Home Money Smartphones Do or Don’t Harm Kids! So Which Is It?

Smartphones Do or Don’t Harm Kids! So Which Is It?

by Elijah
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Smartphones Do or Don’t Harm Kids! So Which Is It?

The anti-smartphone movement is having a moment. On March 25, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill banning children under the age of 14 from social media platforms. In February, the British government argued for tighter guidance to prevent children from using their smartphones at school. This past year, grassroots organizations liked this Smartphone-free youth have risen to national prominence as parents worry about the damage screens and social media can do to young people’s mental health.

Behind all these concerns lies a terribly difficult question: what impact do smartphones have on our mental health? The answer depends on who you ask. For some, it’s proof that smartphones are our well-being erodes is overwhelming. Others refute that is not all that strong. There are blogsThan counterblogswith each often citing the same scientific papers and drawing opposite conclusions.

To this maelstrom we can now add two books, published within a week of each other, that stand squarely on opposite corners of the fray. In The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illnesssocial psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt lays out his argument that smartphones and social media are the main drivers of the decline in young people’s mental health seen in many countries since the early 2010s.

The early 2010s were pivotal, Haidt argues, because that’s when smartphones really started to transform childhood into something unrecognizable. In June 2010, Apple introduced its first front-facing camera, and a few months later Instagram launched on the App Store. For Haidt, this was a fateful combination. Children were suddenly always online, always visible, and connected to each other in ways that were often detrimental to their well-being. The result was a ‘tidal wave’ of anxiety, depression and self-harm, particularly affecting young girls.

However, according to Haidt, smartphones are only part of the problem. He thinks children in the West are being prevented from developing healthily by a culture of ‘safetyism’ that keeps children indoors, protects them from risks and replaces rough, free play with adult-oriented organized sports or – worse – computer games. As evidence of safetyism in action, Haidt contrasts an image of a 1970s merry-go-round (“the largest playground equipment ever invented”) with modern playground equipment designed with safety in mind, leaving children less likely to learn from risky game.

This is Haidt’s Great Rewiring in a nutshell: childhood has gone from predominantly game-based to phone-based, and as a result, young people are less happy as children and less competent as adults. They are, Haidt seems to argue, more so boring. American high school students today are less likely to drink alcohol, have sex, have a driver’s license or work than their predecessors. Wrapped in cotton wool by their parents and absorbed in their online lives, young people are not making the healthy transition to adulthood, Haidt argues.

These arguments are known from Haidt’s 2018 book, Pampering the American spirit, co-written with journalist and activist Greg Lukianoff. It’s not just that American children are experiencing worse mental health than before, Haidt suggests, but that their transition to adulthood is now being hampered by modern parenting and technology. “We once had a new generation addicted to smartphones for at the onset of adolescence there was little room left in the flood of information flooding their eyes and ears for guidance from mentors in their real world communities during the day puberty,” Haidt writes in his latest work.

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