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Welcome to Mars, Jonathan Haidt
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Welcome to Mars, Jonathan Haidt

How ‘The Anxious Generation’ stumbles into a hidden problem at the heart of American childhood.

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In the conclusion of The Anxious Generation, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt admits that his newest book is not one he ever planned to write. He started exploring the many ways social media has upended Gen Z’s social life and mental health for an entirely different book about American democracy, but soon realized the subject more than merited a book of its own. And the deeper he looked, the bigger the story seemed to get. 

The story, as Haidt tells it, isn’t just about smartphones, but about a “historic and unprecedented transformation of human childhood” that began with the emergence of overprotective parenting in the 1980s. Though policymakers spent much of the 20th century making the real world safer for children (for example, through seatbelt mandates and cigarette ID laws), increasingly risk-averse parents began to strip children of freedom to explore it. Over the next few decades, parents gave kids free rein in an emergent virtual world that policymakers couldn’t be bothered to regulate. Together, these contradictory decisions have led us to a strange place where parental worries abound but are entirely misplaced. “We are overprotecting our children in the real world while underprotecting them online,” Haidt concludes.

At first blush his thesis has the incoherent ring of much Parents These Days griping—we’re doing too much and also too little, we’re paranoid but also hopelessly naive—but Haidt skillfully reconciles the apparent contradiction. In part, he argues that screens open up kids to a “firehose of addictive content” (emphasis added) that can undercut their development much like other habit-forming substances. There’s no contradiction in believing that kids should be free to walk to school but not allowed to drink alcohol. 

Haidt’s primary argument, however, is even more compelling. The Anxious Generation argues that both the misguided safetyism in the physical world and early exposure to the virtual world are warping the social process by which children are integrated into their communities. In other words, we’re witnessing a “great rewiring” of childhood itself. 

Childhood, per Haidt, should be regarded as an extended “apprenticeship for learning the skills needed for success in one’s culture.” Traditionally, most of this learning occurred not through explicit instruction but through observation and free play. Kids are wired to mimic the behavior of other children and adults in their community, particularly those who appear to be most successful. They naturally seek out play and connection with other kids, through which they develop both physical and social skills. The fact that kids inevitably get a bit scraped up (both physically and emotionally) along the way isn’t just okay—it’s good. After all, according to Haidt, kids are “antifragile.” 

To illustrate what he means by the term, Haidt recalls a 1980s experiment in which scientists attempted to build a closed artificial ecosystem that might one day allow humans to colonize outer space. It failed for many reasons, including that many of the trees in the ecosystem collapsed before maturing fully. As it turns out, trees need to be knocked about by the wind in order to grow strong roots. “Like young trees exposed to wind, children who are routinely exposed to small risks early grow up to become adults who can handle much larger risks without panicking,” Haidt writes. 

Not only does excessive screen time (much like helicopter parenting) crowd out opportunities for risky play, it also offers a funhouse mirror version of the social learning kids traditionally found in enduring real-world communities. The disembodied and asynchronous nature of interaction online makes it harder for kids to meaningfully connect with peers. Social media leverages kids’ desire to conform, but the behavior that gains prestige online doesn’t have much relevance in their real lives. Enormous, amorphous social networks offer no stable social order for children to master, yet heighten the consequences of a social slip-up. One thoughtless post, even if well-intentioned, can draw extreme derision from thousands of strangers on a platform where content lives forever. 

Therefore, the atmosphere of the virtual world is altogether more like Mars than Earth, Haidt concludes. He adds: “If a child falls down on Mars and cracks the face shield of their spacesuit, it’s instant death.” The Red Planet’s unforgiving environment doesn’t allow for the low-stakes mistake-making that human children need to build resilience. Raising them there tees them up for a life of chronic anxiety. In which case, Haidt reasons that “children must grow up on Earth before we can send them to Mars.”

The Mars metaphor is mostly effective and well-supported. A chapter on how social media has whipped the social turbulence of female adolescence into paralyzing social chaos, for example, was particularly clarifying. But Haidt does seem to get trapped in this analogy, which is probably the biggest drawback of The Anxious Generation. The internet is not on another planet; it exists on this one. 

Keeping a child out of the virtual world requires surveilling them in the real world. But Haidt shies away from acknowledging where his advice to give kids “more (and better) real-world experience” is complicated by his injunction to give them “less (and better) experience on screens.” He advises parents to encourage sleepovers and not to micromanage them, for example—unless the visiting child has a phone, in which case, take it away from him! Similarly, he stresses that protecting children from the internet means not just refusing to give them a smartphone but also keeping tabs on their use of all internet-connected devices. Surely that includes the many such devices kids are likely to encounter outside their own homes. Wishing perhaps to maintain that parents’ paranoia about dangers lurking beyond their front door is misplaced, Haidt avoids admitting that by sounding the alarm about the very real dangers of the virtual world he is giving them another reason to micromanage their kids.

Digital devices aren’t just a portal to the virtual world. They are increasingly gatekeepers to the real world. You need a smartphone to request a real Uber ride, or scan QR code menus at many real restaurants. Social media is increasingly the locus of public communication, where many people debate real-world matters and local institutions advertise real events. Any part of society that requires a smartphone to access, kids cannot navigate independently. Any matters adults conduct online, kids cannot apprentice. And our real-world social slip-ups are no less vulnerable to internet scrutiny than our virtual ones. All of that will remain the case even if we successfully keep kids offline.

So it’s not really that the virtual world has a Mars-like atmosphere, but that the internet and its related technologies have made Earth’s atmosphere more Mars-like. This suggests that preserving children’s agency in the real world while shielding them from the internet may require adults, rather than just kids, to rethink their reliance on it.

In that way, smartphones are much more like cars than tobacco or alcohol. The fact that kids don’t drive hasn’t stopped cars from transforming childhood. The rise of car time, like screen time, has crowded out opportunities for children to develop through other more physical and social modes of transportation, such as walking, biking, or public transit. Increasingly car-centric urban design has undercut kids’ ability to navigate their communities independently. The steady encroachment of cars has transformed the street from the sort of low-stakes social environment well-suited to children’s play to one in which a small misstep is deadly.

The parallel between cars and smartphones seems so obvious that I found it astonishing that, in a book about how technology is rewiring childhood, Haidt didn’t make the connection. He briefly acknowledges that car-centric design can undercut childhood independence, but then seems to forget about it in his advice for parents, especially those who live outside major cities. Though Haidt laments the rise of overly safe playgrounds, he doesn’t seem to realize that before cars, children played in the street—that is, within the actual physical environment they are learning to navigate and surrounded by the community members they are meant to apprentice. Only after kids started getting run over by the hundreds did cities shift children’s play into gated playgrounds—closed artificial ecosystems, if you will—that shut out most of the community. 

Where Haidt does mention the physical threat of cars, it’s to offer proof that we’ve largely vanquished it. Though I largely agree with Haidt that the paranoia guiding American parenting has gotten entirely out of hand, I’m not convinced concern about cars is off base. Yes, the pedestrian death rate for kids under the age of 13 has fallen by 92 percent since 1975. More than twice as many children were killed by cars while on foot or bike that year than were killed in any sort of motor vehicle accident in 2021. But the pedestrian death rate among adults hasn’t budged much since the 70s. Whereas in 1975 the child pedestrian death rate was second only to those under 70, kids are now at a far lower risk of getting hit by a car than any other age group, so Haidt is correct that “we found ways to protect children while mostly allowing adults to do what they want.” But unless American drivers at some point decided to brake only for children and not for adults, one of the ways we’ve protected kids is likely “overprotective parenting.” 

If both cars and screens pose real-world threats to children, then the story of how technology is rewiring childhood may be more complicated than the one Haidt tells. Perhaps smartphones are not a diversion from a track record of stepping up to make the world safe for kids, but the continuation of a tendency to allow technology that conveniences adults to make public life hostile to children. Perhaps overprotective parenting isn’t an entirely senseless response to a world getting steadily more welcoming to children, but an adaptation to our new life on Mars.

Stephanie H. Murray is public policy researcher turned freelance journalist and contributing writer for The Atlantic.