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«Teenagers know that social media is harming them.  But they can’t stop because everybody else is on it.»
Jonathan Haidt, fotografiert von Jayne Riew.

«Teenagers know that social media is harming them.
But they can’t stop because everybody else is on it.»

Smartphones have led to a mental health crisis, says psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Part of the reason that children are vulnerable is a change in parenting.

Lesen Sie die deutsche Version hier.

Jonathan Haidt, how much time do you spend on your smartphone per day?

I use my phone very little because I’m always at a computer. I only use Twitter a bit for finding things and sharing ideas. I dislike typing on my phone. I do have problems with distraction and focusing on work, but it’s not because of my phone. For me, my phone is just a tool that I use when I need something.


However, in your new book, you argue that smartphones and social media negatively affect mental health, especially that of children. Why are children particularly vulnerable?

There are two big reasons. One is that puberty is an extraordinarily sensitive and crucial time of brain changes. The neurons are rewiring; we’re changing from the childish form of the brain to the adult form. This process is highly dependent on experience. It is shaped by what’s coming in. In traditional societies, adults made an effort to help children transition from childhood to adulthood. We make no such effort. We simply give them a smartphone when they start puberty, typically around age 10, and then we let random strangers on the internet guide their brain development. This is a really bad idea. The other thing is that children generally don’t know how to turn off notifications. They are basically granting permission to dozens of companies to interrupt them and compete for their attention. So, the way the smartphone is playing out for young people is that it is largely grabbing most or all of their attention and diverting it from any useful purpose.


In the past, people have warned about reading books, watching television, and so on. Isn’t this just another moral panic?

It is certainly true that adults always freak out about whatever new thing kids are doing. I think that it’s appropriate to begin with a skeptical mindset. Back in 2017, when Jean Twenge published an article titled «Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?», skepticism was justified. Since then, it has become much clearer that we are facing a gigantic international mental health crisis. This did not happen when people began reading novels or riding bicycles. We did not see a very sudden increase in suicides. We did not see girls checking into hospitals in record numbers – for young teenage girls, the increase is close to 200 percent. What’s more, there are now dozens of experiments using random assignment that show the effects of either taking a break from social media for a while, or the effects of using a platform like Instagram versus other platforms. In the social sciences, when you conduct experiments, correlational studies, and longitudinal studies, you begin to identify causation. It’s not just correlation.


There are some people who are skeptical, who argue, for example, that mental health issues started to increase before smartphones or social media were available.

It’s true that there has been a general increase in fragility and depression since the 1950s, at least in the United States. That goes all the way up through Gen X. The millennials were actually a little healthier than Gen X. But then, right around 2012 to 2013, most of the numbers go up. That’s where we see hockey sticks, especially for girls. There’s never been anything like this. I call the period from 2010 to 2015 «The Great Rewiring of Childhood». The nature of what kids do all day long changed radically. At that exact same moment, their mental health collapsed.


What about other factors? In her new book, «Bad Therapy», Abigail Shrier argues that the health industry and the rise of psychotherapy contributed to mental health problems. Is that a reasonable argument?

Oh, yes, that is definitely a contributor. But it cannot explain the timing for several reasons. First, if the explanation for this was primarily just bad therapy, then it would be a very gradual increase and would not happen in a single year. America has developed what was called «The culture of therapeutics» since the 1970s. So, Shrier’s theory can’t explain a hockey stick curve. It also can’t explain the international scope.


The data in your book focuses on the US and Anglosphere countries. Do we see similar trends in countries like Switzerland and others in Europe?

Yes. When we use the «Health Behavior in School-Aged Children Survey» and look at the incidences across the weighted population in Europe, we see that self-reports of psychological distress are slightly higher in boys. However, there was a 38 percent increase for girls during the exact period we’re discussing. The biggest increases are among girls in Western Europe, more than in Eastern Europe. We also see bigger increases in richer countries, those with low inequality and the highly individualistic ones. Religiosity is probably the most important factor: In a more religious country, you have some protection, whereas in the least religious countries, kids get washed out to sea. This is in line with studies conducted in the US which show that the children from religious families had the fewest problems.

«In a more religious country, you have some protection, whereas in the least religious countries, kids get washed out to sea.»


Why is that?

I’m a big fan of the sociologist Émile Durkheim, who believed that people need to be rooted in morally binding communities. Most of the world has that, but the most developed, wealthy, individualistic countries don’t. We have a lot of freedom, and freedom used to be good for your mental health. Our kids used to be happier compared to those in other parts of the world. But that’s not the case anymore.


You write in your book that we protect children too much in the real world and too little in the virtual world. What do you mean by that?

Human children need to play and explore. They learn to be independent by being independent. And in the process, they get hurt many times, but not severely. They take risks, learn to manage them, and then become ready to face larger risks. That’s the way it has always been for millions of years, up until the 1990s. In English-speaking countries, we all freaked out at the same time. We all said: «Oh my God, we can’t let our kids out! We can’t trust adults; they may molest or kidnap our kids.» We started depriving children of free play and independence, which made them more fragile. Overprotection didn’t cause depression, anxiety, and suicide, but it did weaken individuals, making them less resilient.


And ill-prepared for the digital world.

The virtual world is brand new; we didn’t evolve for it. Children can now get in touch with billions of strangers, including many men who have sexual intentions towards them. We’re exposing them to all kinds of dangers that we do not understand, and our protection for them is pretty close to zero. The US Congress passed a law in 1998 that states that you must be 13 years old before you can sign a contract with a company to give away your data without your parents› knowledge or permission. The companies have no responsibility to enforce the age limit. There are no age gates on the internet; any seven-year-old can visit pornography sites or start an Instagram account. The US Congress also said that we can’t sue these companies for the damage they cause. And so, parents who would never let their kids eat something that was found to have a 1 percent increase in some harm allowed them to enter platforms where they were talking to naked men.


How has your research changed your own parenting?

I have had a very firm rule against social media until high school. Early puberty is extremely important. So, I really tried to protect my kids in middle school, that’s roughly ages 11 to 13. My son opened an Instagram account when he was 15 without telling me. However, because he’s very responsible and doesn’t post on it, I thought that was okay. I’m going to wait longer before allowing my daughter to open social media accounts.


OK, you’ve convinced me about the problem. I’m still skeptical about your solutions, though. You propose to raise the legal age for using social media to 16. How do you want to enforce that rule?

It might be difficult. But imagine that the legislature in your country decided that the drinking age is 21, but bars do not have to check anyone’s ID, because it’s the parents› responsibility. Additionally, bars are free to create bubblegum-flavored drinks to attract children. They can do what they want; they can’t be sued. That would be an insane way to live. That’s the situation we’re in right now with social media. We have to do something.


You also proposed to ban phones from schools. Wouldn’t it be better if schools taught children how to use social media and digital technologies responsibly?

No, that’s not going to work. First of all, it’s very, very hard to fight against the reward system of the brain even when you’re dealing with adults. It’s very hard to make adults go on a diet or stop smoking. Now, let’s shift our focus to eleven- and twelve-year-old kids. Their prefrontal cortex is very undeveloped and in a vulnerable state. They are having a lot of trouble resisting temptation. Facebook is aware of this. So, I do not think that education would be very helpful. If kids have it in their pocket, they’re going to use it. Secondly, there is no benefit for them from starting early. It’s fine with me if you want to start giving classes on digital responsibility to ten-year-olds. But if you also give them a phone, it’s going to swamp any lesson you can give them. It’s always been hard for teachers to keep students› attention. Since 2012, it has become almost impossible. If some kids are texting, then all kids feel compelled to check their texts. If some kids are posting on social media, all kids feel the pressure to check. This also influences academic performance. When we look at the PISA data, we see that since 2012, young people all over the world have become less well-educated, more anxious, more depressed, more addicted, and lonelier in school.

«Since 2012, young people all over the world have become

less well-educated, more anxious, more depressed, more addicted,

and lonelier in school.»


Historically, the regulation of new technology has not been very successful. It’s mostly been useless, if not counterproductive. Why should this be different with social media?

I wrote my book assuming that we will never get any help from our politicians, because we don’t have a functioning legislature in the United States. That’s why I propose norms that can be implemented. Of course, regulation would really help. But we can actually fix this on our own. As soon as you get a few families together, they agree to give no smartphones before high school, no social media until 16, to work together to convince the school to use phone lockers, and to give kids more time to play with each other outside. You don’t need the government to do that. Interestingly, when you talk to parents, you don’t find many who are happy about what’s happening with technology.


Neither are the kids.

That’s right. If you talk to teenagers, they see the problems. They know that social media is really harming them. But they can’t stop because everybody else is on it.


Your critique of social media extends beyond the mental health of children. In an essay last year, you wrote that social media weakens trust, encourages division, and endangers democracy.

The problems of democracy are much more serious, and I don’t have clear solutions the way I do for the teen mental health crisis. I am very concerned about the future of my country over the next 10 years. I fear that things may get a lot worse.



Because in America the current trends of rising polarization and declining trust in institutions are concerning. These institutions are actually doing a lot to alienate trust. The universities and the health authorities behaved terribly during the pandemic. Without good institutions, without even trust in the administration of elections, it’s not clear that the American experiment can survive. All known problems with democracy are more visible in the US. The concept of a liberal democracy, where we engage in democratic debate and ultimately persuasion and compromise, is much harder to implement in the age of social media.


Is there anything that gives you optimism?

What gives me hope is that it’s clear that everyone is aligned on children’s mental health. There’s an enormous desire to change. I am actually confident that we’re going to make big changes in the next year or two which will pay off. I think we will begin reducing rates of mental illness within two or three years.

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