What makes me anxious about an anxious generation?

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father and son using technology together

My social media feeds are awash right now with discussion of and deference to social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Anxious Generation. It’s a tome that argues for 4 ‘new norms’ to free young people from the shackles of the smartphones and social media plague.

While a bunch of what he writes makes total sense on the surface, especially to those who grew up without the internet, when I dig into some of what he’s *actually* saying (and suggesting as solutions) I find myself pulling a monocle emoji face. 🧐

Dissenters of Haidt (and his wing woman Jean Twenge) are not suggesting we hand out iPhones at the maternity ward. No one is suggesting a TikTok free-for-all in schools. We instead encourage folks to consider how to effectively operationalise the technology under our skulls to mitigate the potential effects of the devices we choose to buy for our kids for Christmas, birthdays, Eid and Bar Mitzvahs.

Something that bugs me is that several of the ‘solutions’ (ban smartphones in schools, restrict social media until 16) fall disproportionately to women to implement and take action on. We know that women and mothers bear the brunt of the screentime mental load when it comes to monitoring, mentoring and managing devices and the huge variety of online activities that we engage in – invariably labelled bluntly as ‘screentime’.

We also know that women represent a large part of the teaching workforce and that enforcing bans is deleterious to the relationships that support engagement in learning. Don’t mind the fact that phones bans still don’t have much evidence for being effective.

These solutions also seriously fail to address how we prepare young people for the online world when they do dive (often headfirst) into the (often, rough) digital waters. Phone bans on their own, are like building a higher pool fence without checking the gate latch is working or teaching any swimming lessons. We cannot fence the ocean/internet (thought if Trump gets back in, he might try!), so it’s imperative that we explicitly teach the cyberpsychological skills to learn to surf the technological waves that keep rolling towards us.

And don’t get me started on his take on the contagion effect of gender fluidity. Because that requires an exploding brain emoji 🤯 and the magnifying glass emoji 🔎 (spoiler alert: you will find no evidence for it).

If merely talking about and being aware of gender questioning and transgendered humans creates an increase in trans folks and people who identify beyond hetero norms, then what does literally labelling a whole generation of people as anxious do to their anxiety levels? It makes me anxious just thinking about it.

Haidt’s suggestion kids need more independence, free play and responsibility I totally dig. Here’s the problem – society is easily annoyed by children, and especially teens. Governments aren’t planning for, let alone building enough space for children to play, climb and run. Some would even suggest there’s been a war on play waged.

Teenagers who create BMX tracks in lock-down get sent home. When they hang out at Westfeilds, they’re labelled mall rats, when they stay home playing Minecraft they’re ‘addicts’. State governments want to solve a housing crisis with building boxes for people to live in ‘affordably’ without any reference to liveability or green space. Then in 15 years we’ll have investigation into why young people are addicted to AR/VR/XR and ‘goggle time’.

My suggested antidote to the Haidt hysteria (because no-one ever implemented a sustainable solution while in a state of freak out) is Professor Pete Etchell’s second book Unlocked: the science of screen time and how to spend it better.

It’s for practical people who want to learn to live well (forget ‘thriving’ at this point, ‘surviving well’ is my humble goal) alongside the complexities and nuance of what we do with our screens. While there are real and present danger (which can be spotted and mitigated) of underdeveloped minds becoming reliant on and influenced negatively by online activities, there also opportunities and possibilities when we’ve been empowered with the skills required to live well, connected.

How families choose to engage with the digital world is of course entirely up to them. There is no single ‘right’ way, no solid playbook, no one size fits all approach.

My experience over the last decade is that families who use intentional, informed and intelligent strategies to master their device use, have strong communication skills and stable authoritative foundations often avoid many of the digital disasters we fear the most.

These sustainable strategies of moderation seem to stick much more strongly than the relatively fleeting fear-based restrictions that are common reactions to these shrieking smartphone-panic narratives. But that doesn’t make for much of a clickable headline now, does it?

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Jocelyn Brewer is a psychologist and cyberpsychology educator. She founded Digital Nutrition in 2013 and co-founded MetaWell in 2021. She is the digital wellbeing advisor to The Online Safety Agency. 

 

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