Undoing the Great Rewiring

Criticising smartphone lemmings on public transport in an easy brag. “No-one looks up from their devices anymore”, you say producing the battered copy of Anna Karenina that accompanies your commute (Pro-tip: no-one knows what you’re reading on a Kindle and could mistake it for an iPad). 

Few will notice your ostentatious display of intellect anyway. Carriages are full of travellers refusing to look away from their screens as they board and alight, scrolling as they continue onto their final destination. 

This obsessive behaviour has spawned much recent media and literature lamenting the pernicious effects of big tech. Social media and smartphones are the culprits, vying for all of our attention all of the time.

In 2020 Tristan Harris was the movement’s poster boy following his documentary The Social Dilemma. Johann Harri followed afterwards with his book Stolen Focus. Now Jonathan Haidt is doing the podcast rounds as he promotes The Anxious Generation: his argument that digital life is making children and young adults miserable. 

Haidt focuses on Gen Z (born between 1997 – 2012). Rather than seeking sweeping regulation, he aims his proposals at under 16s (before we develop proper impulse control). He is particularly worried about teenage girls who bear the brunt of declining mental health. 

But The Anxious Generation is as much an attack on safetyism as it is an anti-tech polemic. Haidt warns that we are constantly encroaching upon children’s independence. Inspired by scare stories, we take children out of an ever safer real world and put them into an untested tech existence. 

It’s a self-fulfilling cycle. Children don’t develop proper social skills and so increasingly retreat into the safety of their smartphones.

Moral Panic? 

Haidt calls this the “great rewiring of childhood”. He compares it to an eccentric billionaire asking for children to live on Mars as the test case for the planet’s viability. “You realise this is a completely insane idea – sending children to Mars, perhaps never to return to Earth.” Yet tech companies are providing a similarly unprecedented existence by “displacing physical play and in-person socialising” and changing “human development on an almost unimaginable scale”. 

The hikikomori are mentioned as a graphic example of the consequences. This subset of Japanese men have shut themselves off from the real world. “They live like hermits, emerging from their caves mostly at odd hours when they are less likely to see anyone”. Parents leave food outside their doors and they discuss in online forums how to use a litter box to avoid unnecessary trips to the bathroom. Once thought to be a peculiarly Japanese phenomenon, Haidt argues similar young men are emerging across the Western world. 

It’s difficult to believe these solitary lifestyles are fulfilling. It’s also concerning for societies already grappling with the difficulties of population decline. Haidt argues it’s a symptom of phone-based childhoods replacing play-based ones and preventing children developing robust and resilient characters. 

But others believe it’s a moral panic we’ve seen before. Public transport was not a hive of social activity before smartphones. Riding the London Underground 20 years ago was still an exercise in avoiding conversation or eye contact with anyone else.

I also remember a similar furore over violent video games. Like social media, age restrictions didn’t stop us getting hold of Grand Theft Auto as children. Yet no good evidence ultimately emerged for the popular thesis linking virtual and real-world violence. Others point even further back to the 18th Century. Then, censorious types panicked about novels with gothic fiction accused of inculcating deleterious behaviour in adolescents. 

Correlation or causation? 

So perhaps smartphones encourage worse behaviour at the edges. The Hikikomori, already inclined to introversion, find opportunities for total retreat. But are they having such an effect on a society-level basis? 

Haidt’s grim data suggests so. Since 2010 major depression has increased by 145 percent amongst girls and 161 percent amongst boys. Among US undergraduates, anxiety has risen by 134 percent, depression by 106 percent and ADHD by 72 percent. 

More ready diagnoses of mental illness, rightly or wrongly, is undoubtedly a factor here. Aside from the 50+ demographic where anxiety has decreased, it’s risen across all age groups. But it’s most pronounced in the smartphone generation, the 18-25s and the 26-34s (whose youngest members join Gen Z).  More damningly for those attributing this to overdiagnosis, suicide has also increased amongst both genders since 2010: up by 91 percent in boys and 167 percent in girls. 

Haidt consistently uses 2010 as it’s when smartphones became more sophisticated with the addition of front-phone cameras (the start of selfie culture). It’s around then that screen time increases dramatically with the average teen now reporting 7 hours of use per day. 

But some researchers believe Haidt draws the incorrect cause from this correlation. Andrew Przybylski and Amy Orben of the Oxford Internet Institute argue that most findings around young people’s wellbeing and social media use are “little more than statistical noise”. They point to “ecological destruction, political polarisation and growing social divides” as more likely causes of this generation’s dwindling mental health. 

Haidt contends that social-political phenomena have the opposite effect. When young people rally around a cause, they become “energised” rather than “dispirited”. That rings true for anyone watching the Columbia protests. The students enjoy a festival atmosphere even as they mourn Gazan deaths. Johannah King-Slutsky’s recent call for humanitarian aid suggests the group rather enjoy role-playing as political rebels. 

Lost autonomy  

Instead, it is Haidt’s friend and contemporary Nir Eyal who is more credible in his criticisms. Eyal believes there are deeper reasons why children are attracted to tech rather than seeking to blame the tech itself. He tells me that it’s likely become a crutch for a more abstemious generation. In teetotal Gen Z, smartphones are a stiff drink. 

Eyal has previously been vocal about the overdiagnosis of mental afflictions, particularly ADHD. When it comes to more tangible metrics like suicide or self-harm, depressed teens are at greater risk of resorting to this outlet through the readily available information online. So it’s a dangerous medium for depressed teens but it’s not causing the depression. 

However Eyal also agrees with much of Haidt’s analysis. His emphasis just differs. Haidt criticises technology’s addictive properties. He highlights Tristan Harris’ description of smartphones as a “slot machine in your pocket”. They are like that by design, encouraging users to keep swiping for another dopamine hit. Eyal is less concerned about this design but joins Haidt in condemning safetyism.

Haidt illustrates this trend with the example of a mother called Debra Harrell. Debra lets her 9 year old daughter Regina play at the local park while she works shifts at a McDonald’s. One day, a passing stranger expresses concern at seeing Regina unaccompanied and calls the police. The police charge Debra with child abandonment and she is jailed for 17 days. 

This over-protectionism is visible at policy level. Right now in the UK, the MP Kim Leadbeater is proposing newly qualified drivers aged 17-24 face a curfew and other restrictions despite being statistically safer than elderly drivers. This over-infantilization of young people drives anxiety as they are deprived of any responsibility. And so the virtual world becomes an attractive respite. 

prohibition vs autonomy

Haidt’s message is therefore a nuanced mix of prohibition and autonomy. We need to restrict children’s freedom in the virtual world while increasing it in the real one. It’s as much an attack on health & safety culture as it is on big tech. By rebalancing childhood, we can create resilient adults capable of a healthy relationship with technology. 

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