The Generation of Anxiety

May 31, 2024

The Generation of Anxiety

Photo by Ludovic Toinel on Unsplash

Leisa Aitken

One of the most intriguing discussions I have had in my practice as a clinical psychologist was with an articulate young patient a few years ago. He passionately argued that since humanity is most likely going to find immortality through the ultimate uploading of our brains onto the internet, we are ethically obliged to fully embrace the virtual rather than embodied world now. I thought that was an impressively creative justification for his fury at his parents’ attempts to restrict his near constant phone use.

I did point out to him that he was seeing me for diagnoses of both anxiety and depression, and this led to a discussion as to the more immediate pros and cons of his permanent attachment to his screens. Like most psychologists in Australia, my practice has been full to overflowing for many years now, and the designation of an epidemic of mental illness feels appropriate, especially for young people. Australian data shows that anxiety, depression and suicide rates have been steadily rising over the last decade.[1] US data similarly indicates that, since 2010, anxiety rates have risen an astonishing 139% for Gen Z (16-24 year olds), but only 8% for those over 50.[2] In fact, this trend of the younger generation's mental health differentially worsening compared to older adults is worldwide.

Understanding the reason for this trend is crucial if we are to offer effective responses. The subtitle of US social psychologist Jonathan Haidt's new book sums up his own conclusions well: The Anxious Generation — How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness. I have been anticipating this book for some time as Haidt is one of my trusted guides for social psychological analysis. He has a track record of deeply practical exploration of societal trends with interdisciplinary insights. He is also refreshingly insistent on robust statistical evidence. This book sits embedded in broader online companions, such as a website with supplementary research for each chapter, drawing on a constantly updated 'Collaborative Review' database of international research, as well as Haidt's substack, After Babel, with further essays and responses to critics as they emerge.

In the book itself, Haidt moves with an engaging and accessible tone between individual accounts, broad societal analysis and a devastating number of statistics on mental health. He asserts that two co-occurring shifts in the last few decades have colluded to devastate the mental health of young people—the decline of the play-based childhood and rise of the phone-based one. Haidt argues that together, these have altered the basic orientation of young people to the world. Instead of exploring it in 'discover mode'—as their unsupervised, risky free play with other children built confidence and competence—they are now in more fragile and anxious 'defend mode'. This is a state borne of fearful parents over-emphasising external dangers and filling children's lives with supervised activities. This certainly fits with a central tenet of Bowen Family Systems theory: that we are in an increasingly anxious child-focused society, with many well-meaning over-functioning parents inadvertently contributing to under-functioning children.

Haidt asserts that as smart phones loaded with social media (Instagram, YouTube, Tiktok, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Discord, Twitch, the list goes on) arrived in the hands of younger and younger children, parents were largely unaware of the risks their children faced in the virtual world. These range from social exclusion and cyberbullying to sexualised contact and pornography. The data shows that girls have borne the brunt of the mental health impact, as they are especially impacted by social exclusion and more prone to internalising disorders of anxiety and depression. However, just as damaging as potentially psychologically harmful content, is the displacement of healthy activities by the hours that both genders spend staring at a screen—a staggering 6-8 hours on leisure use of phones per day for most teens. Haidt recounts the evidence on each of four areas that are most impacted: social deprivation, sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation and addiction.

I was pleased that social media addiction was given a substantive treatment by Haidt as it is clear that technology companies intentionally design it to be addictive and so exploit the immature executive functioning of teenagers. One of my interests in these newer addictions is in my work as a researcher into the psychology of hope. A broad sense that the future has many good and meaningful possibilities is essential for hope, but addiction narrows our future focus to the next 'fix'. When the first thought upon waking through to the last action before bed is to compulsively check interactions in a virtual world, this shrinks our imaginations for hope-filled options in the real world. In my clinical work I also see an increasing number of parents struggling with their children's 'technotantrums' when they try to remove the device, once the addiction has set in. The desperation of addicts is always deeply distressing, especially when it is your school-aged child. As Haidt asserts, training parents to respond to early signs of addiction is crucial.

The mental health of young people is such an important topic that the relative simplicity of the central thesis of this book has received some strong push back. After all, both the causes of mental illness as well as societal change are complex topics in their own rights. Haidt and his colleagues (including Jean Twenge, an established psychological researcher in the field) calmly and carefully refute each objection in their detailed essays on their After Babel substack. For example, some critics have argued that the studies merely show correlation, not causation, but Haidt and Twenge point to the extra research in the online resources to demonstrate both longitudinal and experimental studies. Others have argued that the book diminishes the impact of more longstanding social issues such as the global financial crisis of 2008, and ‘access to guns, exposure to violence, structural discrimination and racism, sexism and sexual abuse, the opioid epidemic, economic hardship and social isolation’.[3] Again, in the online companion to the book, Haidt presents convincing responses that do not discount these impacts broadly, but still place the blame for the dramatic increase in mental illness in young people since 2010 firmly at the feet of phone-based childhoods. 

Australian researchers have also responded to Haidt, noting that our data indicates that self-harm by adolescents was already on the rise from the mid 1990s, and have offered other contributors such as increasing individualism and materialism, family disruption, loneliness, or a mix of broader societal stressors.[4] However, these researchers do acknowledge that, even if the 'fire' of the mental illness epidemic had begun, social media has been a potent accelerant. From my point of view, it makes sense that they interact—social media means young people have had 24/7 exposure from a very young age to the systemic evil, injustice and brokenness in the world and this overwhelm seems likely to worsen mental health.

Another perspective may be the loss of societal Judeo-Christian narratives that give a shared sense of a hopeful future. My own Australian research is relevant. When asked about their realistic hope for humanity, Gen Z respondents were significantly more likely than Gen X-ers (over 45) to respond with ‘my best hope is that things don't get worse’.[5] This exposes the assumption of an underlying narrative of decline. It is in contrast to the more hopeful Judeo-Christian narrative, which sees God acting in his world even now, and especially in the future, when all will be put to rights. Generational differences in such existential hope may also be one of the broader underlying factors associated with differences in anxiety.

The final chapters of the book are a call to action by government and media companies (raise the age of internet adulthood/social media access to sixteen and facilitate age verification) and schools (phone-free schools, including at recess and lunch). Haidt also has a very practical section for parents, suggesting giving children unsupervised free play and age-appropriate independence. Regarding technology, he proposes delaying giving a smart phone until high school, providing clear limits, content filters and supervision for technology use, and coordinating with parents of your child's friendship group.

The reality is that parenting in the digital age is so much more challenging and time consuming than it was even a decade ago. My own clinical observation is that this has taken many parents by surprise. It was not part of their parenting expectation to factor in time to keep a step ahead of their children's capacity to defy their attempts at technology control. Nor did they predict the surprisingly large amount of emotional energy required to manage their children's device use. It is easy to feel worn to a stance of uncomfortable but exhausted defeat. The Anxious Generation provides deep motivation that it is worth the individual and collective effort to protect and nurture young people in their online worlds.

As I read the book, I was wondering how church communities can best support each other in this task. There are many advantages to raising children in such a community. For example, youth group leaders, who may be more tech savvy than parents, helping young people manage their social media / technology use, and training algorithms for more noble content. Parents may decide together to have similar restrictions for social media or decide on the same time of day for multi-player games, so that their child is not feeling excluded. Christian authors Andy Crouch and John Dyer have helpful further insights in their writings.[6]

I was looking forward to reflecting a Christian perspective on this book, only to find that Haidt, although an atheist, has to some extent offered it already, in a chapter intriguingly entitled, 'Spiritual Elevation and Degradation'. Perhaps I should not have been surprised. Haidt's work on moral psychology has incorporated a longstanding interest in the world's faith traditions as they contribute to human flourishing (his book The Happiness Hypothesis best reflects this). His secular definition of 'spiritual elevation' is common in psychology: ‘those things which lead us to transcend ourselves, experience awe and become more noble’. He argues that a phone-based life diminishes what he conceptualises as 'spiritual practices' that lead to this spiritual elevation. While, as he explores, these practices are certainly shared across many religions and worldviews, their resonance with the teaching of Jesus and his followers is striking.

The spiritual practices he sees as undermined by an excessively screen-based life are: i) shared sacredness (times, spaces and objects communally deemed to be set apart); ii) embodiment (such as eating together, team sport, rituals); iii) stillness, silence, and focus (mindfulness); iv) self-transcendence (thinking of others); v) being slow to anger and quick to forgive; and vi) finding awe in nature. He even acknowledges Pascal's God-shaped hole, although he removes the longing for relationship with the divine, diluting it to an ‘emptiness that we strive to fill.’ He asserts that, ‘a phone-based life often fills that hole with trivial and degrading content.... It matters what we expose ourselves to.’ While most Christian readers will wholeheartedly agree with the practical outcomes of this section, there is of course a profound difference in the use of the term 'spiritual'. Haidt focuses on our immanent psychological wellbeing as the arbiter of their importance and denies their role in the transcendent relationship with God that believers would view as the very source of that wellbeing.

An example of a theistic spiritual perspective is in Haidt’s presentation of the negative impact of a phone-based childhood on focused attention. I happened to be reading Christian mystic and philosopher Simone Weil's Waiting for God at the same time as The Anxious Generation. Writing in the 1930s, she encouraged school-aged children to learn the skill of focusing on subjects they did not find engaging (she cites geometry, Latin and Greek!), precisely because, in the process, one is training one's attention for prayer. She defines prayer as ‘the orientation of all the attention which the soul is capable of towards God’[7] and states ‘happy are those who pass their adolescence and youth’ building the muscles of long sustained attention, to not be distracted as we speak with God. In contrast to Haidt's human-centric notion of spiritual elevation, Weil writes that ‘desire directed toward God is the only power capable of raising the soul’. Training young (and old!) minds not to be constantly distracted by flashing notifications and ads but to focus for long periods, may also be nurturing, as Weil puts it ‘this great treasure’ of nearness to God.

A further example of spiritual perspective might be in the topic of embodiment. The views of my adolescent patient who argued that he was in training for digital immortality do reflect some serious philosophical and scientific perspectives for the transhumanist future of mankind. This illuminates a potential difference in the depth of the Christian attitude to embodiment. If our ultimate destiny will be in real resurrection bodies on a restored and renewed creation rather than uploaded brains, this adds an intensity to the commitment to both living well within, and caring for, our physical bodies and this creation.

In summary, Haidt's book is an important one. It is sobering to grasp the negative impact on Gen Z especially of the demise of play-based and rise of phone-based childhood. However, it also has sufficient practical suggestions to end on a hopeful note. And there is hope. In Australia, research has shown that half of the parents of our youngest generation, Gen Alpha, are already intentionally delaying their child owning a device and setting up social media. In addition, the Australian government is now actively pursuing online age verification. These are some of the many glimpses of hope that the action for a better future that Haidt calls for in The Anxious Generation is already beginning.

 

Dr Leisa Aitken is a clinical psychologist in private practice and researcher on the psychology of hope.

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[1] Psychological distress in young people in Australia. Fifth Biennial Youth Mental Health report 2012-2020.

[2] J. Haidt, The Anxious Generation (Allen Lane, 2024), p26.

[3] Candice Odgers, ‘The great re-wiring: is social media really behind an epidemic of teenage mental illness?’, Book review, Nature Vol.628, 29 March 2024, pp29-30.

[4] P. Parkinson & L. Munro, ‘An accelerant on the fire: Social media, smart phones, and young people’s mental health.’ Publica, 2024.

[5] L. Aitken, Common Hope: A New Integrated Hope Conceptualisation Informed by Interdisciplinary and Historical Perspectives with Initial Scale Validation. Doctoral dissertation, University of Sydney, 2023.

[6] A. Crouch, The Tech-wise Family: everyday steps for putting technology in its proper place (Baker Publishing, 2017); A. Crouch, The Life we're looking for. Reclaiming relationship in a technological world (Baker Publishing, 2020); J. Dyer, From the Garden to the City: the redeeming and corrupting power of technology (Kregel, 2011).

[7] Simone Weil, Waiting for God (Harper Perennial, 2009) p61.



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