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The Risks of Protecting Children from Risk

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Caring parents understandably want to protect their children from physical harm and emotional hurt. We do this, we presume, for their sakes. And, if the truth be told, we do it for our own as well. Many of us knowingly nodded when Michelle Obama shared the common parental experience: “You are as happy as your least happy child.”

 

But as my friend and fellow social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, recently explained to a large West Michigan audience, sometimes parental good intentions prepare kids for failure.

 

Haidt began by documenting what I’ve previously described—the stunning recent increase in teens’ (especially teen girls’) depression, anxiety, suicidal thinking, and self-harm (as documented in ER visits). This tsunami of mental health problems has now also reached college campuses, as evident in collegians’ increased depression rates and visits to campus mental health services.

 

What gives? What accounts for this greater fragility of today’s youth? Teen biology hasn’t changed. They’re not drinking more (indeed, they’re drinking less). They’re not working more (they’re less often employed).

 

What has changed, Haidt observed, is, first, technology—the spread of smart phones, the explosion of social media, and the addition of social comparison-promoting social media features, such as visible likes and retweets of one’s posts. Haidt offered correlational studies that associate teens’ social media use with their mental health, and experiments that reveal the emotional benefits of a restrained social media diet. (For more, see this prior blog essay, and Haidt’s recent Atlantic essay, with Tobias Rose-Stockwell: “The Dark Psychology of Social Networks.” See also this new response by his collaborator, Jean Twenge, to skeptics of the social media explanation.)

 

As an antidote to social media’s emotional toxicity (and diminished sleep and face-to-face relationships), Haidt offered three practical family guidelines for healthy media use:

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He also attributes the increase youth mental health issues to a second cultural change: Today’s parents often fail to appreciate the “antifragility” principle—that children’s emotions, like their bones and immune systems, gain strength from being challenged. Bones and muscles gain strength from exercise. Immune systems develop protective antibodies from challenges (soaring peanut allergies are a sorry result of routinely protecting infants from peanut exposure). And children’s emotional health and resilience likewise builds through their unpleasant experiences. There is truth to Nietzsche’s aphorism, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

 

Alas, as Haidt demonstrated by surveying his audience, members of Generation Z (people born since 1996) have grown up more protected—with parents restraining their roaming free until later childhood. Their grandparents, by contrast, and to some extent their parents, were experienced a less restricted “free range childhood.” (And no, today’s world is not more dangerous—it’s actually much safer than the 1970s.)

 

Moreover, he argued (also in The Coddling of the American Mind with Greg Lukianoff, and in a new essay with Pamela Paresky), schools are ill-serving students by protecting them from uncomfortable speech. Colleges ill-prepare students for life outside the campus when they suppress unpopular perspectives and offer “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” that insulate students from “micro-aggressions.”

 

As an alternative approach, Haidt welcomes viewpoint diversity—the thrust of the Heterodox Academy. He and his colleagues also offer resources for open-minded engagement at the new OpenMindPlatform.org.

 

Haidt’s case for viewpoint diversity and open dialogue remind me of the long-ago wisdom of social psychologist William McGuire, whose experiments taught us an important lesson:  Unchallenged beliefs existing in “germ-free ideological environments” are the most vulnerable to later being overturned. To form one’s beliefs amid diverse views is to become more discerning, and ultimately more deeply grounded in less fragile convictions.

 

Ergo, concludes Haidt, to support teen mental health be intentional about screen time and social media, and remember: character—like bones, muscles, and immunity—grows from challenge.

 

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).