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Sociologist Finds Smartphones and Social Media Harm Kids in These Four Ways

This article is the first in a two-part series analyzing social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s research showing smartphones and social media damage young people’s development.

In his latest book, The Anxious Generation, renowned social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues smartphones and social media damage young people’s mental development — and contribute to Gen Z’s unprecedented levels of mental illness.

American teenagers conservatively spend between six and eight hours on “screen-based leisure activities,” Haidt writes, with most spending at least five of those hours on social media services like Instagram, TikTok and YouTube.

In The Anxious Generation, Haidt identifies four ways excessive screen time compromises young people’s success in the “real world.”

Social Deprivation

Haidt says healthy children need face-to-face, unsupervised group play to develop social skills resilience. But kids and teens have increasingly forgone these crucial interactions since social media and smartphones went mainstream around 2013.

Haidt sites data from the American Time Use Study showing people ages 15 to 24 hung out with friends an average of 45 minutes per day in 2020 — more than an hour and 20 minutes less than they did in 2013. Time with friends fell so drastically among this age group between 2018 and 2020 that a graph of the data shows no abnormal decline in social interaction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Courtesy of Jonathan Haidt and “The Free Press”

In lieu of face-to-face interactions, most teens socialize virtually with vast numbers of online friends. In an interview with Bari Weiss, Haidt compares this to swapping a balanced diet for white rice at every meal.

He expands,

Sitting alone in your bedroom consuming a bottomless feed of other people’s content, or playing endless hours of video games with a shifting cast of friends and strangers, or posting your own content and waiting for other kids (or strangers) to like or comment is so far from what children need that these activities should not be considered healthy new forms of adolescent interaction.

That’s why, says Haidt, kids with thousands of “friends” on social media might still feel lonely or depressed. It’s also why teens have a hard time interacting with their peers face-to-face — online interactions don’t teach them how to resolve conflict, set boundaries or absorb exclusion and rejection.

Sleep Deprivation

Haidt confirms a large body of research showing teens who use smartphones and social media get less sleep than their peers who abstain — but says it’s more serious than parents might think. Teens who get less than nine hours of sleep during puberty:

  • Struggle with short-term memory and attention span.
  • Get worse grades and comprehend less class material.
  • Demonstrate slower reflexes and less capacity to make good decisions.
  • Experiences more anxiety, irritability and mental health problems than their peers, often leading to difficulties forming or maintaining relationships.

He further warns that prolonged lack of sleep can disrupt teenagers’ hormones, which can cause weight gain, mental illness and other health problems.

“The screen-related decline of sleep is likely a contributor to the tidal wave of adolescent mental illness that swept across many countries in the early 2010’s,” Haidt concludes.

Attention Fragmentation

Teens get an average 192 notifications from social media and communication apps every day — each one a temptation to stop the task at hand in favor of something more exciting.

The distracting draw of the smartphone is so powerful, one study found, that its mere presence in a classroom decreases a students’ academic performance.

Haidt says these constant interruptions compromise young people’s ability to pay attention, and by extension, develop the part of their brain responsible for self-control, decision-making and critical thinking.

His argument references and builds on research from journalists like Nicholas Carr, whose 2010 book The Shallows suggests exclusive exposure to disjointed, bite-sized pieces of information — like those we get from the internet — weakens our ability to think deeply and for long periods of time.

Addiction

Haidt suggests that manufacturers and companies like Meta intentionally make smartphones and social media apps addictive, arguing,

The creators of these apps use every trick in the psychologists’ tool kit to hook users as deeply as slot machines hook gamblers.

As the Daily Citizen has previously reported, both technologies tap into users’ hormonal pleasure system by rewarding viewers for spending time on them—triggering a release of the brain’s pleasure chemical, dopamine.  Our brains crave dopamine, especially when it’s easy to come by, which makes users more likely to use the phone and its services more often.

Haidt references this stark quote from Stanford University addiction researcher Anna Lembke:

The smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7 for a wired generation.

He is careful not to suggest that all kids become addicted to social media. Only between five and fifteen percent of social media users develop true “problematic use,” —  a term psychologists use to describe people who require social media to maintain their relationships and work or school performance.

But Haidt says relatively low rates of problematic use don’t change the fact that social media alters every user’s brain, calling it a “psychological dependency [that] alters developmental pathways.” Put in perspective, he tells Weiss,

Can you think of any consumer product we would ever let our kids use if there was a one-in-10 chance that our kids would get hooked and have problematic behavior that would interfere with other parts of their life, and, if they do it for two or three hours a day over many years, could change their brain development?

Social and sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation, and addiction — these are what Jonathan Haidt says unchecked smartphone and social media usage has unloaded on Gen. Z. The Anxious Generation is perhaps one of the clearest pictures to date of the ways technology erodes young people’s mental health and well-being.

But for all Haidt’s unflinching acknowledgement of technology’s harms, he’s optimistic that conscientious parents can turn back the clock. More on Haidt’s vision for parenting and reducing children’s smartphone use in Part Two.

Additional Articles and Resources

The Harmful Effects of Screen-Filled Culture on Kids

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

Florida School District Bans Cellphones, Gets Results

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

Plugged in Parent’s Guide to Today’s Technology

Do Your Kids Have Healthy Phone Habits