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Jonathan Haidt Wants You to Take Away Your Kid’s Phone

🌈 Abstract

The article discusses Jonathan Haidt's views on how smartphones and social media have negatively impacted the mental health of teenagers, especially girls. Haidt argues that the rise of smartphones and social media has "rewired" childhood and led to an epidemic of mental illness among young people. He proposes raising the age of "Internet adulthood" to 16 to protect minors from being exploited by tech companies.

🙋 Q&A

[01] Haidt's Argument on the Impact of Smartphones and Social Media

1. What is Haidt's key argument about how smartphones and social media have impacted teenagers?

  • Haidt believes that the rise of smartphones, social media, and addictive digital content has "rewired" childhood and led to a sharp increase in rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm among teenagers, especially girls.
  • He argues that the design of smartphones and social media platforms, with features like push notifications and algorithmic feeds, make them highly distracting and addictive for young people, leading them to forgo social interaction for solitary digital engagement.

2. How does Haidt compare the impact of smartphones and social media to previous technologies like TV?

  • Haidt argues that the impact of smartphones and social media is fundamentally different from previous technologies like TV. While TV also raised concerns about its effects, the mental health data did not show the same sudden and dramatic decline that has occurred since the rise of smartphones and social media starting around 2012-2013.
  • He contends that the ability of smartphones and social media to constantly ping and distract young people, as well as the performative and comparison-driven nature of social media interactions, have had a more detrimental impact on teenage mental health.

3. Why does Haidt believe girls have been hit harder by the rise of smartphones and social media?

  • Haidt explains that girls tend to gravitate more towards visual social media platforms like Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest, where they engage in more performative and comparison-driven interactions. This plays on their insecurities in a way that the more coalitional and gaming-focused activities of boys do not.
  • The asynchronous nature of these social media interactions, where girls wait for comments and likes from peers and strangers, also contributes to the negative mental health impacts.

[02] Haidt's Proposed Solutions

1. What is Haidt's main policy proposal to address the harms of smartphones and social media?

  • Haidt proposes raising the age of "Internet adulthood" from 13 to 16, so that minors cannot legally sign contracts to give away their personal data and be exploited by tech companies without parental consent.

2. How does Haidt justify this policy proposal, given concerns about moral panic and overprotection?

  • Haidt acknowledges the critique that this could be another moral panic, like concerns about comics and TV in the past. However, he argues that the data on the sudden and dramatic decline in teenage mental health, as well as the growing body of experimental evidence, makes this situation fundamentally different.
  • He contends that while we should be skeptical of moral panics, the harms of social media are now well-established, and the benefits do not outweigh the costs, especially for minors who lack the cognitive development to resist the addictive design of these platforms.

3. How does Haidt's proposal to raise the age of "Internet adulthood" fit with his previous critiques of overprotection in the real world?

  • Haidt explains that his argument is not about overprotecting children in the real world, but rather about underprotecting them in the virtual world. He believes we have vastly overprotected children from risks in the physical world, but vastly underprotected them from the harms of social media and digital exploitation.
  • He sees raising the age of "Internet adulthood" as a necessary protection for minors, just as we have age restrictions for other potentially harmful activities like driving or drinking.

[03] Haidt's Political Positioning

1. How does Haidt respond to the critique that his views reflect a conservative political agenda?

  • Haidt rejects the characterization of his views as socially conservative, stating that he still considers himself a liberal in the tradition of John Stuart Mill and a "David Brooks sort of meliorist" who wants to use social science to improve institutions.
  • He argues that his concerns about the ideological homogeneity of academia and the suppression of dissenting views are not inherently conservative, but rather reflect a desire for rigorous, open debate to improve the quality of research and institutions.

2. What does Haidt see as the root cause of the ideological imbalance in academia, particularly in the social sciences?

  • Haidt explains that the imbalance towards left-leaning views in academia, especially in the social sciences, is partly due to self-selection based on personality differences between those with a conservative versus liberal temperament.
  • However, he argues that the problem is not a need for perfect balance, but rather the lack of any meaningful dissenting voices willing to challenge conclusions that align with progressive views, even when the evidence may be lacking.

3. How does Haidt position his work in relation to the culture wars and debates around issues like trigger warnings and microaggressions?

  • Haidt states that his concerns about the overprotection of students and the suppression of dissenting views on college campuses, as expressed in his previous book "The Coddling of the American Mind", were not driven by a conservative agenda, but rather a desire to uphold the principles of liberal democracy and rigorous academic inquiry.
  • He sees his work as aiming to help important institutions like academia function well, by promoting understanding across ideological divides and using social science to identify and address real problems, rather than fueling moral panics.
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