, you could never get 95 percent of a high school to do heroin. Or, you know, or cocaine, it's just that you couldn't get that high, but with social media, it's that high and at a much younger age, because they have to want. It's a trap. It's a social trap. So now that we're recognizing, I think we're going to recognize, you know, like, an automobile is a wonderful thing, but you don't let an 11 year old drive.

Social media has all kinds of possible advantages for adults. It does nothing for 11 year olds to have them watch videos of beheadings, or to be contacted by Nigerian sextortion rings, or to be approached by strange men trying to get them to give a photograph of themselves in a bathing suit. Like, this just doesn't make sense.

And we're going to start, we're going to start seeing that. Oh, the biggest surprise to me is that the main obstacle that I'm facing is just resignation. Parents just feel it's too hard, that the phones are here to stay, the train's left the station, it's too late, we have to just accept it, we have to meet them where they are, people say, and I say no way, if my kids are playing down on the train tracks, I'm not going to meet them where they are, I'm going to take them off the train tracks.

Zibby: I love that. Okay. I know you've started a nonprofit or associated organization. Tell me about that and the work that you intend to do. 

Jonathan: Yes. So, so a few years ago, so in 2017, I started an organization with Lenore Skenazy, the woman who wrote Free Range Kids. She's brilliant. She's funny. And so we started an organization called Let Grow.

And so if listeners go to letgrow. org, we have all kinds of great ideas. For how you can restore play and independence in your kids at home and also in your kids schools. So this is very, this is, this should be stop one. If you've got, if you have, especially if your kids are under around 12 or 13. That's really our sweet spot is sort of elementary and middle school.

Do, do the Let Grow Project. It's amazing. If you do it in a school, it's incredibly powerful, but you can do it at home too. It's just, uh, the teacher gives you a hand, gives the kid a handout, you come home, kid comes home, you work out, the kid proposes something that she thinks she can do that she's never done alone.

Maybe it's walk the dog, maybe it's go three blocks to a store to buy a quart of milk. And so you agree with that as the kid does it. And when they do it, they're thrilled. It's so exciting. The parents are often really nervous, especially if the kid is out of the house. They're really nervous. And that's important because the parents have to get over their nervousness.

We all were out at the age of eight and nine going around our neighborhoods. We were all riding our bicycles around town at eight, eight, nine. And this was during a crime wave. A lot of us were doing a crime wave. But now things are so safe that there's the, the, the, the, I mean, the physical safety of our Children is so much greater than it's ever been in human history.

We're all terrified. We're terrified of our neighbors. We're terrified. Our kids will be kidnapped and that's just not going to happen. So we have to overcome our anxiety and let grow project helps you do that. A powerful part of it is if the school does it now you have the whole town. All the eight year olds are out getting a quarter mill and suddenly everyone sees that.

Yeah. Eight year olds are capable of crossing the street and eight year olds are capable of going from point A to point B and it becomes normal and none of us have seen that since the 80s. We haven't seen kids unaccompanied, unsupervised, unchaperoned. So anyway, Let Grow has really powerful ideas for how you or your school can restore independence and it really reduces anxiety, especially if you have a kid who is a little anxious.

Independence therapy works within a week or two it begins working whereas Prozac takes four or five weeks. So, so let grow up and then so that takes care of the play half of the story because my book is about how there was the loss of the play based childhood we've got to restore that and then there's the rise of the phone based childhood instead.

So, a lot of groups working on that. I'm not sure if I'm gonna start a nonprofit, um, for it, but I am, I, I, I, I, I'm a professor at New York University, and so I have research accounts and I have a, a way for people to donate to support, because I'm hiring staff. I'm, I'm overwhelmed. I can't read my email. I can't, there's so many incoming requests and like, I can't even say no to them.

I don't have, I mean, it's, it's overwhelming. So I'm, I'm trying to hire chief of staff and, but if you, but if you go to anxious, we have all kinds of resources, anxious Click on take action. We have an action guide for parents, an action guide for schools, all kinds of ideas by which you can roll back the phone based childhood and restore a real childhood in the real world.

Zibby: Amazing. Any last tips for parents who have listened to this episode and they've bought in and they're like, I'm getting the kids off the train tracks. You're absolutely right. No, it'll be hard, but I'm going to do it. What's, like, the one piece of advice? Is there, is there a way to ease? 

Jonathan: Let me give you, let me give you two, because let's talk about, this is for the parent who, you know, you've got a 14, 15 year old kid.

His life is all ready. It's all online. Don't take him off and say, like, no, you know, you're not going to, because that's going to cut them off and they're going to feel that it's horrible. And rather, We're also always work with the families of your kids friends. So if, if you have four families, let's say that are doing this together, what you say is we're going to put some structure in place.

We're going to reduce the total amount of screen time, but we're all doing it. All four families, you're not going to be alone. And guess what? Our goal isn't to punish you. Our goal isn't to take away fun. Our goal is to give you fun. Our goal is for you to have the kind of childhood that people always have, that, that we had, that, that your grandparents had.

We had, we have a lot of adventures. We want you to have that too. So you know what? You're, you guys are 14. Here, here's some money. Take the subway to Coney Island, you know, here, go to, you know, go to the movie, take, take an Uber to a movie, but just, you Go somewhere where you're not being supervised by adults.

Have fun. So if you think about it more as restoring a fun and adventurous childhood rather than taking away something, it'll go down a lot easier and it'll be more fun for you. 

Zibby: Okay. All right. I'm equipped. This is not all self serving, I promise. I have four kids. We span, we span the age range. 

Jonathan: We're all, we're all facing it.

I mean, this is all over the world now. Family life is fighting over screens. Yeah. It's crazy. 

Zibby: Which is probably what they're doing while I'm doing this podcast. So anyway, I gotta go get them up. Anyway, thank you so much for coming on mom's no time to read bugs. Thank you for all your work. Thank you for your advocacy on behalf of the future generation.

I mean, it is super, super important and has long term consequences for the future. leaders of tomorrow and what we can expect them to do with our country and our world and the types of attention that need to types of, yeah, attention prowess that, that they can have, because otherwise what's going to happen to all of us.

Jonathan: So no, that's right. That's right. Well, thank you so much. Thanks for helping me get the 


Zibby: Thanks for the time. Okay.


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