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The Great Rewiring of Childhood

The Anxious Generation

I know I’m getting old and all that, and I’m aware this means that I’ll be tempted to look unfavorably at people who are younger than myself. I know I’ll be tempted to consider what people were like when I was young and to stand in judgment of what people are like today. Yet even with all that in mind, it’s undeniable that the younger generation today is different from the generations that came before it. That difference is expressed in many different ways, though perhaps the ones we notice most are the levels of anxiety experienced by young people along with their relationship to social media.

This has long been a subject of disquieted fascination to Jonathan Haidt, who many know as one of the co-authors of The Coddling of the American Mind. In his new book The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, he links the two factors (technology and anxiety) and says “the members of Gen Z are the test subjects for a radical new way of growing up.” This radical new way of growing up is what he refers to as the Great Rewiring of Childhood. Essentially, beginning in the late 90s, children began to be raised in a world that was radically different from the world as it had been before. It was a world in which young people grew into adulthood being constantly formed by new devices and apps. And in Haidt’s telling, these devices and apps did far more harm than good.

He says there are four technology-based trends that together generated the Great Rewiring: the spread of high-speed internet in the early 2000s; the arrival of the iPhone (followed by its many imitators) in 2007; the introduction of social media and the later creation of the “like” and “retweet” capabilities in 2009; and the combination of the front-facing camera with Instagram in 2010-2012. 

With these pieces in place, “Gen Z became the first generation in history to go through puberty with a portal in their pockets that called them away from the people nearby and into an alternative universe that was exciting, addictive, unstable, and … unsuitable for children and adolescents.” Here’s why: “Succeeding socially in that universe required them to devote a large part of their consciousness—perpetually—to managing what became their online brand.” Hence, “they spent far less time playing with, talking to, touching, or even making eye contact with their friends and families, thereby reducing their participation in embodied social behaviors that are essential for successful human development.” In other words, the commitment to technology interrupted their social and emotional development and maturation. 

There’s a second plotline in the Great Rewiring and it is the way parents, beginning in the 80s and 90s, began to overprotect their children. Where children develop best when they are given a measure of freedom and allowed to face risk and make decisions, parents began to overprotect their children, denying them developmental opportunities that had been available to previous generations. Unable to roam and play freely, children instead gravitated to computer-based and then phone-based forms of play. Haidt’s central claim “is that these two trends—overprotection in the real world and underprotection in the virtual world—are the major reasons why children born after 1995 became the anxious generation.”

That is his claim, but can he prove it? In my assessment, he does. Haidt is a non-Christian social psychologist, so relies on an evolutionary understanding of humanity to explain, for example, why children need free play to develop and why men are particularly drawn to pornography. And though I disagree with much of his methodology, I agree with many of his conclusions—conclusions that are often far easier to reach through a biblical framework than a secular one. (Which is to say, I don’t think evolution is necessary or even helpful when considering why men are drawn to porn; the Bible has a better and more compelling answer.)

Haidt begins by setting the context in a chapter he ominously titles “A Surge of Suffering.” He shows how teens are becoming increasingly miserable and suffering increased rates of depression and mental illness. From here he moves to the backstory and, in three chapters, tells how childhood was transformed by fears of safety and a gravitation toward solo, indoor play. In four chapters he describes the Great Rewiring, pausing to show how boys and girls have both suffered, though in different ways—girls especially through the rise of Instagram and chasing impossible standards of beauty and boys through the ubiquity and captivating power of pornography. Both became anxious and, in many ways, ill-equipped to thrive in adulthood.

With the descriptive part of the book behind him, he advances to prescribing ways that we should respond. He suggests four reforms that parents and other adult authorities would do well to consider: Children should not be given smartphones before high school; children should not be given access to social media before the age of 16; schools should be phone-free; and children should be given far more unsupervised play and childhood independence. Of course, many of these reforms must be determined on a community (or even national) basis more than an individual one, so he offers some potential ways to advance communally.

The Anxious Generation is a sobering and challenging book that advances many of the concerns raised in previous bestsellers like The Coddling of the American Mind, iGen, and The Shallows. It aptly shows how technology and overprotection have combined to both shape and harm an entire generation. Encouragingly, it also provides clear and well-informed instructions for parents and other adults that can help today’s young people escape the system and live healthier lives. I recommend the book and its instructions to anyone, but especially to parents. 

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