Book ReviewsChildren, Teens and DigiTech

The Anxious Generation – Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist.

This is different from a CyberPsychologist, in that social psychology takes a broader view of issues (including digital technology) that may or may not affect a collective group of similar people within an environment or context.

A CyberPsychologist will focus more on the individual level of how a person (who has specific traits that are similar to traits others have) interacts with and is impacted by various types of digital technology. 

There are likely to be a number of CyberPsychologists who will disagree with a lot of the concepts, propositions and conclusions within this book. I would suggest that this is partly because the worldview and direction of study differs quite substantially, but also partly because he has not focussed on Digital Technology as his primary psychology speciality.

For those who do disagree with his approach to, and misreading of, the data the suggestion is that he is cherry picking research that fits his theories while ignoring research that contradicts it. Correlation does not imply causation.

Being a relatively new research area, there are many nuances, subtleties and new findings in CyberPsychology that a social scientist may not take into account when diving into these topics. 

I don’t agree with everything he lays out in this book. He seems to veer off the main topic on several occasions, creating a few tenuous links back to his topic or argument. Additionally, some of his explanations are based on his very specific worldview that does not necessarily link back to other research. It seems a one-sided argument, that does not consider or weigh up other contradictory evidence.

However, he does present a number of compelling arguments and data to the reader that showcases a correlation between the launch of smartphones / social media and the increase in mental health conditions amongst teens in the last few decades. 

  • He talks through how the role ‘helicopter parenting’ has delayed the development of a sense of independence amongst teens and how the fear of real-world dangers has played into parents giving their children smartphones at a younger and younger age. 
  • He includes how Big Tech exploits very specific developmental stages and present the case of how different online elements affect teenage girls and teenage boys differently. 
  • He finishes by providing a number of suggested solutions for parents, schools and institutions and how we may be able to reverse the social trends we are witnessing amongst younger children.

Although the book is written for a USA audience, and based a mostly on data and research from the US, the theories and solutions he presents are still mostly relevant for other English speaking Western audiences.

Whether you agree or disagree with Mr Haidt on the issues and solutions he presents in his book, it is still worth a read. But, like any argument, it is always worth balancing it with those who have an alternative perspective on the same issues around how Big Tech, smartphones and social media may be influencing us and our teens.

We still have so much to learn about the longer-term impact of Digital Technology on human behaviour and psychology, especially amongst children, but we also know more than we did a decade ago. 

You can read a review in favour of his book in The Atlantic here, and a critique of his theories, research and book in The Daily Beast here.

Below are a few interviews Jonathan Haidt has conducted explaining more about the theories, concepts and solutions he presents throughout his book.

About Jonathan Haidt:

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

He is the author of The Happiness Hypothesis, The Righteous Mind and co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind.