Is Jonathan Haidt Right About Social Media Rewiring Kids’ Brains??

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A few weeks ago, I talked about a study that refuted a key part of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and in the comments a lot of you recommended the podcast “If Books Could Kill,” which I did end up checking out and I liked, so I’m 1) passing the recommendation on to the larger audience, and 2) swearing that I am NOT trying to step on their toes by discussing yet another popular science book that appears to be, um, flawed?

I’m talking today about Jonathan Haidt’s latest tome, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness. Haidt is a business school social psychologist at NYU whose work specializes in the evolutionary roots of moral behavior, with one of his landmark findings being the idea that people tend to have gut feelings about what is and isn’t moral, and that they invent post hoc logical reasons for their beliefs.

He uses the metaphor of a rider on the back of an elephant: the elephant (your gut reaction) goes where it wants to go, while the rider (your conscious mind) makes up stories about why you really wanted to go in that direction. I’m honestly not sure if he invented this metaphor before or after the “monkey riding on the back of a tiger” metaphor that I’ve often heard to explain free will, but the idea is exactly the same. A lot of good research has shown that we humans tend to do something and then come up with the reason for it a split second afterward.

I think that Haidt’s research is useful and thought-provoking. My friend PZ Myers agrees with me, or at least he did way back in 2007 when he engaged in a little debate with Haidt on The Edge’s Conversation. He liked Haidt’s thoughts on morality and its possible origins among humans (Haidt arguing that it likely arose as an adaptive trait that binds us together as a community) though disagreeing with Haidt on the idea that the New Atheists at the time, like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris in their recently published books, were also arguing from emotion and engaging in rhetorical tricks, like cherry picking research that fits their narrative.

“The presence of passions should alert us that the authors, being human, are likely to have great difficulty searching for and then fairly evaluating evidence that opposes their intuitive feelings about religion.”

“The view that “we” are virtuous and our opponents are evil,” Haidt writes, “is a crucial step in uniting people behind a cause, and there is plenty of that in the new atheist books. A second crucial step is to identify traitors in our midst and punish or humiliate them.”

It’s really, really interesting to reread this debate 10…sorry, I mean 17?? Years later, as so many New Atheists went out of their way to try to prove Haidt correct. That said, I do think there’s a lot Haidt got wrong back then, but I’m not going to sit here and give a point by point analysis of a debate that’s nearly…sigh…two decades old. But as always if you’d like to read it, you can grab the link from this video’s transcript, which is linked in the description below. Or maybe PZ wants to do an updated reaction, which I would read voraciously. Just throwing it out there, PZ!

Anyway, my point is that I appreciate Haidt’s research and agree with his thoughts on emotional moral reasoning, even while disagreeing with him on other topics, particularly outside his area of expertise. And so I was actually considering picking up his latest book, despite having not read his previous books. The Anxious Generation is apparently about how social media is making kids’ lives worse, something I personally agree with on, well, on a gut level. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve read about some kid getting caught doing something stupid or cringey online and said “Man, I am SO GLAD social media didn’t exist when I was a kid!” I’m sure I did cringey stuff, and I bet I would have been even more cringey on the internet. And so I think about it and I’m like, okay, either I would have been completely roasted by the entire planet or I would have been horrifically self-conscious to the point where I wouldn’t have expressed myself at all. Or maybe some terrible combination of both of those things. I’m not saying things were better in the ‘80s and ‘90s–we had lawn darts and lead and asbestos and the tv show Dinosaurs, which still gives me nightmares today. But I do FEEL like I had a kind of freedom that many kids today don’t: freedom to be a dumbass kid without it following me around the rest of my life, freedom to not get bullied by kids who don’t live in my zip code, and even a more literal freedom to ride my bike to school or play outside in the woods all day with no tether despite the fact that in the ‘80s every parent seemed positive that their child was going to be kidnapped by a stranger. It’s like all the parents were saying “Well sure, inevitably someone will rape and murder one of my kids but what am I going to do, hire a babysitter while I’m at work? Yeah right.”

In fact, I’d like to pause here to share that at the age of maybe 4 or 5? I was the cover girl for a service that tried to scare parents into videotaping and fingerprinting their children in case they’re kidnapped. Every time I see this I surprise myself with how hard I laugh at “she didn’t come back.” I can’t believe that Muffin the cocker spaniel didn’t protect me from the predator.

So yeah I am at least EMOTIONALLY on board with the thesis that social media is not great for kids, and I would be interested in a book exploring the evidence for and against that (since my more rational second thought would suggest that just because kids these days have a different experience than I had, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s WORSE), and if the evidence tilts in favor of that thesis, also discussing possible solutions, since I am also very skeptical of systemic top down fixes, like laws banning TikTok, or what have you.

Despite my interest in the topic, I was a little skeptical of Haidt’s ability to do it justice. After all, what does childhood development and social media have to do with the evolution and practice of morality? And so, before the book came out, I looked into his other bestseller that is ALSO not about morality and is ALSO about why the kids are not alright: “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.”

In that book, Haidt posits that the problem with kids these days is not social media, but our overly liberal universities, where professors give trigger warnings, and allow students to protest speakers they don’t want hosted on campus, and get fired for having unpopular (conservative) opinions. Lower taxes? Deregulation? No, you know which opinions.

Now, that’s a premise I find insipid, and could not even imagine wasting my time reading. I have very little time to read these days and that time is already currently filled with the Count of Monte Cristo, a 600,000 page doorstopper about how morality is NOT a gut feeling but is in fact just destroying everyone who has ever done you wrong, including their parents, children, and pets. I think. I’m not done yet. It’s been six months.

So, good news: you all turned me onto If Books Could Kill, and the hosts, Michael and Peter, have already covered The Coddling of the American Mind in full. And boy am I glad I listened to them talk about it instead of bothering to read it myself. I highly recommend you listen to the entire episode because they add important context that Haidt apparently leaves out, like when Haidt describes one professor for being unfairly targeted as a racist without mentioning, well, her virulent racism.

Haidt also cites the case of one Brett Weinstein as an example of an unfairly silenced professor. LOL.

All of that didn’t make me feel great about this new Haidt book, but I was still willing to give him a chance. Maybe he would tie it into his actual expertise! Or maybe he would rely upon the scientific evidence presented by the experts in the field he was talking about!

To find out, let’s ask Candice L. Odgers, “associate dean for research and a professor of psychological science and informatics at the University of California, Irvine. She also co-leads international networks on child development for both the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto and the Jacobs Foundation based in Zurich, Switzerland.”

She writes, “Two things need to be said after reading The Anxious Generation. First, this book is going to sell a lot of copies, because Jonathan Haidt is telling a scary story about children’s development that many parents are primed to believe. Second, the book’s repeated suggestion that digital technologies are rewiring our children’s brains and causing an epidemic of mental illness is not supported by science.”

God dammit.

Okay, so again I recommend you read the entire review over on Nature because it is very detailed and links to lots and lots of scientific evidence to back up what she’s saying. Essentially, though, she says that Haidt posits an overly simplistic cause for a very complex problem: teen mental health appears to be getting worse, and at the same time they are spending more time on social media. His assertion is that social media is a primary cause of that decline in mental health, that social media companies “have rewired childhood and changed human development on an almost unimaginable scale.” In fact, Odgers explains, the consensus of experts in clinical psychology, child development, and media studies (none of which are Haidt’s areas) agree that IF social media is bad for children, the effect is small, to the point that it is dwarfed by factors like economic inequality, the opioid epidemic, racial and other discrimination, and school shootings and other forms of violence.

There have been dozens of systematic reviews and meta-analyses that support this. In fact, there are so many that support it that in 2022 a team of European psychologists did a systematic review of systematic reviews. After examining “seven meta-analyses, nine systematic, and nine narrative reviews…results showed that most reviews interpreted the associations between social media use and mental health as ‘weak’ or ‘inconsistent,’ whereas a few qualified the same associations as ‘substantial’ and ‘deleterious.’”

Is it completely out of the question that social media is bad for kids? Absolutely not. But right now, there is a LOT of peer reviewed research on this topic and the vast majority have found no significant impact.

The studies that DO show correlation between depression and social media often suggest that the causation goes in the other direction than Haidt argues: depressed kids spend more time on social media.

It’s certainly possible that the experts are wrong about this topic. But if they are, the correction is most likely to come from within the field, the same way that if the majority of physicists are wrong about the existence of dark matter, they probably aren’t going to be proven wrong by a sociologist dabbling in astrophysics for a book deal. They’ll be proven wrong by physicists doing careful and informed work.

Haidt’s critics, the experts in this field, point out that it’s not just that he’s wrong, and it’s not just that he’s inciting a moral panic along the lines of “video games are damaging children” or “rock music is damaging children” or “television” or “radio” or “books” are damaging children. It’s more problematic than that, because there really is a crisis right now in our children’s mental health, and if you tell parents that the solution is just to take kids’ phones away, or ban TikTok, then they’ll do those things and think “job well done.” Meanwhile, our kids will still be taking time out of 5th period algebra to do active shooter drills. They’re still going to go without dinner some nights. They’re still going to be denied healthcare due to lack of money or conservative ideology. The problem will still be there but we will no longer be looking for the solutions.

Odger’s review in Nature was fairly short and I was interested in how she would respond to certain pointed questions, so I found a great debate between Odgers and Jim Steyer of Common Sense Media that followed a US surgeon general warning about the potential risks of social media on kids. Listen to this absolutely brutal beginning:

Odgers admits that she actually can’t stand social media, and agrees that kids are experiencing a mental health crisis. The issue is that despite what she EMOTIONALLY wants to believe, the data just is not there to make that causative link. And if you listen to that debate, and I hate to say this because some people just aren’t good debaters and it shouldn’t reflect on the actual argument, but it’s actually really clear who is arguing from emotion and who is arguing from data. Odgers cites systematic reviews and a broad understanding of the data while Steyer cites “what we all know” and “what is obviously true.” He also gets way more angry. And, like Haidt, he cherrypicks the data that fits what he wants to believe.

You know, a wise man once said, “The presence of passions should alert us that the authors, being human, are likely to have great difficulty searching for and then fairly evaluating evidence that opposes their intuitive feelings about…(um) religion.” Or moral panics.

Anyway, I’ve taken the “Anxious Generation” off my library hold list. But if you’ve read it, let me know what you thought in the comments! And I’ll let you know if the Count of Monte Cristo ever achieves true moral clarity, in, I don’t know, three more months maybe.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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