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Your Kids Need Real World Experience

This book almost wasn’t. At least, it’s not the book Jonathan Haidt originally intended to write. It was going to be only the first chapter of a book exploring another subject—the destructive effects of social media on American democracy. However, the more he researched, the more aware he became of the depth and extent of the adolescent mental health crisis. This was not just an American phenomenon but one that was evident in many western nations. And spikes in teenage anxiety and depression, regardless of geographical region, synchronized in a manner that cannot be ignored.

I have followed Jonathan Haidt’s work with great interest since reading The Coddling of the American Mind, which he coauthored with Greg Lukianoff. Haidt writes regularly on the vast cultural transformation that has resulted from the proliferation of information technology and social networking. As someone interested in the relationship between technology, media theory, and spiritual formation, I’ve eagerly anticipated Haidt’s book on the role life online plays in the extremely high frequency of anxiety, loneliness, and depression in members of GenZ (the generation born after 1995). The wait was worth it.

The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness is Haidt’s explanation of the dramatic decline in teen mental health. He argues that the “Great Rewiring of Childhood,” which he locates between the years of 2010 and 2015, is hurting our kids. During this time, childhood transitioned from being primarily “play-based” to being primarily “phone-based.” Haidt writes, “By the early 2010s, our phones transformed from Swiss Army knives, which we pulled out when we needed a tool, to platforms upon which companies competed to see who could hold on to eyeballs the longest” (115). This has increased the anxiety of a generation.

Experience Blockers

Haidt, social psychologist at Stern School of Business (NYU), explains that the problem isn’t just Gen Z using smartphones. He writes, “I use ‘phone-based’ broadly to include all of the internet-connected personal electronics that came to fill young peoples’ time, including laptop computers, tablets, internet-connected video game consoles, and most important, smartphones with millions of apps” (7). Prior to the explosion of internet-connected devices, children and adolescents possessed phones, but these devices were basic (remember flip phones?), which means they couldn’t inflict as much damage as their successors.

By 2016 according to a parent survey, 79 percent of teens owned a smartphone, as did 28 percent of children between the ages of 8 and 12. Around the clock access to the internet and especially to the social network platforms that sought to capture and maintain the attention of teens through an assortment of psychologically manipulative tactics, drew teens away from the “real world” into the “virtual world.”

According to Haidt, earlier technological advancements contributed to the shift to the virtual world. The rise of cable TV and 24/7 news cycles inspired excessive fear among parents. Though well-intended, many parents have kept kids from engaging in the kind of autonomous, risk-taking play that research has shown is essential to help form kids into healthy, mature adults. Haidt argues, “Overprotection, and also smartphones, each function as ‘experience blockers,’ preventing children from getting the quantity and variety of real-world experience and challenge that they need” (98).

Haidt argues that the “virtual world” is characterized by forms of human interaction that are only decades old: (1) disembodiment, where communication is restricted to language, (2) online, asynchronous interaction via text-based comments and posts, (3) multiple simultaneous and unrelated one-to-many communications, and (4) easily entered and exited communities that do little to encourage relational investment. These are the online worlds provided by video games, social media, and even the digital communications between local friends. It turns out the real world is a healthier place.

The church has an opportunity to be an oasis of reality in a virtual world that helps people be formed more humanely.

Regardless of how realistic the virtual world seems, it can never be a substitute for the real world of embodied interaction, synchronous communication between individuals, and robust membership in real communities. Without intending to, The Anxious Generation reminds Christians that the doctrine of creation is not foremost an apologetic subject, but it has profound implications for living well. God calls the real world and the bodies he created to inhabit it “good,” even on this side of the fall. Haidt’s observations underline the importance of the work done by Christians in books like Samuel James’s Digital Liturgies, John Dyer’s From the Garden to the City, Felicia Wu Song’s Restless Devices, and Jay Kim’s Analog Christian. The church has an opportunity to be an oasis of reality in a virtual world that helps people be formed more humanely.

Religious Undertones

As I began reading, it was all I could do not to skip ahead to the eighth chapter (I resisted), “Spiritual Elevation and Degradation.” Haidt argues there that in addition to well-documented problems such as social and sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation, and addiction, “The phone-based life produces spiritual degradation, not just in adolescents, but in all of us” (199).

Haidt, an atheist, makes the rather startling admission that he “sometimes need[s] words and concepts from religion to understand the experience of life as a human being.” (201). This is because there is more to reality than the secular materialist narrative can account for. Haidt’s subscription to a naturalistic evolutionary account of human development and experience (including our religious impulses) is evident throughout the book, yet he believes that ancient spiritual practices may help us resist the destructive effects of the phone-based life.

By “spiritual,” Haidt doesn’t have anything supernatural in mind. Rather, he uses the term for actions and objects which lift us up and lead us to transcend ourselves as opposed to those that bring us down and fixate our attention on our own interests at others’ expense. He writes, “To experience more self-transcendence, we need to turn from the things in our lives that activate the profane mode network and bind us tightly to our egos, such as time on social media” (209).

Thankfully, naturalism is not essential to the book’s thesis nor to the recommendations for collective action he makes to governments, tech companies, parents, and schools to combat the existing effects of and protect future generations from the Great Rewiring. For example, he urges schools to adopt phone-free policies and encourages parents to connect with other families that value play-based childhood.

Local churches are natural settings for the kind of collective action Haidt proposes. Youth pastors and parents would benefit from considering how they can collaborate to create cultures that encourage more “real world” activity. Doing so, however, will require a willingness to forego speed, convenience, and efficiency for greater goods. It will also require the courage to withstand social pressure, even from fellow believers.

Ancient Paths

Far too many Christians ignore the relationship between technology, media theory, and spiritual formation for every believer. We have been prone to assess digital technologies primarily, if not exclusively, on the basis of the content they provide access to. Pornography (to which Haidt devotes a brief section in his chapter on the Great Rewiring’s effects on boys), is obviously cause for concern and something to be resisted. But simply avoiding sexually explicit content is not enough, we have to question the formative power of our technologies. As media theorists such as Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, and more recently Nicholas Carr have noted, media are not ideologically neutral tools. Rather, they orient us toward and foster certain values, expectations, and conceptions of how life should be. Therefore, it is not enough to simply ask whether what we are using our devices to communicate and access is blatantly sinful. Haidt shows that the phone-based life is, at least in some ways, incompatible with what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Rather than drifting with the culture’s currents, Christians must apply a biblical understanding of the goodness of creation and embodied personal presence.

Rather than drifting with the culture’s currents, Christians must apply a biblical understanding of the goodness of creation and embodied personal presence. Haidt’s book reminds us of the vital necessity of mentoring children by instruction and example, the role of hardship in producing character, the formative powers of our technological habits, and the need for community to help us address the problems of living. The church has the moral resources to help address Haidt’s concerns.

This book deserves an audience wider than those involved in the lives of children and teens. Haidt is correct that this book is helpful “for anyone who wants to understand how the most rapid rewiring of human relationships, and consciousness in human history has made it harder for all of us to think, focus, forget ourselves enough to care about others, and build close relationships” (17). The Anxious Generation is another reminder that sometimes the best way forward is to follow ancient paths.

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