Jonathan Haidt, Teen Anxiety, and Smart Phones: Why I am Skeptical

From Conversations with Tyler, Jonathan Haidt on Adjusting to Smartphones and Social Media (Ep. 209):

In The Anxious Generation, Jonathan Haidt explores the simultaneous rise in teen mental illness across various countries, attributing it to a seismic shift from a “play-based childhood” to a “phone-based childhood” around the early 2010s. He argues that the negative effects of this “great rewiring of childhood” will continue to worsen without the adoption of several norms and a more hands-on approach to regulating social media platforms.

For the past few years, sociologist Jonathan Haidt has embarked on a crusade warning of the link between smart phones and teen anxiety, which has gotten attention and support by many leading media publications and academics. Similar to how Ralph Nader’s warnings over car safety galvanized the left during the ’70s and whose legacy lives on as the most infamous election spoiler ever, the link or nexus of social media, smart phones, and teenage anxiety has likewise mobilized center-right/left.

Showing insufficient concern is not uncommonly met with anger on either side of the aisle. But there are a couple notable problems with Haidt’s hypothesis:

1. Similar to self-reported physical pain, what it means to feel anxiety or anxious is subjective. Anxiety for someone living through the Great Depression will mean something different than anxiety as experienced by someone alive today. Feelings which may have been assumed to be normal a century ago could be labeled or perceived as anxiety today. Perhaps people felt equal or worse anxiety a century ago but were better at suppressing it, or simply did not have a diagnosis or label for it. Merely giving a name or label to something means more people will identify as having it.

2. The data supplied only goes as far back to the early-to-mid 2000s, so it’s hard to determine if this uptick of anxiety is cyclical or secular. It’s possible that self-reported anxiety over the long-term exhibits an oscillatory pattern, so the posited link between smart phones or social media and anxiety may merely be spurious. Instead, we’re on the up-swing of the latest cycle, of many cycles.

3. Regarding the paucity of data as discussed above, the epidemic of teen anxiety can also be explained, in part, by better record keeping and availability of data. It’s not unreasonable to assume that society has gotten better at assessing and tracking teen mental health today compared to a century ago, when such data did not exist, worse or incomplete record keeping, or before concerns over teen mental health were raised. Having more data means it’s possible to draw more conclusions. If you poll people about concerns of alien invasions, suddenly you will get people showing concern about aliens that otherwise such concern was never voiced because it was never asked.

4. Only focusing on anxiety overlooks that some people may derive considerable happiness or utility from social media or smart phones.

5. Unrealistic beauty standards predates social media, such as action movies of the ’80s or pro wrestling. How many kids aspired to be like Hulk Hogan or Arnold Schwarzenegger, unbeknownst to them that their idols were also real-life steroid users.

But I don’t want to dismiss Haidt’s argument altogether. Whereas movies are infrequent and wresting may only air once or twice a week–to Haidt’s point–social media is more pervasive and is always on and accessible thanks to smart phones.

It was uncommon to see big, ripped guys in the ’80s, but they are a dime a dozen on social media, so it seems deceptively obtainable or common, yet the drug usage it entails to get to that state is often omitted. Undisclosed steroids and stimulants are the bread and butter of many fitness influencers on social media.

There is nothing realistic about looking like a bodybuilder in everyday life. Look at many of the popular sitcoms of the ’70s; sure, there was no obesity, but the physiques were pretty underwhelming too, typified by ‘spaghetti arms’ and tight short-sleeve shirts like a Nintendo Wii-fitness animation character. Strength training was not a consideration. It’s a positive that people are more concerned about fitness, but this also may entail more envy in the pursuit of an unobtainable idealization of the perfect body.

Hogan and Schwarzenegger are performers, but authenticity is the sine qua non of influencer culture, which is the opposite of scripted Hollywood or worked wrestling. Top social media influencers are experts at making their success seem organic, obtainable, and relatable, or that ‘hustle culture’ is the ticket to millionaire riches–unlike Hollywood, in which it’s implicitly understood that many of today’s top stars had a lot of help and luck along the way. Moreover, Hollywood does not try to be relatable. There is always a sort of aloofness or distance that comes with the silver screen.

In influencer culture, instead, it’s not uncommonly rich parents who secretly fund the ‘self-made’ lifestyles of today’s e-hustlers and Tate wannabes. I can understand how someone who is impressionable could fall for this.