The Rewiring of Gen Z’s Social Life:


1st June 2024 | 3 Views

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It’s hard to believe sometimes that smartphones and social media haven’t been around forever — but for one generation, they have. Gen Z doesn’t know a time when they weren’t ubiquitous. This cohort also happens to be the generation with the worst mental health in America . Is that a coincidence?

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has reams of data to argue it’s not. And in his new book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, he is launching a shot in what he hopes will become a full-scale war against social media and smartphone use by kids and teens.

“Our children are going on a conveyor belt,” Haidt tells me. “And a lot of them are getting shredded.

Through his research, which he also highlights on his Substack, “After Babel,” Haidt found that teen mental health has dramatically worsened after iPhone usage became widespread and Instagram was created. While he blames Instagram for causing the most initial damage of the new era — particularly in fueling declining mental health for girls — he now sees a new, graver threat. “TikTok is arguably the worst consumer product ever invented,” says Haidt, who’s a strong supporter of legislation targeting TikTok in Congress.

Without action — from parents, lawmakers, schools and tech companies — the youth mental health crisis will continue unabated, he warns. And there could be some unexpected political fallout. As Haidt puts it, with a growing sense of anxiety and dislocation, people may become more open to an authoritarian leader who promises to stop the chaos.

How and why did we as a society let the problem get so out of hand?

Because we had a very different view of these technologies in 2012. My argument is that between 2010 and 2015, adolescent life was rewired.

In 2010, almost everyone had a flip phone. They had no Instagram account because it was just invented that year. They had no high-speed data, no high-speed internet, and they had to pay for their internet usage. They had to pay for each text. So a 13- or 14-year-old kid in the year 2010 was not online all day long.

But over the next few years, Instagram becomes very popular. The front-facing camera comes out [on iPhones] in 2010. So now photographs are much more of yourself. Most people get high-speed internet, most people get an unlimited data plan. And video games get much more immersive with multiplayer online games that thrive on the high-speed internet.

For all these reasons, for adolescents in 2010, [tech] was not terribly harmful. But by 2015, it was. At least that’s the conclusion I came to from looking at the timing [of mental illness spikes] in America and internationally, and the timing of technological change.

How do you think the increased depression and anxiety in young people is affecting their politics, or American politics in general?

A healthy democratic society requires some degree of shared facts and some degree of trust in institutions and some degree of trust in each other. And all of that is declining for many reasons, but one of them is the rise of social media. The social construction of reality turns into a million tiny fragments on social media.

When 9/11 happened, Americans generally came to the conclusion very quickly that al Qaeda had attacked us. But if that happened tomorrow, we would not come to such a conclusion. We’re no longer able to agree on basic facts about what is happening or what happened. Now, none of this is the fault of Gen Z. This is happening to people of all ages. But if you are raised to political consciousness in a fragmented world where you can’t believe anything, where the Russians are messing with us and trying to get us to believe that we can’t believe anything, it’s going to make it tougher to become vibrant, engaged democratic citizens.

There is also the rise of depression and anxiety. The chief characteristic of Gen Z is not so much depression, it’s primarily anxiety. If anxiety is the normal state of affairs for a generation, they’re going to be much more sensitive and they’re going to find many more events threatening. And as we know from Karen Stenner’s work, when people feel threatened and when they feel that society is fragmenting, that triggers the “authoritarian dynamic,” as she calls it — it activates authoritarianism. A population that is anxious, afraid and threatened is going to be more open to a strongman, to an authoritarian leader, to someone who promises to stop the chaos and stop the threats.

Anant Singh



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