Psychologist Calls On Parents To 'End The Phone-Based Childhood' Amid Disturbing Evidence Of Harm

All over the world, a childhood mental illness epidemic began in tandem with the advent of smartphones and social media.

depressed teen girl with smartphone Antonio Guillem /

We've all heard that smartphones and social media can do harm to kids.

However, a New York University social psychologist said that now that we're nearly two decades into the social media era, the evidence is so abundant that it calls for drastic changes.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt urged parents to 'end the phone-based childhood' amid disturbing evidence that smartphones harm children.

It's not exactly news, of course, that smartphones, screens, and social media harm all of our brains, let alone kids' — we've been talking about this for years now. 


But it's one thing to hear a story now and then and another to see the evidence compiled in one place, as NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt does in his just-released book "The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness." It's downright alarming.

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He said it is past time that parents make drastic changes to protect their kids. "We didn’t know what we were doing in the early 2010s," Haidt wrote in a recent article for The Atlantic. "Now we do. It’s time to end the phone-based childhood."

Haidt said a 'teen mental illness epidemic' began in the 2010s, right when social media and smartphones became ubiquitous.

Citing numerous studies and CDC statistics, Haidt explained in his book and article that while rates of conditions like depression and anxiety remained mostly static through the 2000s, they skyrocketed by more than 50% over the course of the 2010s.

Even more alarming are the rates of suicide among tweens and teens during the 2010s: For all kids aged 10-19, suicide rates rose 48%, and for specifically girls 10-14, they rose a shocking 131%.



But more insidious problems grew in the 2010s, too — loneliness and friendlessness skyrocketed among teens, while academic achievement plummeted, a trend that seems to be escalating among Gen Alpha, according to many teachers. And now that many Gen Zs are adults, we can see how these problems are manifesting later in life.


Gen Z adults who grew up in the 2010s are shyer, more anxious, and more socially isolated than those who came before them.

It's well known that Gen Z adults have much higher rates of mental illness than other generations, and Haidt pointed to data showing they are also more shy and risk-averse, more socially isolated, especially with respect to dating, less confident, less successful — the list goes on and on.

And because all of these changes are not just American phenomena — similar trends have emerged in countries all over the world — Haidt concluded that it must be something universal that is causing it, not just problems unique to the U.S.

Hence, he laid the blame at the feet of two forces. First, the advent of smartphones and social media — the neurological, psychological, and developmental harms of which are well established by myriad scientific studies.



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Second, the loss of independence and exploration for kids due to parenting changes since the 1980s (like so-called "helicopter parenting"). 

"In the 1990s, American parents began pulling their children indoors or insisting that afternoons be spent in adult-run enrichment activities," he wrote in The Atlantic. "Free play, independent exploration, and teen hangout time declined." 

"Once young people began carrying the entire internet in their pockets, available to them day and night, it altered their daily experiences and developmental pathways across the board," he went on to say. "Friendship, dating, sexuality, exercise, sleep, academics, politics, family dynamics, identity — all were affected."

Haidt urged parents and educators to make drastic changes to stop the harm smartphones seem to be doing to kids.

"Delaying round-the-clock internet access until ninth grade (around age 14) as a national or community norm would help to protect adolescents during the very vulnerable first few years of puberty," he wrote. 


To do this, Haidt proposed parents and those who work with children combat these disturbing trends with four main changes:

  1. No smartphones before high school, suggesting parents opt for simple flip phones in order to remain in contact with kids.
  2. No social media before the age of 16.
  3. Phone-free schools, which Haidt noted, tend to have myriad positive benefits in schools, with even some students saying they prefer a phone-free experience.
  4. More independence, free play, and responsibility in the real world.

Haidt noted that parents today tend to think the latter recommendation is dangerous, "even though rates of homicide, drunk driving, and other physical threats to children are way down" compared to when today's parents were kids.

But he claimed this last recommendation may be the most important one of all when it comes to making these changes actually work. "If parents don’t replace screen time with real-world experiences involving friends and independent activity, then banning devices will feel like deprivation," he wrote. 


He cautioned that the goal should not be to create a completely screen-free childhood — that's not realistic. But, he said,  "smartphones are experience blockers," so it's important to strike a balance that "create[s] a version of childhood and adolescence that keeps young people anchored in the real world while flourishing in the digital age."

This is all a tall order, of course. But given the way smartphones and social media are harming us adults, let alone young people's still-developing brains, it might be long past time to start rethinking things.


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John Sundholm is a news and entertainment writer who covers pop culture, social justice, and human interest topics.