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NYU Professor Calls for an End to the “Phone-Based Childhood”
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By: Digital Safety Alliance
March 26th, 2024

A professor from New York University says our society’s “new phone-based childhood” is making young people sick and blocking their progress toward success during adulthood. He says we “need a dramatic cultural correction, and we need it now.”
In an article in The Atlantic adapted from his new book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, NYU professor Jonathan Haidt notes that increasing rates of adolescent loneliness, friendlessness, anxiety, depression, and suicide since the early 2010s – as well as the coinciding decline in math, reading, and science scores among teens – can be connected to a parallel shift when adolescents traded in their flip phones for smartphones and transferred a bigger chunk of their social lives online, and particularly onto social media platforms designed for virality and addiction.
“Once young people began carrying the entire internet in their pockets, available to them day and night, it altered their daily experiences and developmental pathways across the board,” Haidt writes. “Friendship, dating, sexuality, exercise, sleep, academics, politics, family dynamics, identity – all were affected. Life changed rapidly for younger children, too, as they began to get access to their parents’ smartphones and, later, got their own iPads, laptops, and even smartphones during elementary school.”
While many members of Generation Z are flourishing, Haidt notes that the generation is struggling overall with mental health and lagging behind previous generations on many important metrics. They’re dating less, showing less interest in having children, and are more likely to live with their parents. They were less likely to have jobs as teenagers, and their current managers say they’re more difficult to work with. They’re also more shy and risk averse than previous generations, with that risk aversion perhaps causing them to be less ambitious.
How Did We Get Here?
Haidt aptly points out that if a generation is more anxious and depressed and is starting families, careers, and even businesses at a substantially lower rate than previous generations, then the entire society will face profound sociological and economic consequences. While he points out that many of these trends began with earlier generations, there are a few reasons why most have accelerated with Gen Z:


  • Starting in the late 1970s and ’80s, when parents grew increasingly fearful that their children would be harmed or abducted if left unsupervised, fewer and fewer kids played together outdoors, missing out on opportunities to make their own choices, take risks, resolve their own conflicts, and take care of one another. This shift ultimately made it more difficult for them to master the social dynamics of small groups, as well as master bigger challenges and larger groups later on.
  • The arrival of the iPhone (2007) and the iPad (2010), powered by high-speed internet (which reached half of American homes by 2007), made it possible for adolescents to spend nearly every waking moment online. It also essentially rewired childhood into a form that was more sedentary, solitary, virtual, and incompatible with healthy human development.
  • While some parents had concerns about what their kids were doing online – especially in regards to the risk of them interacting with strangers – there was also excitement about the potential of our new digital world. If young people were going to grow up with these technologies, many reasoned, why not give them a head start using them – especially when so many other parents were doing it? It must be OK. Parents also found it appealing that they could enjoy a restaurant, take a long car trip, or get things done around the house if they simply handed their kids a screen to play with or watch.
  • While the minimum age to open a social media account was set by law to age 13, social media platforms did (and still do) nothing to verify the age of any new users. As a result, younger children could (and did) open multiple accounts with their parents’ knowledge or permission. If parents found out about these accounts, it was too late. But since parents also didn’t want their children to be isolated and alone, they rarely forced them to shut down their accounts. “We had no idea what we were doing,” Haidt says bluntly.
Ultimately, the above factors hampered young people’s attention and learning, fueled their behavioral addiction to digital devices, and contributed to their social withdrawal. Haidt notes that, by the time Gen Z entered college, they had become “fundamentally altered” by technology.
“A simple way to understand the differences between Gen Z and previous generations is that people born in and after 1996 have internal thermostats that were shifted toward defend mode. This is why life on college campuses changed so suddenly when Gen Z arrived, beginning around 2014. Students began requesting “safe spaces” and trigger warnings. They were highly sensitive to ‘microaggressions’ and sometimes claimed that words were ‘violence’,” he says. “These trends mystified those of us in older generations at the time, but in hindsight, it all makes sense. Gen Z students found words, ideas, and ambiguous social encounters more threatening than had previous generations of students because we had fundamentally altered their psychological development.”
Breaking the Cycle

The addiction to – and negative impact of – smartphone use is even more frustrating when, as Haidt notes, so few praise and so many ultimately regret using them. He says if families, schools, and communities work together to break what he calls “collective action traps,” communities will see substantial improvements in youth mental health within two years.
He suggests the following solutions:
  1. No smartphones before high school – While each child might think they need a smartphone because “everyone else” has one, Haidt says delaying round-the-clock internet access until ninth grade (around age 14) would help to protect adolescents during the very vulnerable first few years of puberty – the years when social media use is most correlated with poor mental health. “Family policies about tablets, laptops, and video game consoles should be aligned with smartphone restrictions to prevent overuse of other screen activities,” he adds.
  1. No social media before 16 – Just like with owning smartphones, adolescents feel a strong need to open social accounts because that’s where most of their peers are posting and gossiping. “But if the majority of adolescents were not on these accounts until they were 16, families and adolescents could more easily resist the pressure to sign up,” Haidt says. He points out that the delay would not mean that kids younger than 16 could never watch videos on TikTok or YouTube – only that “they could not open accounts, give away their data, post their own content, and let algorithms get to know them and their preferences.”
  1. Phonefree schools – While most schools claim to ban phones, this ban typically means little more than not taking their phone out of their pocket during class. Research shows that most students not only use their phones during class time, but also during lunchtime, free periods, and breaks between classes – times, Haidt notes, when kids could and should be interacting with their peers face-to-face. He says schools that require students to put their devices into phone lockers or locked pouches at the start of the day typically report that the policy has improved the culture, making students more attentive in class and more interactive with one another. And published studies back up this feedback.
  1. More independence, free play, and responsibility in the real world – Haidt notes that many parents are afraid to give their children the level of independence and responsibility they themselves enjoyed when they were young, despite the fact that the rates of homicide, drunk driving, and other physical threats to children are way down in recent decades. He says part of the fear comes from the fact that parents look at each other to determine what is normal and therefore safe, and they see few examples of families sending their children out to play or run errands. If more families did that, however, then the norms of what is safe and accepted – as well as ideas about what constitutes “good parenting” – would change quickly. Haidt adds that if more parents trusted their children with more responsibility, the pervasive sense of uselessness now found in surveys of high school students might also begin to shrink. “If parents don’t replace screen time with real-world experiences involving friends and independent activity, then banning devices will feel like deprivation, not the opening up of a world of opportunities,” he says.

Haidt says the above solutions would cost almost nothing to implement, cause no clear harm to anyone, and while they could be supported by new legislation, they can be instilled even without it.
He says we can begin implementing all of them right away, especially in communities with good cooperation between schools and parents. A single memo from a principal asking parents to delay giving their kids smartphones and access social media – and in support of the school’s effort to improve mental health by going phone free – could catalyze collective action and reset the community’s norms.
“We didn’t know what we were doing in the early 2010s. Now we do. It’s time to end the phone-based childhood,” he says.