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Why Are American Teenagers So Sad and Anxious?

Derek is joined by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, to discuss the effects of social media and the evolution of parenting

Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images

The United States is experiencing an extreme teenage mental-health crisis. It is one of the most troubling and fascinating social phenomena in the country today. From 2009 to 2021, the share of American high-school students who say they feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from 26 percent to 44 percent, according to a new CDC study. This is the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, joins the podcast to explain why. Haidt is the author of The Righteous Mind, and the coauthor of The Coddling of the American Mind. He and Derek debate the role of social media, the evolution of parenting, and the deep root of anxiety in modern life. Part of their conversation has been excerpted below.

Derek Thompson: It’s really important for people that are coming to this podcast not particularly interested in hearing the argument that social media and smartphone usage is having this negative effect, to understand that we have timing, we have correlation, we have surveys, and we have experimental data.

My question for you—and this to a certain extent is a million-dollar question—is what’s the mechanism? To be fair, we have freaked out about technology basically every time there’s new technology. Plato said writing was bad for us. Trithemius said that the printing press was bad for us. What is social media doing to teenage minds that is having this negative effect?

Jonathan Haidt: Well, like many complicated phenomena, when you radically change childhood life, there are a variety of mechanisms, a variety of paths by which this can be harmful.

What I’m finding from talking to girls and reading about this is it’s not just, “Oh, you look at everyone else’s perfect life,” they have filters and they only pick their best moments. And of course your average is always worse than their best. So we all know about that. The social comparison, that’s a big process.

But I think the most poisonous, dangerous, damaging process is you post photos of yourself, your body, your face for strangers to rate … and then the pain you feel when people make a critical comment, or when they say nothing at all.

So I think what we have here is a platform that is unsafe at any speed. People talk about how to tweak it. “Well, let’s hide the ‘like’ counter,” is what Instagram tried. But let me say this very clearly: There is no way, no tweak, no architectural change that will make it OK.

We didn’t know this in 2012. We thought, “Oh, what a great outlet for creativity.” But now we do. We have this mental health catastrophe unfolding, there is no other explanation.

DT: I have other explanations that I think are, I used this metaphor before, ingredients in the jambalaya. But I think it’s important to begin with this ingredient, because I really do think that social media is just an enormous part of young people’s lives. And this brings me to my no. 2 explanation.

My no. 2 explanation is that the rise of youth sadness has something to do with the decline of social life for teens. And that has to do with the fact that social media use has a displacement effect. Teens spend, according to some surveys, between five and seven hours a day on their phones, most of which is spent on social media. And that’s 40 percent of their waking hours. And it is as the Matthew Gentzkow study that I just mentioned, it’s displacing time with friends and family. So I want to ask you how important you think this displacement effect is as a culprit for rising youth sadness?

JH: I think it is huge and it’s much worse than you say, because it’s not just displacing, it’s more than that. So to talk about this one, here’s where we have to talk about normal mammal development, because mammals have this unique life plan. We have big brains, we’re very social, and we have live birth, a huge investment by the parents. But there’s a long period of childhood play; puppies and kitties play a lot. And human children play a lot for many, many years.

And humans have this really interesting pattern where our growth actually slows down between around age 7 and 12, and then we hit a growth spurt. And this is kind of a timeout period of physical growth to allow for cultural learning. So all over the world, once kids reach around the age of 7, they can take the cattle down to the river, they can scavenge and scour and learn hunting, they’re copying adult behavior patterns, but they’re still very, very playful.

So this is a crucial period of brain development and social development, age 7 to 12. And all over America and everywhere, Canada, U.K., I always ask when I give a talk, “At what age were you let out?”

And I just say, “If you were born before 1982, tell me at what age could you go and play with no adult supervision?” And the answer is always 6, 7, or 8. And me and others, we grew up during the crime wave. There was a lot of crime in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, but kids went out and played unsupervised. And then all of a sudden in the ’90s, we freak out about child abduction, even though the crime rate is plummeting.

We say, “It’s too dangerous for you to go out.” And of course they can be on television, they can be on computers. But then when the iPhone comes in and social media comes in, now this is so fun and so addictive, and there’s kind of a reinforcement pattern with the touch screen that is much more addictive than anything on a computer, which is not a touch screen, or on a television screen, which is not responsive at all. The way I see it, it’s like kids need millions of experiences of conflict, getting lost, struggling with something, failing in a low-stakes environment. That’s what play is all about, play is what develops our brain. But what we did beginning around 2009 was we put all of our kids on experience blockers.

That is, we said, “All that experience that you’re supposed to be getting, going out with your friends, and making a fort in the woods, and learning how to shoplift or not shoplift,” whatever it is, “all the experience that kids are supposed to get, let’s just stop that.”

DT: And to be clear, just to jump in here, everything that you are saying is backed by data. Compared with their counterparts in the 1990s, early 2000s, today’s teens are less likely to go out with their friends by their own admission. This is the CDC asking kids, “How much time are you spending with your friends?” That has gone down. The share of kids getting driver’s licenses has gone down. The share of kids participating in youth sports—this isn’t in self-reports, these are the youth sports leagues saying how many kids are signing up for youth sports—that has declined as well.

So you have less sociality, you have less going out, and you have less literal play. Also I think it’s important to say that, although you point out this is more than just displacement, it does seem to be displacing sleep. The share of high school students who say they get eight or more hours of sleep per night declined 30 percent between 2007 and 2019.

And to me, when I think about the mechanisms here, because I want theories not only of what is happening, but why, like how are the dominoes clicking into each other?

Like being around people, it’s play, it teaches you resilience, of course, but it’s also like a social tonic, it’s a social medicine. I’ve had sad moments in my life. I’ve had sad years in my life. And I know, for me, that what makes me happy is being around people that I love the most. And so if you live in a stressful world, and growing up is so stressful—it will always be filled with ennui, there’s no innovation that can get us around that. But if we take away sociality, if we take away hanging out with people in person, then you keep the disease and you remove the social tonic, you remove the medicine of just being with the people that you love. And that’s the part that really worries me the most about youth being sucked and funneled into the screen of a phone.

This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Jonathan Haidt
Producer: Devon Manze

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