Five children sit on a classroom windowsill, each one using a smartphone.

The Anxious Generation: It’s time to protect children against social media

In his bestselling book The Anxious Generation, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt examines the decline of teenagers’ mental health over the last few decades. To understand teenagers, Haidt looks back at their childhood, especially at the effect of social media.   

As Haidt puts it, children in early 2010s were the “canaries in the coal mine” of the digital age. His thesis is that childhood quickly and profoundly changed in the digital age. How he gets there is explained in this one-page summary

This book might be a good read for you, but one fact remains: in 2024, all parents struggle with HOW to help kids manage the “social-media world.”  

Here are three key takeaways and a list of potential solutions to help alleviate “the Anxious Generation.”

Fact #1: Free play is essential to children’s optimal development

The fact that children must play to be healthy physically but also cognitively, emotionally, and socially is often lost. As Haidt puts it, “All mammals need free play, and lots of it, to wire up their brains during childhood to prepare them for adulthood.” Active free play is not only “fun” in early childhood it is how children build their brains

And the goodness doesn’t stop there. Active play promotes increased physical activity and enhances skills necessary for academic and life success, such as improved attention, self-regulation, and executive functions. As my mom knew when she told me to “go play outside,” children who move every day tend to be calmer, and they also tend to eat and sleep better. 

Fact #2: The play-based childhood is on the decline

Haidt explains that in the early ’80s, a new trend appeared. Parenting shifted from letting children run and play outdoors with other children to a desire to protect them from all risks, real or imagined. Supervised and organized play dates became the new norm.  

By removing risks, parents and caregivers took away the most essential part of childhood. “The loss of free play and the rise of continual adult supervision deprived children of what they needed most to overcome the normal fears and anxieties of childhood: the chance to explore, test and expand their limits, build close friendships through shared adventure, and learn how to judge risks for themselves,” Haidt writes.

This “protect-at-all-costs” trend persists, but there are signs that society is recognizing the need to allow and encourage children to engage in free play. One sign that the pendulum might be swinging is the recent position statement from the Canadian Paediatric Society that “unstructured play, particularly outdoor risky play, has a crucial role in the physical, mental, and social development of children.”

It is always wise to follow a physician’s advice.

A group of four kids stands outside, each wearing a backpack and using a smartphone.

Fact #3: The smartphone-based childhood is on the rise

No big news here. Since the early 2000s, smartphones have grown in popularity. The problem is that what makes them attractive is what makes them addictive. Young people use their smartphones mainly to access social media platforms and rarely to make phone calls. And the issue is that these social media platforms are addictive by design. 

Those who work in the technology sector have been aware of the issue for a while. To quote this article from 2018, “Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, and Bill and Melinda Gates have put age restrictions on their nephews and their children with regards to using hand-held devices like smartphones, while Steve Jobs would not let his young children near iPads, his creation.”

Many parents know the issue but don’t know how to address it. And here again, some positive actions are being taken. One example is that four school boards from Ontario are suing major social media platforms. They claim that students are facing an “attention, learning, and mental health crisis” due to “prolific and compulsive use of social media products” like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok.

Haidt concludes that the shift from a play-based to a smartphone-based childhood—what he calls the “great rewiring of childhood”—has led to a surge in anxiety disorders and depression in teenagers.

Haidt explains that, when it came to parents, “Few of us understood what was happening in children’s virtual worlds and we lacked the knowledge to protect them from tech companies that had designed their products to be addictive. For this reason, we ended up overprotecting children in the real world while underprotecting them in the virtual world.”

It’s time for “collective actions for better childhood” 

This shift in the essence of childhood is worrisome, if not truly scary, for most parents. Significantly, few solutions are brought forward. Thankfully, Haidt provides some actions that could help alleviate the types of anxiety we’re seeing in children and teenagers. What follows is an excerpt from Haidt’s excellent one-page summary of his book:

“As a parent of two adolescents myself, I worked especially hard to offer useful and non-obvious advice to other parents. My most important suggestions:

  • Give children far more time playing with other children. This play should ideally be outdoors, in mixed age groups, with little or no adult supervision (which is the way most parents grew up, at least until the 1980s).
  • Look for more ways to embed children in stable real-world communities.  Online networks are not nearly as binding or satisfying.
  • Don’t give a smartphone as the first phone. Give a phone or watch that’s specialized for communication, not for internet-based apps.
  • Don’t give a smartphone until high school. This is easy to do, if many of your child’s friends’ parents are doing the same thing.
  • Delay the opening of accounts on nearly all social media platforms until the beginning of high school (at least). This will become easier to do if we can support legislators who are trying to raise the age of “internet adulthood” from today’s 13 (with no verification) to 16 (with mandatory age verification).”

Together is better

When you look at Haidt’s recommendations, he clarifies that if parents act together, we have a fighting chance at addressing a generation of anxious children. He also emphasizes the importance of legislators putting laws in place to protect children. 

The fight to reduce tobacco usage has taught us that protecting children against an addictive product promoted to them takes time. A long time. There is no need to delay action against this new threat to the health of children across Canada and the world.  

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