Are smartphones harmful to youth mental health? Experts torn on Jonathan Haidt’s book

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A new book has embroiled the academic community in a heated debate over whether spending time on smartphones affects young people’s mental health and, if so, how.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s “The Anxious Generation,” published last week, argues that the smartphone-driven “great rewiring of childhood” is causing an “epidemic of mental illness.” He suggests four ways to combat this: no smartphones before high school, no social media before age 16, no phones in schools; and prioritizing real-world play and independence.

“I call smartphones ‘experience blockers,’ because once you give the phone to a child, it’s going to take up every moment that is not nailed down to something else,” Haidt told TODAY.com, adding, “It’s basically the loss of childhood in the real world.”

Phones and social media have become a ubiquitous part of everyday life. But as much as researchers study their impact, there remains no easy answer to how exactly these technologies affect the mental health of kids and teens.

Haidt’s book quickly has generated a wave of both support and backlash, including a viral review in the scientific journal Nature that argues Haidt is contributing to a “rising hysteria” around social media and screen time that’s unproductive in addressing the “real causes” of teen depression and anxiety.

“We have a generation in crisis and in desperate need of the best of what science and evidence-based solutions can offer,” psychologist Candice Odgers wrote in her scathing review. “Unfortunately, our time is being spent telling stories that are unsupported by research and that do little to support young people who need, and deserve, more.”

Over the past decade, scholars and politicians have grown increasingly concerned about the potential impact of social media and screen time on young people. A Senate hearing in January grilled the CEOs of several major social media companies on a variety of topics related to child safety, including their platforms’ impacts on youth mental health.

Also in January, California introduced a bill aimed at protecting children from social media addiction. And last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a ban on children under 14 joining social media, which takes effect next January.

Research linking social media use to poor youth mental health led U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to issue an advisory last year warning of social media’s potential harms to child and adolescent well-being. Up to 95% of youth ages 13 to 17 say they use social media, according to the report, with more than one-third saying they use it “almost constantly.”

Some academics and scientists remain unconvinced that current evidence shows a causal link between social media and poor mental health. Christopher Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University, said he believes the concern is part of a recurring moral panic largely driven by older adults.

He pointed to a cyclical pattern in which disruptive new technologies — from TV to video games to, more recently, generative AI — almost always undergo periods of uproar over their potential harms. He said the buildup of concern around smartphones started slower than most, only taking significant shape in the late 2010s.

But the toothpaste can’t be squeezed back into the tube. The kids who are on smartphones and social media now will be using those technologies well into old age, Ferguson said, and it’ll be their turn to “freak out” once a new, unfamiliar technology threatens to displace their habits.

“I just think this is how it is now. It’s just a matter of getting used to that,” Ferguson said. “For some reason, society always wants to throw a temper tantrum when a new thing comes along. And eventually, like all temper tantrums, they go away.” 

But researcher Jean Twenge, author of “Generations” and “iGen,” said there’s a “reasonably robust” consensus among academics that smartphones and social media are at least partially linked to the rise in teen depression, self harm and loneliness.

She said she believes the pushback comes from a smaller group of academics whose arguments imply that screen time and social media are harmless. Unlike Ferguson, Twenge said she believes the skepticism around them will continue to grow over time.

“The critics in this area need to answer one important question,” said Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University. “If smartphones and social media are not behind the increase in teen depression, what is? Because over and over, the answers that they have given have not been supportable.”

Ninety percent of this debate is basically just back-and-forths about different studies that are subtly designed differently and create totally different results.

-Joseph Bak-Coleman, an associate research scientist at the Columbia School of journalism

Joseph Bak-Coleman, an associate research scientist at the Columbia School of Journalism who studies collective decision-making, said part of why the effects of phone and social media use are so difficult to study is because research subjects cannot be fully isolated from the impact of these technologies.

This leads to conflicting research results, he said, as even individuals who eschew social media and smartphones still live within networks of people who do use them — and in a world already shaped by them.

As Bak-Coleman puts it:Ninety percent of this debate is basically just back-and-forths about different studies that are subtly designed differently and create totally different results. And then everyone fights.”

While social platforms and regulators have an obligation to figure out how to protect children and teens, he suspects any restrictive protections would be a “nightmare” to enforce. Measures such as removing access to phones entirely could cause different troubles in a world where kids rely on cellphones to contact their parents, he said, and where many aspects of life now take place in the digital realm.

And because the average effects of social media use might also look different from the effects on those who are most at risk for certain harms, Bak-Coleman said it could be more worthwhile to hone in on specific concerns instead of trying to identify a broad trend in how phones impact mental health.

“Rather than asking, is it a net negative or positive, which is an absurd discussion,” he said, “it’d be much nicer if we could ask: What are the impacts? To who? And which thing does it, and how can you change it?”

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