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The portal in their pockets

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WORLD Radio - The portal in their pockets

Limiting screen time and encouraging a life of discovery will increase confidence and reduce anxiety for children


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NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday March 27th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Up next: The Anxious Generation. Book reviewer Chelsea Boes says a new book with that title is challenging Americans to think more carefully about the influence of technology on children.

CHELSEA BOES: “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 his new book, The Anxious Generation. Haidt’s book is a hefty, 370-page treatise on the effects of the new “phone-based childhood.”

In it, Haidt argues, “Gen Z became the first generation in history to go through puberty with a portal in their pockets…” It “called them away from the people nearby and into an alternative universe that was exciting, addictive, and unsuitable for children and adolescents.” Haidt compares our gamble on the untested, phone-based childhood to sending our offspring off to grow up on Mars.

Kids like Haidt’s daughter inhabit a dis­embodied, virtual world where users broadcast to a crowd instead of developing relationships one-to-one. “People can block others or just quit when they are not pleased,” Haidt notes. “Communities are short-lived.” Haidt claims children often end up trading a sense of discovery for defensiveness and they feel less confident and more anxious. Teens report increasing loneliness and isolation—and those addicted to digital activities say, “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. But he says overprotective parents are experience blockers too. Why did the number of girls visiting emergency rooms skyrocket after 2010, including many cases of self-harm? Because they were staring into TikTok and Instagram feeds which made them feel inadequate by comparison. Why did far fewer boys go to the hospital for unintentional injuries (such as broken bones) after 2010? Because they didn’t play enough. 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. That means avoiding “four foundational harms” of phone-based childhood: social deprivation, sleep deprivation, attention deprivation, and addiction.

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 is “shared sacredness.” He criticizes our own era, saying, “There is no Sabbath and there are no holy days. Everything is profane.” He does mention evolution in this section, but his line of argument isn’t very convincing.

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 from the deceptive portal in their pockets.

I’m Chelsea Boes.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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