Why tech execs don’t give their kids phones

Gen Z’s brains have been “rewired” by the online world —can they be restored to factory settings?

This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

At the heart of this otherwise bleak analysis of the state of adolescence today is a touchingly sentimental and rather old-fashioned sense of what childhood once was, and could be again if adults are prepared to accept the damage that mobile phones are doing to young people.

Jonathan Haidt is well qualified to write this damning study of political, parental and corporate neglect: he is Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University, a social psychologist, and author of a number of books which have explored the increasingly fragile mental states of teenagers today.

The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, Jonathan Haidt (Allen Lane, £25)

His thesis is simple: he argues that Gen Z, the generation born after 1995, are the “test subjects” for a new way of growing up. They are the first generation in history who have gone through puberty online, and they occupy a place “far from the real world”. It is a social experiment on a global scale and at its heart is a new relationship: that between child and smartphone.

For Haidt, this has resulted in record levels of depression and anxiety; it has removed children from their families and friends, leaving them in a dangerous virtual limbo populated by paedophiles and bullies. The innocent kids of Haidt’s own idyllic upbringing are now unpaid, commodified content creators. This has been done through a toxic combination of avaricious Californian tech giants and uninformed parents and teachers.

Haidt terms this process the Great Rewiring, a rather grandiose description coined to reflect the monumental social changes that we have witnessed between 2010 and 2015. Gen Z’s brains have been “rewired” by the online world; the question is, can they be returned to factory settings? Can we start again, and ensure the next generation do not suffer in the same way? The signs, so far, are not good.

The scale of our dereliction of duty as adults seems astonishing. Everything that we would consider essential foundations for a healthy childhood has been disrupted by mobile phones and the access they offer to the most addictive apps.

The statistics Haidt quotes are sobering: 46 per cent of teenagers say they are online “almost constantly”; anxiety diagnoses amongst 18–25 year olds (in the US) have increased by 92 per cent since 2010; nearly 40 per cent of teenage girls in the UK who spend over five hours daily on social media have been diagnosed as clinically depressed. In this group self-harm has tripled, and suicide rates for 10–14 year old girls and boys have increased by 167 per cent and 92 per cent respectively. On and on it goes, a screed of self-loathing and alienation.

“Phone-based childhood”, as opposed to traditional play-based childhood, has resulted in our children sleeping less, playing with their friends less, talking to adults less, and reading fewer books than older generations. Meanwhile, tech bros in Palo Alto make billions designing “social-validation feedback loops” to exploit, as Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook said, “a vulnerability in human psychology” that keeps us addicted to the dopamine hits from “likes” and “retweets”.

Tellingly, the senior leadership teams from Meta, Google, Apple and Microsoft send their children to schools such as the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, which bans all technology.

For Haidt, smartphones are disastrous for the adolescent brain. But it gets worse, because this new, unprotected, online world has coincided with our children being over-protected in the real world. Since the 1980s, children have become increasingly unable to take physical risks through play, or by walking to the shops, or to school. “Stranger danger” — the fear of the predatory child abuser — as well as a more understandable wariness parents have of traffic, has resulted in boringly safe playgrounds, supervised playtime and all physical independence being effectively stopped.

Here is a tragic paradox: the real world has never been more regulated and monitored for children, but the opposite is the case for the virtual world. Haidt urgently bids us to reverse this order.

Of course, there are some benefits to teenagers taking fewer risks, and this applies to young men especially. In the US, teenagers are drinking less alcohol and having fewer car accidents and “fall-related fractures”. These have been in decline since the 1990s but have decreased rapidly since 2010.

Boys are being admitted to hospitals in smaller numbers than ever, presumably because they are at home looking at screens. You could say that that is healthy, but for Haidt it isn’t: he wants children to live in, and be bruised by, the physical world.

The book is a compelling manifesto for change, but there are stylistic and structural flaws. First, a lot of this is not new. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows (published in 2010) was one of the first books that asked whether the internet was destroying our ability to concentrate. Since then there has been a plethora of studies on the effects that technology is having on the adolescent brain, as well as its impact on social norms.

“Phone-based” childhood has resulted in record levels of depression, argues Haidt

Second, there is a lot of repetition here: each chapter has a summary of what we’ve just read; he also, repeatedly, looks forward and back to arguments made elsewhere in the book.

Some of Haidt’s critics accuse him of being too focused on mobile phones and social media as the dominant reasons behind the mental health issues children are facing today. They claim that although these are contributing factors they are, at most, correlational. By focusing on them alone Haidt excludes other factors, such as global warming, racism and sexual discrimination, which are also having a damaging impact on adolescents’ self-esteem. After reading The Anxious Generation, one can only conclude that such criticisms are reductive at best and tendentious at worst.

Haidt’s arguments are undeniably powerful, and he is right to be uncompromising in his calls for tighter legislation and in his demands that tech companies be held more to account. Haidt seeks to make them publicly acknowledge that, like parents, they have a duty of care to the young and most vulnerable.

We can wait a long time for unequivocal evidence to show, without doubt, the damage that mobile phones and social media are doing to our children. By then it would be too late for both our children and our society. If you are living through an experiment which is clearly out of control, the wisest — and most adult — thing to do is to stop it, and to start again, before disaster hits. Are we grown-up enough to do this, or will we just keep doom-scrolling to an end we don’t have the will power to control?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover