[Jonathan Haidt:] ‘TikTok and Twitter are incredibly dangerous for our democracy. I’d say they’re incompatible with the kind of liberal democracy that we’ve developed over the last few hundred years.’ He’s quite emphatic about all of this, almost evangelical. Which makes me think of his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind, in which he argued about the danger of getting too caught up in your own bubble, believing your own spin. Might he be guilty of that here? Might it just be the case, I ask, that there’s less of a stigma around mental health now, so teenagers are far more likely to admit that they have problems?
‘But why is it, then, that right around 2013 all these girls suddenly start checking into psychiatric inpatient units? Or suicide – they’re making many more suicide attempts. The level of self-harm goes up by 200 or 300 per cent, especially for the younger girls aged ten to 14. So no, the idea that it’s just a change in self-report doesn’t hold any water because we see very much the same curves, at the same time, for behaviour. Suicide, certainly, is not a self-report variable. This is real. This is the biggest mental health crisis in all of known history for kids.’
People are absolutely desperate to believe that this isn’t true, but as Jean M. Twenge shows, the alternative explanations are getting less defensible by the day.
One oddity of this: People used to worry desperately about boys being immersed in gaming, but it turns out that gaming is not as bad for young minds as social media, and therefore boys are not being as thoroughly traumatized as girls. The smartphone era is bad for boys, but it’s nightmarish for girls.
My guess is that parents who continue to provide smartphones for their kids are, epistemically speaking, indistinguishable from those who declare that the 2020 Presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. They cannot now back down; they have made themselves invincibly ignorant. Their sunk costs are just too great for them to consider evidence. They’ll keep doing what they’re doing, no matter the suffering their children undergo.
Now, these people are not invincibly ignorant in the proper sense of that term: The truly invincibly ignorant are not culpable because they cannot remedy their ignorance. I am using, and perhaps abusing, the term by employing it to describe parents for whom the admission of tragic error is psychologically impossible.
It’s noteworthy, I think, that in his current and forthcoming work Haidt links the smartphone plague with helicopter parenting: the very same parents who fret ceaselessly about their children’s safety, and prevent them from achieving independence, also put those kids in the way of certain dangers by tethering them to social media. Worse and worse!
But: Lenore Skenazy, of Free Range Kids fame/notoreity/infamy, writes on Haidt’s Substack about a new study demonstrating … well, you can put it two different ways. You can say that while parents accept that their kids need to be more independent, their actions don’t reflect that acceptance: they just keep on helicoptering and snowplowing. But today I choose to put the point more hopefully: Though most of them cannot yet break themselves of what they know to be very bad habits — they can’t summon the courage to take away their kids’ smartphones or let them walk to the local library by themselves — at least they know these habits are bad. Which is the necessary first step, after all. Maybe if I meditate on that I’ll become less despairing.
P.S. On the other hand, I’m reading stories about how A.I. + social media = guys using their phones to make deepfake porn videos featuring their female classmates, so maybe parents who don’t take their kids’ smartphones and smash them to pieces should be sent to prison for, like, fifty years.