Haidt Reaches New Height

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Most academic fields are blessed with public intellectuals—people who contribute big ideas to their disciplines and also to public discourse. Economics has had (among others) Paul Krugman and Milton Friedman. History has had Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Evolutionary biology has had Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson.

And psychological science? On my top 10 psychology public intellectuals list—admittedly reflecting my current interests—would be the late Daniel Kahneman, along with Martin Seligman, Elizabeth Loftus, Steven Pinker, Jennifer Eberhardt, Angela Duckworth, Roy Baumeister, Jean Twenge, and Robert Cialdini.

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With so many deserving candidates, your interests and list will differ. Likely it would now also include Jonathan Haidt, whose new book, The Anxious Generation, appeared with a trifecta—as the simultaneous #1 nonfiction bestseller at the New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and Amazon—and with featured reviews in major newspapers and The New Yorker; interviews on TV networks, talk shows, and podcasts; and Haidt’s own The Atlantic feature article.

In collaboration with Jean Twenge (my social psychology text coauthor), Haidt aims less to sell books than to ignite a social movement. Teen depression, anxiety, and suicidal thinking have soared in the smartphone/social media era, Haidt and Twenge observe, and especially so for those teen girls who devote multiple daily hours to social media. For an excellent 7-minute synopsis of their evidence—perfect for class discussion, youth groups, or the family dinner table—see here.

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Their solution is straightforward: We need to stop overprotecting kids from real-world challenges and under-protecting them in the virtual world. We should decrease life experience–blocking phone-based childhood and increase resilience-building unrestricted play and in-person social engagement. To make this practical, Haidt offers schools and parents four recommendations:

  • No smartphones until high school (flip phones before).
  • No social media before age 16.
  • Phone-free schools (deposit phones on arrival).
  • More free play and unsupervised real-world responsibility.

 Given such high visibility assertions, Haidt and Twenge’s writings are understandably stimulating constructive, open debate that models what Haidt advocated in his earlier The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), and in founding the Heterodox Academy to support “open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement.” His colleague critics, including psychologist Candice Odgers writing in Nature and an Oxford research team, question the smartphone effect size and offer alternative explanations for the teen mental health crisis.

Although the research story is still being written, my reading of the accumulated evidence supports Haidt and Twenge, whose replies to their skeptics provide a case study in rhetorical argumentation:

  • Are they merely offering correlational evidence? No, longitudinal studies and experiments confirm the social media effect, as do quasi-experiments that find mental health impacts when and where social media get introduced.
  • Are the effects too weak to explain the huge increase in teen girls’ depression and anxiety? No, five social media hours a day double teen girls’ depression risk. Moreover, social media have collective effects; they infuse kids’ social networks.
  • Is teen malaise instead a product of family poverty and financial recession? No, it afflicts the affluent as well, and has increased during an era of economic growth.
  • Are the problems related to U.S. politics, culture, or school shootings? No, they cross Western countries.
  • Are teens more stressed due to increased school pressures and homework? No; to the contrary, homework pressure has declined.

Two other alternative explanations—that kids are experiencing less independence and less religious engagement—actually dovetail with the social media time-drain evidence. (Haidt, a self-described atheist, includes a chapter on the smartphone-era decline in experiences of spiritual awe, meditation, and community.)

Haidt’s inspiring an international conversation about teens and technology takes my mind back to 2001. A committee of four of us, led by Martin Seligman, evaluated candidates for the first round of Templeton Foundation–funded positive psychology prizes. Our $100,000 top prize winner—recognizing both achievements and promise—was an impressive young scholar named (you guessed it) Jon Haidt. More than we expected, we got that one right. In 2024, our culture is becoming wiser and hopefully healthier, thanks to Haidt’s evidence-based teen mental health advocacy, enabled by his persistent public voice.

(David Myers, a Hope College social psychologist, authors psychology textbooks and trade books, including his recent essay collection, How Do We Know Ourselves? Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind.)

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).