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Kids on Mars

BOOKS | Gen Z and the dangers of a “phone-based childhood”


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Kids on Mars
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“DADDY, CAN YOU take the iPad away from me? I’m trying to take my eyes off it but I can’t.”

Author Jonathan Haidt recalls these words of his 6-year-old daughter in The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness (Penguin 2024), a hefty treatise on the effects of the new “phone-based childhood.”

Gen Z, Haidt argues, “became the first generation in history to go through puberty with a portal in their pockets that called them away from the people nearby and into an alternative universe that was exciting, addictive, and”—as Haidt demonstrates in about 370 pages of detailed explanation and endnotes—“unsuitable for children and adolescents.” He compares our gamble on the untested, phone-based childhood to sending our offspring off to grow up on Mars.

The Anxious Generation

The Anxious Generation Jonathan Haidt

Childhood used to be play-based, says Haidt, but now it’s phone-based. Kids like his daughter inhabit a dis­embodied virtual world where users broadcast one-to-many instead of one-to-one. “People can block others or just quit when they are not pleased,” Haidt notes. “Communities are short-lived.” Haidt claims children are trading play for phones, relationships for followers, a sense of discovery for defensiveness, and confidence for anxiety. He cites teens’ reports of increasing loneliness and isolation—and that those addicted to digital activities “found that ‘nothing feels good anymore.’”

Haidt doesn’t lay the blame for teen anxiety and depression solely on smartphones. True, phones are “experience blockers,” using up precious childhood time that has to come from somewhere. But he says overprotective parents are experience blockers too.

In Haidt’s theory, parents and society underprotected children online but overprotected them in the physical world. Why did emergency room visits for self-harm skyrocket among girls after 2010? Because they were staring into TikTok and Instagram feeds, living the lyrics of pop star Olivia Rodrigo: “Co-comparison is killing me slowly.” Why did far fewer boys go to the hospital for unintentional injuries (such as broken bones) after 2010? Because they didn’t play enough. Because they were overprotected outdoors or they were engrossed by video games and online porn.

Not that we want more children breaking bones, of course. But Haidt rightly assumes that we do want them to live a life of discovery and to avoid what he calls the “four foundational harms” of the phone-based childhood: social deprivation, sleep deprivation, attention deprivation, and addiction.

Haidt’s solution to the crushing loneliness, comparison, addiction, and anxiety imposed by the phone-based childhood is ‘shared sacredness.’

Haidt writes about several ways to “bring childhood back to Earth,” but, most of all, he asks everyone to act together. Peer pressure will lose its hold only if the majority of parents begin setting boundaries around screen use.

His most startling suggestion is that people defy phone-based loneliness by going to church and observing a traditional church calendar. “I am an atheist,” Haidt notes, “but I find that I sometimes need words and concepts from religion to understand the experience of life as a human being. This is one of those times.”

Haidt’s solution to the crushing loneliness, comparison, addiction, and anxiety imposed by the phone-based childhood is “shared sacredness.” He criticizes our own time, saying, “There is no Sabbath and there are no holy days. Everything is profane.” But his assertion that “humans evolved to be religious by being together and moving together” feels like an absurd retreat.

What best explains the child mental health crisis? Not war, climate change, or even trauma. “People don’t get depressed when they face threats collectively;” Haidt insists, “they get depressed when they feel isolated, cut off, lonely, or useless.” Much of kids’ seclusion today arises not from an outside world of trouble but from the deceptive portal in their pockets.


Chelsea Boes

Chelsea is editor of World Kids.

@ckboes

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