This article is the second in a two-part series analyzing social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s research showing smartphones and social media damage young people’s development. To read Part One, click here.

The average teenager spends 40 hours on “screen-based leisure activities” every week, according to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt — a massive time-suck damaging young people’s social and mental development.

In his new book, The Anxious Generation, Haidt argues indiscriminate use of smartphones and social media afflict Gen. Z with social deprivation, sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation and addiction.

Haidt’s findings help contextualize and explain many citizens’ perception of young people as fragile, unmotivated and socially inept. Indeed, his book suggests many lacked the developmental nutrients to learn how to overcome adversity, form healthy relationships and process linear information.

Though his research paints a bleak picture of modern childhood, Haidt believes parents can roll-back the harms of unchecked screen use. His new action plan, dubbed “Free the Anxious Generation,” proposes four ways parents can divorce their kids from technology and foster their healthy development.

At its core, Haidt tells journalist Bari Weiss, adolescents’ early exposure to harmful technologies is a collective action problem — parents don’t want their child to be the only one without a social media account or a smartphone.

Haidt hopes to solve this problem by rallying groups of parents to implement four new technological norms, expounding,

I can almost guarantee the rates of mental illness will come down within two years [in any community that practices these four norms]. It’s going to be really, really good for the kids.
No Smartphones Before Highschool

Parents who hold off on buying their kids smartphones sidestep many of the physical and mental harms associated with a screen-filled culture, including:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Exposure to addictive apps and content
  • Temptation to communicate with friends online, rather than in-person.
  • Overemphasis on entertainment and instant gratification.

Haidt suggests parent mitigate their children’s isolation by banding together with other families.

A simple step you can take is to start a text thread with the parents of each of your kids’ best friends. Just say, “Hey, I heard this podcast with Bari Weiss and Jon Haidt and they said [we shouldn’t allow our kids to get a smartphone] until high school. I’d like to do that. What do you guys think?” The other parents are probably also concerned.

On The Anxious Generation’s website, Haidt provides sample texts and emails parents can send to facilitate dialogue with other families.

Saying no to smartphones doesn’t mean forgoing communication with your middle schooler, either. Flip phones aren’t associated with the same harms as their more advanced cousins, according to Haidt.

No Social Media Until Age 16

The author recommends parents wait on social media even longer than on smartphones — for good reason. Teens who use social media experience more mental health problems and poorer sleep than kids who refrain. It’s no wonder, given some of the disturbing trends proliferating on apps like Instagram and TikTok.

And for all its emphasis on socializing, says Haidt, social media does not meet children’s relational needs:

Kids need a small group of three or four friends. Kids don’t need to be on a soapbox speaking to thousands of people and waiting for thousands of people waiting to judge them. That’s just a terrible thing to do to children.

Haidt says legislators can help empower parents to keep their kids off social media by forcing companies like Meta to enforce their own age restrictions.

Just last week, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 3 into law, which requires social media companies to prevent anyone under 14-years-old from creating an account. The law further requires 14- and 15-year-olds wishing to become active on social media acquire their parent’s permission.

No Phones in School

Smartphones decrease students’ academic performance and the quality of their social interactions at school. Haidt’s solution? Get ‘em out of there.

“We wouldn’t let kids brings their television sets into school and watch television during class,” Haidt says, exasperated. “Why do we let them have their phones? It’s just as distracting.”

The Daily Citizen previously reported on a Florida school who successfully implemented such a policy. Teachers reported children made more eye-contact and participated more often in class. The school’s principle said bullying decreased because kids couldn’t film humiliating videos of other students.

Haidt provides an online sample petition parents can circulate to ask their schools to go phone-free.

More Independence and Responsibility

Haidt calls this norm “the only one that’s actually hard,” because it requires parents to strategically release control of their children’s schedule and safety.

The Anxious Generation addresses a decades-long increase in parental supervision of kids — what Haidt calls “The Great Rewiring.” As parents became more concerned about their children’s safety — and more convinced of their educational prospects — they have gradually become less willing to let their children play unsupervised and unscheduled.

As time spent playing and building resilience continued decreasing into the 2010’s, kids had more time to spend on “risk-free” video games and other “screen-based leisure activities.”

When parents successfully implement the first three norms, Haidt says they must be prepared to fill the resulting hours of free time with “independence, free play and responsibility in the real world.”

The Anxious Generation Parent’s Guide emphasizes:

Kids develop social skills and overcome anxiety naturally through independence and unsupervised play. This means letting them do more activities and errands on their own, unsupervised in the world.

Haidt recommends walking to school in a group, biking to the store to get groceries, and working a part time job as good places to start.

Smartphones and social media have trapped many of our kids in gilded cages — bubbles of constant entertainment, creeping mental illness and decreasing connection to reality. The Daily Citizen, like Jonathan Haidt, believes knowledgeable, empowered parents are the answer.

We encourage you to take bold steps to protect your kids today.

You can learn more about Haidt’s efforts to free the anxious generation on its webpage. The book’s source material and research can be found under the Resources tab. Parents can find free discussion material, action guides and referral links under Take Action.

Additional Articles at Resources

The Harmful Effects of Screen-Filled Culture on Kids

‘Big Tech’ Device Designs Dangerous for Kids, Research Finds

Florida School District Bans Cellphones, Gets Results

Survey Finds Teens Use Social Media More Than Four Hours Per Day — Here’s What Parents Can Do

Plugged in Parent’s Guide to Today’s Technology

Horrifying Instagram Investigation Indicts Modern Parenting

Former Tween Reflects on #SephoraKids

Pornography Age Verification Laws: What They Are and Which States Have Them