How Smartphones Are Rewiring Children

How Smartphones Are Rewiring Children

By Elaine Griffin

In Jonathan Haidt’s justly acclaimed new book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” he repeats a Polynesian expression: “Standing on a whale, fishing for minnows.” Haidt explains that “sometimes it is better to do a big thing rather than many small things.” What’s the “big thing” Haidt wants to do, which has catapulted his book to number one this week on the New York Times bestseller list?

Jonathan Haidt

Ban smartphones so that we can save our kids from themselves. 

Banning smartphones, a big thing, is especially important in the middle school years. At the onset of puberty, children are particularly insecure, heavily influenced by social pressures and easily persuaded to participate in activities that lead to social validation. This makes the price of using social media high for these students—much higher than for adults—while the offsetting benefits are meager.

As children develop, Haidt explains, they have “critical periods” when they “must learn something, or it will be hard if not impossible to learn later.” For example, there is a critical period for learning a new language: from childhood to the beginning of puberty. When children move to a new country at age 12 or younger, they will have no accent in their newly acquired language. Moving at age 14 is a different story entirely; these children will likely speak with an accent for the rest of their lives. 

Between the ages of 9 and 14, children go through one of these critical periods as it relates to cultural learning. During this time, they shape their identities, their feelings, and their social interactions. Children who become absorbed in social media at this stage in their lives will be deeply affected by the norms and influencers they encounter. 

Still more troubling: Online culture is often counter to the values we promote in our schools and homes. Social media, for example, immerses kids in a world of adult content before they are ready and determines one’s popularity by the number of likes, comments, or ratings one can garner without any examination of the ethical or moral content of the message delivered. 

Resoundingly confirming Haidt’s assessment, I’ve seen markedly positive improvements for our kids since Middle School advisors began collecting smartphones at the start of the school day. 

The teachers and I have noticed an increase in students’ attention and focus. We’ve observed more social interactions in the hallways when classes change. We’ve seen a dramatic decrease in disciplinary cases that involve the misuse of social media. 

Most important, we’ve witnessed a shift in the culture of the entire Middle School. Our students themselves have spoken about this shift both anecdotally and then formally in an assembly that 8th graders facilitated last year. 

Our 8th grade speakers reported a sense of relief at getting a break from their notifications and texts; they reported fewer moments of FOMO (fear of missing out) at school when drama unfolded online. Our experience in the Middle School confirms Haidt’s contention that a phone ban addresses the key harms of a phone-based childhood, namely “attention fragmentation, social deprivation, and addiction. It reduces social comparison and the pull into the virtual world. It generates communion and community.”

Haidt’s focus on how smartphones hurt the community is especially important to me as a middle school head. 

The Anxious Generation book cover

Middle school students are in a fraught time of their lives, trying to fit in and find their voices as they grow into their adult bodies and selves. This identity formation work is undermined by social media, which promotes a culture of conformity, comparison, and competition. 

As Haidt notes, “social media is not like sugar,” affecting only the individuals who consume it. Rather, “when it was carried into schools in the early 2010s, on smartphones in students’ pockets, it quickly changed the culture for everyone…students talked to each other less between classes, at recess, and at lunch, because they began to spend much of that time checking their phones, often getting caught up in microdramas throughout the day. This meant that they made eye contact less frequently, laughed together less, and lost practice making conversation. Social media therefore harmed the social lives even of students who stayed away from it.”

Middle school students care deeply about friends and social connection, and smartphones exacerbate their social anxiety. Haidt points out that when smartphones moved students’ social worlds online, “both girls and boys experienced a gigantic increase in the number of their social ties and in the time required to service these ties.” Suddenly, kids were immersed in a world of “transient, unreliable, fair-weather ‘friends,’ followers, and acquaintances.” 

One or two real friends will always trump numerous online connections, and that is why studies show a surge in loneliness among both girls and boys who use digital technology to connect at the cost of in-person connections. Every hour that kids spend online, often interacting in superficial ways, comes at a very real cost: they have traded away precious hours for developing authentic, in-person relationships. Haidt makes a wry observation about the term social media: the more time you spend on it, the lonelier you are. I think we should start calling it anti-social media.

The data also conclusively demonstrates that this technology affects children differently, depending on whether they identify as girls or boys.

For example, social media is more harmful to girls than to boys. Image-driven platforms are particularly harmful to girls, Haidt writes, “because a girl’s social standing is usually more closely tied to her beauty and sex appeal than is the case for boys.” 

Haidt recounts studies showing that when teen girls are exposed to selfies on Instagram that have been modified by beautifying filters, the observed photos “directly led to lower body image.” 

Instagram is particularly hard on girls because the pictures shared on the platform tend to focus on the body rather than the face. TikTok capitalizes on girls who show any interest in beauty or health by sending them videos that include “emaciated young women” while bombarding them with dieting advice. Furthermore, social media increases relational aggression among girls because it incentivizes one to gain extra attention through extreme posts.

Smartphones have a different but equally troubling impact on boys.

Haidt characterizes the negative impact as a “failure to launch.” Our global economy requires prosocial skills, such as the ability to communicate and listen effectively, and in these areas “girls are leaving boys in the dust.” 

During real-world free play, boys learn social skills, such as negotiating rules, setting boundaries, and resolving conflict. But boys are spending more time playing video games than playing outside. The data show a significant decrease in boys’ injuries in recent years because they aren’t taking risks outdoors. At the same time, video games prescribe rigid and contrived rules and boundaries, so boys aren’t learning communication and negotiation skills. 

As a middle school head, I always feel a wry sense of irony when boys tell me that while gaming they are communicating; they use an instant messaging platform called Discord. But the term “discord” itself underscores all that’s inharmonious and problematic about such so-called communication. These social worlds, inhabited by people using aliases and avatars, offer boys no anchor; they are by definition ephemeral, disembodied, and often discordant.

Adolescent boys are also having more trouble with intimacy because they are watching porn instead of navigating their way through real-world crushes and dating. Haidt claims we are seeing “a mass psychological change” in boys. Boys have become more fearful and anxious. In a 2015 study, “a staggering number of them said that they had no close friends, that they were lonely, and that there was no meaning or direction to their lives.” 

Whether our girls are on Instagram or our boys are on Discord, Haidt argues that children are not equipped “to handle the virality, anonymity, instability, and potential for large-scale public shaming of the virtual world.” 

The many books I’ve read (often shared with you over the years) on social media have repeatedly suggested a correlation between social media and mental health. Haidt is the first author I’ve encountered who has so unequivocally and persuasively stated “that social media use is a cause, not just a correlate, of anxiety and depression.” In fact, when people reduce social media use for as little as three weeks, their mental health improves. 

So how do we fix this? How can we support middle schoolers, so that they don’t become the next anxious generation? Toward the end of his book, Haidt lists concrete measures that schools and parents can put in place, all of them free. Acting on these suggestions collectively will help give back childhood to our middle schoolers rather than having them held hostage by Silicon Valley moguls.

Promote play-based activities

Promote a play-based environment rather than a phone-based one. This means that parents need to relinquish some of their worry about stranger danger by letting their children play outside without adult supervision. Letting kids solve kid-sized problems is very important for developing their social skills. At school, we require recess because free play not only develops social skills, but it also supports cognitive development. Team sports are great for practicing collaboration, but remember that an adult coach or referee is enforcing the rules and adjudicating disputes. Balance team sports with opportunities for free play.

Limit online activities

Right now, “the average 8-to-12-year-old spends between four and six hours a day on recreational screen activities.” Every minute online presents an opportunity cost for a kid who might have spent those moments in the real world nurturing in-person relationships, playing, or most importantly, getting some extra hours of sleep. Designate no-device zones in the house, like the kitchen during dinner or in bedrooms beginning about an hour before bedtime and extending to morning.

Use parental controls and content filters

Limit children’s exposure to adult content online. On the internet, 13 is the age of adulthood; consider all of the inappropriate material that a child could therefore encounter—legally—on a host of sites. Furthermore, younger kids open accounts on TikTok and Snapchat before the age of 13 because these sites don’t do any age verification. Tech companies have developed algorithms that hook children, and you need tools to fight back.

Rely more on your child

Children need to feel a true sense of purpose and meaning. Encourage them to watch a younger sibling while you run an errand; have them make dinner or do tasks in the yard. Essentially, give them responsibilities whenever you can. Feeling needed is an antidote to anxiety. Feeling independent builds children’s confidence.

Stop surveilling your children

It’s difficult for children to feel truly independent or to take healthy risks when the smartphone has created what Haidt calls “the world’s longest umbilical cord.” Children need true autonomy. If you are tracking their bike ride, checking an online gradebook, or reading their texts, you are not giving them the independence they need to feel self-sufficient and whole. 

Spend less time yourselves on your phones

Parents can model how to relate with technology in healthy ways. If you watch your child play basketball while scrolling through Facebook or texting with a friend, or if you bring your phone into a restaurant where you’re ostensibly enjoying quality time with family, you are not modeling being present. Human beings are embodied creatures who need to live, move, and interact in the real world. 

Sometimes, I hear from educators and parents that the “train has left the station” and we need to accept that kids relate to one another differently than we did in our childhoods. But Jonathan Haidt doesn’t believe that narrative and neither do I. He believes that just as we learned about the dangers of cigarettes and required a minimum age for purchasing them (while banning them from schools, where kids often used to be permitted to smoke) we need to create new rules around smartphones now that we know their dangers to children.

Haidt argues that kids should be 16 before they go on social media because much of their identity formation work is finished by that age. He doesn’t think that kids should get smartphones before high school. He’s right.

When I see students making eye-contact in the hallways, talking at lunch, and playing at recess (without any phones in sight), I see them at their most content. It’s a gift to provide kids with a free-range childhood. Why wouldn’t we want to do all we can to give our kids this sort of environment? To ask the question is to answer it. 

The only way we can make this vision a reality is through collective action. Parents should delay the purchases of smartphones and smartwatches. If parents need to reach children for drop-off and pick-up information, they should buy them basic flip phones. 

Most importantly, parents need to encourage and support each other so that phone-free kids can be surrounded by other phone-free kids. Collective action is the only way to make this work. FOMO should become a fear of missing out on what other parents are doing to protect their own kids from big tech. Let’s start a movement together.

About Elaine Griffin:

Elaine Griffin has worked at University School of Milwaukee since 1998, serving as the head of Middle School since 2019. Previously, she served as the assistant head of Upper School and taught Upper School English. She has both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in English, and served as the president of the Whitefish Bay Library.

Explore recent articles