The Anxiety Generation - Youth, Smartphones, and Dealing with the Challenges

13.05.2024|Christian Kreutz

Jonathan Haidt released a much-debated book called "The Anxiety Generation", where he presents compelling evidence of how youth behavior has changed with the advent of smartphones. You can listen to an interesting conversation Haidt has with Tyler Cowen on a podcast, where they offer very different standpoints. I believe Haidt provides compelling evidence of the negative effects on youth, for instance, when kids are exposed to an endless stream of TikTok videos. If you look at the PISA education stats from the recent survey, you can also see a "surprising" correlation between the decline in writing and math skills and the mass adoption of smartphones in 2012 (see chart below).

Every parent can tell you a story about how difficult it is to limit access to smartphones for youngsters. Anecdotally, many worry that this high consumption of social media is changing social behavior. China has now made its already strict regulations even stricter:

The rules are incredibly specific: kids under eight, for instance, can only use smart devices for 40 minutes every day and only consume content about "elementary education, hobbies and interests, and liberal arts education"; when they turn eight, they graduate to 60 minutes of screen time and "entertainment content with positive guidance."

Despite its power for global collaboration, social media has undoubtedly led to many challenges, such as disinformation. It is difficult for adults alone to navigate through these challenges, let alone for kids. We are in a challenging adoption phase where we need to figure out how to better deal with new technologies and find effective ways to gradually introduce adolescents to the Internet. Not in the strict Chinese model, but definitely with much more protection for kids (e.g., from gaming addiction or cyberbullying) and better guiding principles. We also need to better understand the desires of youth around social media, as Danah Boyd once said: "Teens Are Addicted to Socializing, Not Screens."

Chart by OECD