Review: ‘The Anxious Generation,’ by Jonathan Haidt  - Salish Current
April 11, 2024
Review: ‘The Anxious Generation,’ by Jonathan Haidt 
Dean Kahn

Free play is enjoyed by children at Kindergarten Bjellebo’s playground in Porvoo, Finland, in May 1969 (Leif Wikström,Finnish Heritage Agency, JOKA).

April 11, 2024
Review: ‘The Anxious Generation,’ by Jonathan Haidt 
Dean Kahn


Reduce screen time, increase free play time to bring kids back to health

I read a lot of nonfiction, mostly books about current issues. Political polarization. The Supreme Court. You get the idea. The topics vary but most of the books share a common feature. When I come to the last chapter — the one where solutions are offered, where reason for hope is supposed to reside— I’m usually left disappointed. 

Some authors fess up that remedies remain elusive, and fall back on “I’ve laid out the problem, you fix it.” When solutions are offered, they usually call for strong action by Congress or better decisions by the Supreme Court, both of which, these days, feel tantamount to urinating in the wind. 

So I was thrilled when I recently read Jonathan Haidt’s new book, “The Anxious Generation; How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness” (Penguin Press, 2024).

The topic — how the rise of social media explains (not merely parallels) an epidemic of social and psychological problems among children and adolescents, especially teenage girls — fits right into my wheelhouse. Kids, I firmly believe, should be allowed to be kids, not targets for corporate hucksters. I’m a skeptic when it comes to technology. I prefer real books over e-books. My phone is a basic flip model. You get the idea. 

Haidt, a social psychologist who teaches New York University, does an admirable job explaining why social media leads to depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems among young people, not that I needed much convincing. He pairs his analysis of social media with another harmful change in society, the decline of free play for children — where kids are on their own to play with their peers. With free play, kids learn how to invent fun, set rules, settle disputes and improve their social skills. 

What stands out in Haidt’s book is his commitment — along with many other educators, parents and community groups — to addressing the shortage of free play and the excess of social media. Solutions range from parents setting limits on their children’s use of smartphones, to groups of parents cooperating so their children won’t feel shunned by kids living in a phone-centered world. 

Schools can expand time for recess, and design playgrounds that “bruise but not scar,” so youngsters can develop more self-confidence. Although it’s not adjacent to a school, the new Scramble Nature Play Park at Barkley Village is a good local example, with rocks, logs and a large sandy area (with toy trucks awaiting kids to push them) the main attractions. 

Schools and communities can offer minimally supervised play zones that could be streets temporarily closed to traffic, or gyms open during bad weather. Such play zones would be low-cost supplements to more expensive fixtures like Barkley’s play park. Schools also should limit or, preferably, ban students’ access to smartphones during the school day, not just during class time. 

Other local initiatives can make it easier for kids to practice self-reliance in the real world, from making streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, to changing zoning laws so stores and businesses are easier to reach by foot or bike. 

States should clarify that letting kids act independently in an age-appropriate way isn’t tantamount to child neglect, and Congress should make it illegal for kids younger than 16, or maybe older, to open social media accounts, and require tech companies to verify the age of account holders. Current federal law sets the age limit at 13, with no credible enforcement. 

To all the local schools, parents and agencies already working to let kids be kids, I say thanks, and keep up the good work. To everyone else interested in the subject, I urge you to read Haidt’s book and check out the many resources and groups he cites. If people don’t push for change, then tech companies driven by data collection and ad revenue will continue to rule kids’ lives, rather than parents and local communities. 

— Contributed by Dean Kahn

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