Cell Phones: Haidt Book


“It’s what the research shows.”

I heard those words a lot during my 30 years as a Fresno Unified School District teacher.

Sometimes they popped up at monthly faculty meetings or during day-long faculty Buy Back Days. Many times, guest speakers at our sessions would use them when introducing a novel way to lead class discussions or assess student achievement.

I didn’t spot these exact words in Jonathan Haidt’s new book—The Anxious Generation—but they would have fit in with his agenda perfectly. Subtitled How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, it closely examines and evaluates recent research into the sweeping impact of smartphone use on the young—specifically Generation Z, the cohort that was born after 1995.

The evidence that he presents is nothing short of chilling.

Generation Z, he notes, was the first to move through puberty with the 24/7 access to cyberspace that smartphones provide. Statistics reveal that, compared to earlier generational cohorts, Generation Z’s members in the United States have been marked by higher levels of anxiety and depression as well as more frequent instances of self-harm and suicide.

“Suicide rates in the United States began rising around 2008 for adolescent boys and girls,” Haidt reports, and “they rose much higher in the 2010s.”

He spots similar trends that appeared at about the same time among teens in the United Kingdom, Canada and other English-speaking countries, as well as the Nordic nations in Europe.

So what often makes smartphone use so detrimental to young people’s psychological well-being? The author delineates four key harms:

Social deprivation. Following the introduction of smartphones in 2007, research has established that young people started spending less face time with their friends. Time spent actually interacting with friends clocked in at more than two hours per day in 2012; by 2019, that number had slipped to 67 minutes a day.

Sleep deprivation. Regular smartphone use can easily lead to use late at night, which disrupts sleep patterns. Poor or insufficient sleep has been shown to increase the risk of depression, cognitive deficits and lower grades, among other things.

Attention fragmentation. The transition to adulthood involves the growth of an individual’s executive function—the capacity to forge plans and then realize those plans. Phones offer distractions—lots of them—and hence threaten the development of these important skills.

Addiction. Social media apps are often designed with the help of sophisticated behavioral techniques that nudge users to stay engaged with them. Even if many don’t get addicted, strictly speaking, they become increasingly dependent on apps to provide them with a satisfying dopamine rush. Such behavior can negatively impact their interactions with family members and peers and undermine their overall emotional well-being. 

Three years ago, Frances Haugen, a whistleblower at Facebook, released internal documents showing that Facebook management sought to keep its adolescent users engaged—and showed no concerns about the potential downsides of heightened levels of use.

But does digital technology truly lie behind the statistics Haidt has assembled? He considers other key factors that might account for them—economic upheavals, for example—but concludes that none of these alternative explanations is particularly credible. For him, the widespread access to the Internet—coupled with the marginalization of free play and an excessive emphasis on childhood safety in our society—best accounts for this troubling development.

As he puts it, “overprotection in the real world and underprotection in the virtual world” both contributed to the emergence of an anxious Generation Z.

To be sure, Haidt’s book has met with its share of critics and detractors. One of them, David Wallace-Wells, wrote a detailed critique for the New York Times a few weeks ago. He notes that data from other countries don’t always support the notion of a mental health emergency, and he takes Haidt to task for promoting a “monocausal” explanation.

Internationally, statistics definitely paint a varied picture of what’s going on. Haidt himself notes that Asian nations haven’t been affected in the way he describes for the United States, and he doesn’t even speculate as to why that’s the case.

But the evidence regarding U.S. youth, while perhaps not meriting the metaphors such as “tidal wave” and “epidemic” that Haidt employs, clearly merit our attention and our concern. It would be irresponsible to ignore them.

Regarding Wallace-Wells’ criticism of Haidt’s monocausal stance, it’s worth noting that Haidt also places part of the blame for the current circumstances on the dwindling amount of free play that children and teenagers now enjoy as well as a counterproductive culture of “safetyism.”

The quality of Haidt’s work demands that it be taken seriously.

The book’s final section suggests ways to tackle this situation. Haidt’s four central recommendations look like this:

  • No smartphones before high school
  • No social media before 16
  • Phone-free schools—which includes procedures that eliminate student access to digital devices during passing periods and lunch. By no means is he suggesting that schools ban Internet use entirely, given the benefits that Internet resources clearly provide.
  • Far more unsupervised play and childhood independence

Of course, phone use has now become entrenched in many schools, and changing that reality will take effort and earnest commitment.

Some recent developments, however, provide reasons for optimism.

In early May an article in the Washington Post reported that Illing Middle School, a site in Connecticut, has made significant progress in eliminating the nonacademic use of phones and related devices during the school day. The key to its success: the introduction of Yondr pouches. Students are now required to lock their phones into these pouches at the start of the school day, and they remain sealed until the school day is over.

At the beginning, there was pushback from students as well as their parents.

Then things changed.

One girl reported that she could now concentrate more on her classes. Several have shared that they’re now making more friends.

One of Illing’s administrators concedes that some students skirt the rules by stashing phones in their backpacks. “‘But the students also know that taking out their phones leads to an automatic detention.’”

Last year, according to the company, the number of U.S. schools using the Yondr pouch strategy climbed to 2,000.

Here in Fresno, Bullard High instituted Yondr pouches a few years ago, and individuals that I’ve spoken with feel that the move has improved the learning environment in classrooms.

Most sites in the district, however, haven’t followed suit. The district’s current phone directive, which hails from 2004, suggests that site administrators “may have the Equipment confiscated and/or the student may be prohibited from possessing the Equipment.”

It does not, however, establish a binding policy for all Fresno Unified schools. Rather, as district spokesperson Nikki Henry put it, “[S]chools have the authority to build upon these policies for what works at their campuses.”

This laissez-faire stance has led many instructors to throw in the towel when it comes to digital distractions in their midst. As one teacher put it, “More and more teachers…are resigned to just dealing with electronics mischief. The alternative is a permanent state of exasperated frustration.”

It remains to be seen how the district’s new permanent superintendent will address this issue—whether curtailing phone use will be a priority for him or (as some have speculated) Her.


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