Are teenagers an anxious generation? The definitive debate on mobile phones and young people arrives | Technology


The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has just released his book in English The anxious generation. Why social media is causing a disease epidemic, which will arrive in Spain on May 29 (Deusto). In one week it is the best-selling non-fiction book on the Amazon lists and the New York Times and It is third in all categories overall on Amazon. Haidt, a professor at New York University and a best-selling author, has been writing articles and collecting literature for years about a growing global teen mental health crisis. He has several documents posted on the internet (one of them, with 340 pages) where you collect the evidence. His hypothesis is that the cause of this crisis is the explosion in the use of mobile phones and social networks.

Opposite Haidt is a group of academics who believe that the evidence for what he claims is not clear. Magazine Nature posted a review from the book where he laments that it contributes to unfounded “hysteria”: “Hundreds of researchers, including myself, have searched for the kind of effects suggested by Haidt. Our efforts have produced a mix of null, small and mixed associations,” writes Professor Candice Odgers, who has been studying the phenomenon for 20 years.

This debate among teachers has become one of the most important technological challenges of the decade. Millions of parents wonder what to do and form groups where they share fears and articles. There are so many plausible arguments in favor of each side that in the end there is almost a cultural battle: those who believe that screens are above all harmful, against those who believe that there is no big deal and that each era has its moral panic in the face of new developments.

The ultimate objective of the debate is to convince legislators in the United States and Europe. Haidt has his proposals and the group of academics fears unnecessary and meaningless brushstrokes. These are the main arguments to understand the debate.

1. The difficulty of isolating the problem

Starting in the early 2010s, depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies among adolescents begin to grow. Your time also grows on-line. Haidt says this correlation is causal: time on-line causes mental health crisis.

The difference between correlation and causation is one of the biggest debates in academia, that is, just because two trends occur at the same time does not mean that one causes the other. That’s the basic fight. There are academics who say that it could be the other way around: adolescents with previous mental health problems could use their cell phones more.

Jonathan Haidt speaks at a conference in New York in September 2022.Roy Rochlin (Getty Images/Unfinished Live)

It also remains to be defined what exactly causes the problem of mobile use: Are all networks equally; Instagram, their likes and selfies; the algorithm and the passivity of consumption on TikTok; YouTube videos; the danger of porn; the infinite amount of information…?

Haidt gives special importance to the crisis in adolescent girls and the passive consumption of short videos that slow down youth activity and development. Academics who think more research is needed say it can change a lot by age, gender and country. The suicide rate has grown among teenage girls, but it has grown more among adult men. Is the cause the same?

2. If it’s not cell phones, what is it?

Nobody denies that there are more mental health problems among young people. The doubts raised by academics are of three types: one, it is very curious that they suddenly begin to believe mental health problems as if someone had turned on a switch. Is it possible that using a cell phone causes sudden generational problems? Haidt sets that beginning precisely 12 years ago for young people born after 1995: “My claim is that the new mobile-based childhood that took shape about 12 years ago sickens young people and blocks their progress toward flourishing into adulthood.” , write on TheAtlantic. That’s when everything changed: “It was in this brief period, from 2010 to 2015, that childhood in America (and many other countries) was reconfigured into a more sedentary, solitary, virtual form and incompatible with healthy human development.”

Two, this growth could be caused because there is more social sensitivity and we are more open to talking about and labeling anxiety or depression. This week, professor Margarita León asked in EL PAÍS if young people are sexist. In her response, she said that it should be taken into account that the social environment is much more egalitarian than a couple of decades ago and that the way of measuring cannot be the same as before.

And three, there are simply other causes: “Researchers cite access to weapons, exposure to violence, structural discrimination and racism, sexism and sexual abuse, the opioid epidemic, economic difficulties (due to the crisis 2008) and social isolation as main contributors,” says Odgers in Nature. It is extremely difficult to isolate variables and calculate the impact of each phenomenon on lives that are necessarily different. We are still waiting for definitive evidence.

3. The need to fall down the ravine alone

Teenagers have historically been famous for doing everything wrong. Why would this generation be different? Having the option of using the mobile phone to socialize, learn and make mistakes will be a way to become tougher, to fall off the cliff and get up like others have done before.

Haidt says no. It is not the same to endure laughter from your classmates for not knowing a square root than from the entire school for an ugly photo on Instagram. The magnitude is different and that level of criticism does not help the development of young people, who choose to shrink themselves and not face digital mobs.

The theorist also does an oral test with his university students. He asks them if they use Netflix and TikTok. Almost everyone raises their hand, more with Netflix than with TikTok. Then he asks them if they would like him to disappear. Nobody raises their hand with Netflix, but many do with TikTok.

Haidt concludes that networks are not a hidden desire of adolescents like video games or porn. It’s a collective problem. They use the networks because everyone is there, but if they suddenly disappeared they wouldn’t care so much. The problem with this continues to be how to generalize something that everyone uses differently and that cannot be reversed: when the networks reach adults, the likes and the porn will still be there.

4. Let’s do something now while we still have time

Haidt draws few lines in his comparisons: “Social media companies like Meta, TikTok, and Snap are often compared to tobacco companies, but that’s not really fair to the tobacco industry,” he writes. Haidt sees a difference: Most teenagers in 1997 didn’t smoke. Now, however, everyone is online.

The writer also admits that he could be wrong. Still, he believes that a little caution is preferable: “If you listen to those who sound the alarm and it turns out that we were wrong, the costs are minimal and reversible. But if you listen to the skeptics and they turn out to be wrong, the costs are higher and harder to reverse,” he says.

Haidt asks that families not give smartphones until high school, that young people not have their own account on networks until they are 16 years old (yes, for example, use YouTube but without registering so as not to give information to technology companies about your tastes) and No cell phones at school to promote personal relationships and education. Haidt has a fourth non-technological request: since the 80s, parents have been too protective. Young people should explore the world more alone, on their own, both by playing and chatting in parks. This effort must go in parallel with not giving out mobile phones.

This is where the positions come closest. Academics believe that networks and mobile phones can have effects. But they want to delve less into large campaigns or legislation and more into holding the platforms accountable: “Given the amount of time that young people spend on the networks, considerable reforms must be required,” says Odgers.

Haidt met with Mark Zuckerberg in 2019 and asked him to please do something to not allow accounts for children under 13 years of age. Zuckerberg told him: “We will look at it.” And until today. The focus on technology is a more complex challenge, but European and US legislation is making progress.

5. The suffering of adults

One of the historical differences in this moral crisis with previous ones is that this time adults are just as affected by cell phones as adolescents. There were fewer adults playing video games or reading violent comics a few decades ago. But now it is the adults themselves who see how the mobile phone has conquered their lives. And they don’t know how to control it at all. This fear affects your perception of how your children will handle it.

Nobody denies that these platforms have brought benefits to minorities, social movements or simply comfort and entertainment. But, like all technology, it has its dark side. Should its access to adolescents be limited as a society? Should it be left in the hands of families? Should technology companies be forced to align? Now the definitive debate begins, although part of the evidence is missing.

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