The Anxious Generation: A View of Where We Are and What Should Come Next

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Yves here. Your humble blogger has from time to time referred to the work of Jonathan Haidt, including on the effectiveness of protests (he says they work but often not directly or quickly) and more famously (or notoriously, depending on your point of view) on anti-depressants.

Perhaps readers will disagree, but as far as I can tell, the mental health industry does not have very good treatments for anxiety (ex perhaps meditation and psychedelics, which I doubt are mainstream) so societal fostering of anxiety in the young is really not a very good idea.

KLG’s intro:

This is a review-discussion of Jonathan Haidt’s latest book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, that places it in current context regarding my experience in teaching Gen Z medical students and a historical context related to the Marxian concept of self-realization as described by Jon Elster. My thesis is that the near total immersion of some students in social media has indeed made them fragile and reluctant to take charge of their education as aspiring physicians. The connection with the work of Elster is that social media also engender a passive consumer mentality in children and that this often carries over into adulthood and leads to less than optimum outcomes for these targets, while the various social media platforms produce billionaires.

(I can imagine how the usual suspects are reacting to this book, but to me the conclusions are mostly unassailable.)

By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has become something of a lightning rod with his recent work.  The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, written with Greg Lukianoff, was praised and panned by the usual suspects.  That the title echoes The Closing of the American Mind, which made a very large splash for Alan Bloom in its day, undoubtedly conditioned various reactions.  Haidt’s current book The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illnessis likely to have similar effects on the same people.  I avoided reading anything about this book before reading it, because I thought I might want to write about it.  I have now read it.

Why do I view The Anxious Generation as worthy of discussion?  My day job since 1998 has including teaching graduate students in the biomedical sciences and medical students during their first two (preclinical) years of medical school.  During that time things have changed.  I don’t generally view the classification of people as members of “generations” as particularly useful, but it inevitable and must be dealt with.  I am a Baby Boomer, and when complaints about our current parlous state are thrown my way by default this can be irritating.  Yes, I am by accident of timing a member of the same generation that includes Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Bill Kristol and Niall Ferguson.  What we have in common ends there.  Each member of Gen Z is also unique but like Baby Boomers, they too have been shaped by common experiences.

Older generations have been lamenting the deficiencies of their successors at least since Socrates, and most of these complaints have been ridiculous for these 2500 years.  Yes, people do “make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already (1852).” [1]  Political economy, culture, and society, not necessary in that order except for the vulgarians – left and right – in our midst, condition who we are, what we can be, and what we can do.  Those who point this out frequently get on the nerves of those “in charge” or our politics and our educational institutions.  Professor Haidt has become very good at this.

The Anxious Generation is a rapid but not breezy read.  The coming quibbles, if not outright attacks, are easy to imagine.  I am not competent to evaluate all the evidence concerning the effects of the “Great Rewiring” of mental health, especially concerning members of Generation Z – the Smartphone Generation – but the results considered and evaluated in the book make eminently good sense.  Whether each psychological study can be or will be “replicated” is not a useful question or valid criticism.  We have considered the replication crisis before.  Specific examples are often a consequence of faulty statistical arguments or require population studies to show a degree of rigor impossible outside a chemistry or physics laboratory.  This includes cell biology and physiology, cancer biology, and biochemistry, by the way: The more complex the system, the more variability to be expected.  Psychology is a legitimate scientific discipline even if the outcomes of psychological research are not determined by the physical world!

Still, I often hear my colleagues in the so-called “hard sciences” say that psychology is “not a science” so it can be safely ignored.  In my corner of that world, these are the same scientists who have gone all-in on the amyloid hypothesis of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and statins as the cure of coronary heart disease, to no substantial effect for the past 30 years.  The finding that 10-20-30% of a certain very large number of young people of Gen Z are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders than their predecessors is much more believable than “amyloid plaques cause AD” (found in the NC Links of January 30, 2024).

Yes, the DSM has undergone “mission creep” over the years due to the inevitable influence of Big Pharma and Biomedicine, but the problems covered in The Anxious Generation are nevertheless real.  I have seen them at first-hand.  I am skating close to the edge of Horowitz’s Law [2] here, but my experience is not limited to me.  The coddled and anxious students described by Lukianoff and Haidt do exist.  And it is a strange thing.  For example, medical students can get a test-taking accommodation because they have “test anxiety.”  I’ll leave that evidence of hyper-fragility right there, except to remind these students that such accommodation will not be granted when they take their licensing examinations required to graduate from medical school and then enter and leave residency to become an independent physician.

But first, what is in the book?  The Anxious Generation shows convincingly what children must do in childhood if they are to become well-adjusted, functional human beings.  Absorption into the virtual world of a smart (sic) phone, which was introduced when the youngest children of Gen Z were ~10 years old, is not on the list:

As the transition from play-based childhood proceeded, many children and adolescents were perfectly happy to stay indoors and play online, but in the process they lost exposure to the kinds of challenging physical and social experiences that all young mammals need to develop basic competencies, overcome innate childhood fears, and prepare to rely less on their parents.  Virtual interactions with peers do not fully compensate for these experiential losses.  Moreover…(they wandered) increasingly through adult spaces, consuming adult content, and interacting with adults in ways that were often harmful…(and)…even while parents worked to eliminate risk and freedom in the real world…(they often unknowingly) granted full independence in the virtual world

This brings us to the “safetyism” that has become the “standard of care” for all children since the 1980’s.  Those of us of a certain age remember playgrounds that were marginally hazardous, especially compared to those of today, although I never encountered one that looked quite like this:

A bit more “coddling” may have been more in order than this course fit for a Navy SEAL, but these children (all boys as far as I can tell, alas) learned what they could do without hurting themselves.  They were definitely in their discovery mode (for approaching opportunities) rather than in their defend mode (for defending against threats).  They naturally became anti-fragile in this environment.  And free play is the key [3].  Virtual, screen-based experiences are just not the same, nor will they ever be sufficient for proper physical, mental, social, and cultural development.

The often-ignored distinction between digital technology and social media is also a key point of The Anxious Generation.  Although I much prefer to read books and journals in analog, most of my work is digital in one form of the other, including typing this on a MacBook Pro using Microsoft Word.  Much to my disappointment, local newspapers are not coming back along with a reasonable news cycle.  In my view this is a major contributor to our current distemper, but I digress.  Haidt’s Four Harms of Social Media are convincing:

  • Social Deprivation: Teens who spend more time on social media than with friends are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, while teens who spend more time in groups have better mental health, on average. Synchronous contact with friends is superior to asynchronous interactions with “friends” and “followers.”
  • Sleep Deprivation: Screen-related decline of sleep probably contributes to the increase in adolescent mental distress since the introduction of the smartphone. [4]
  • Attention Fragmentation: Contrary to common chatter, and to the disappointment of students, multitasking is not a thing. We can shift attention back and forth between tasks while wasting a lot of it on each shift.  Perhaps not unrelated, it is a rare medical student these days who can answer a question in a tutorial group without consulting a mobile device of some kind – smartphone, tablet, laptop.
  • Addiction: “The smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7 for a wired generation.” Dopamine release is pleasurable, but it does not trigger a feeling of satisfaction.  It makes you want more likes, for example, but it is clear that the law of diminishing returns applies.  The difference between pre- and post-smartphone is that earlier digital devices were not portable for facile use everywhere, all the time, including when we should be sleeping.  This applies to adolescents of all ages.

The trap is that smartphones deliver social media on demand.  This harms girls and boys in different ways.  For example, girls are more affected by comparisons with others and social media have been shown to cause rather than correlate with anxiety and depression (no doubt to be disputed).  Boys are more likely to suffer from “failure to launch” as they retreat into their virtual, asynchronous world of communities “populated by known individuals” and anomie described by Émile Durkheim as normlessness – an absence of stable and widely shared norms and rules:

If this [binding social order] dissolves, if we no longer feel it in existence and action about and above us, whatever is social in us is deprived of all objective foundation.  All that remains is an artificial combination of illusory images, a phantasmagoria vanishing at the least reflection; that is, nothing which can be a goal for our action.

This brings me to an older explanation of our current situation that makes perfect sense to me.  Jon Elster published an article in Social Philosophy & Policy in 1986, “Self-realization in Work and Politics: The Marxist Conception of the Good Life” (paywall but a summary is at the link) that has explained much to me in the intervening years and may have a lesson for today’s hyperconnected virtual world of social media. [5]  According to Elster:

(Among the) arguments in support of capitalism…the best life for an individual is one of consumption…(which is)…valued because it promotes happiness or welfare, which is the ultimate good…I shall argue that at the center of Marxism is a specific conception of the good life as one of active self-realization rather than passive consumption…A list of some activities that can lend themselves to self-realization: playing tennis, playing piano, playing chess, making a table…writing a book, discussing in a political assembly, bargaining with an employer, trying to prove a mathematical theorem, working a lathe…fighting a battle, doing embroidery, organizing a political campaign, building a boat.

Of course, “self-realization through political participation is self-defeating if the political system is not oriented toward substantive decision making,” a morass into which we sink deeper by the day.  But the point is that to be healthy and happy human beings, it essential that we work at our own self-realization. [6]  It really does not matter what we do, but self-realization is not something that can be bought, or bought and then passively absorbed in a virtual world.

From Elster, first-time consumption has a large utility (U), using the terminology of the economist.  But after many repetitions, U decreases as the law of diminishing terms kicks in and more consumption is required to reach the unattainable original value of U.  Addiction can present in many forms.  On the other hand, when expending effort instead of money (and wasted time), U is low at first but increases with each succeeding attempt to master your goal: tennis or chess, reading the complete works of Thomas Hardy, writing that book, building a robust local community where you live.  And if you find you are unable to play tennis as well as you like, there is always pickleball.  We have been conditioned to consume (highly recommended) for more than a hundred years, but consumption is a dead end that requires the development of nothing particularly human, not to mention the death of a livable world.

So, what does this have to do with The Anxious Generation?  While not paying attention, and not understanding that we and our children are the product of social media instead of their clients or customers, we have as a polity and society become passive consumers who often succumb to addiction to the dopamine hits the big platforms have become so adept at pushing.  Spending three hours watching videos of very accomplished dancers can be entertaining up to a point.  But at some level we all recognize that it would be healthier – mentally, physically and socially – to learn to dance.  But that option may not even exist.  Which is exactly how Big Social Media want it.

The Anxious Generation concludes with solutions, most of them well considered.  Governments could raise the “age of consent” for social media to 16 instead of 13, which the current standard (not that it is followed by Big Social Media or the law).  This is unlikely given the existence of K Street and a Congress that spends four hours a day dialing for dollars.  Phone-free schools are doable, however, and they make a big difference in student outcomes, social and educational.  Parents who wail that “I must be able to contact my child at any time” are still free to call the Principal’s Office.  Personally, I cannot ever remember my mother (or father) calling the school for me, but the school called my mother on several regrettable occasions.  Free play must be reinstituted as a normal school activity.  This will keep the teachers sane and allow the children to teach each other how to solve their own problems without the intercession of an adult.

Finally, I realize that my favorable responses to The Anxious Generation and The Coddling of the American Mind may well be due to confirmation bias.  But I have seen remarkable changes in medical student behavior over the past 16 years, especially as Gen Z has gotten to medical school.  Challenging them to do better can be, well, a challenge.  Students are still academically prepared on paper, but they are more fragile and much “harder to please.” [7]  Attention spans are short, and as mentioned previously, it is the rare medical student who can answer a question without first looking at his or her screen.  They have adapted well to the current style but this may not end well, even as doctors type into the computer on the stand next to the bed more than they listen to their patients lying in the hospital bed or sitting in their examination room.  So, who knows?

Still, many of us have begun to tell the truth, carefully, as we see it to students: (1) You must take responsibility for your performance, whether the tutor uses your preferred style or not.  (2) Everyone has imposter syndrome to some extent, but you would not have gotten into medical school if you were not qualified to do the work.  (3) And the work is much harder than downloading the assigned chapter from a free-to-you electronic textbook as a pdf and then looking it over – it is a long way from the screen in front of you to mastering the knowledge and skills required of a physician.  Based on my reading, and it is an occupational hazard to sometimes read the literature of pedagogy, this is true at every educational level.

I also have the sneaking suspicion that early, unthinking, largely involuntary immersion in the virtual world of social media is responsible for failures in metacognition – knowing and understanding what you do not know – we have seen in too many students recently.  Passive consumption of virtual noise rather than active realization of a tangible goal leads to bad outcomes.  Confirmation bias or not, that would be a good research topic.  For someone else.

Finally, as one Southern Agrarian wrote nearly a hundred years ago in response to radio (paraphrase): “It is the better path to take the fiddle down from the mantle and play it.”  Good advice still.


[1] The longer version is here: Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

[2] Revealed to me by Dr. Joel Horowitz when he taught my Introductory Sociology class: Never generalize based on your own necessarily limited personal experience.  Several students may have been offended by a teacher unlike anyone in their previous experience, but no one complained to the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.  The one student who brought his Bible to class to refute Horowitz comes to mind.  He was anything but fragile, however.  Nor did he consider himself to be in an unsafe environment in that lecture room with ~40 other students.  The reaction to those of us who came to learn rather than make a “C” (believe it or not, that happened way back then) in a required social science class was, “Wow, Horowitz is great, even if he does say these outrageous things every day!” Yes, five days a week in the much superior academic quarter system: You can endure anything or anyone for 10 weeks.

[3] But parents who allow their children to be free-range kids are likely to be reported to the Department of Family and Children’s Services for child neglect.  The deleterious social and cultural changes that in the 1980s and 1990s led to the death of free play are covered extensively in The Anxious Generation.  But then there is stupid.  When I think back to some of my escapades, a shudder comes over me, led by memories of building a raft using two large innertubes, a hand drill, some rope, and a sheet of plywood and then “sailing” our vessel with a slightly older friend into a river with strong tidal currents less than a half-mile from an oceangoing shipping terminal.  What was most interesting in retrospect is that men working at an adjacent industrial site waved to us, probably remarking to one another about “the good times those kids are having on a summer day.”  No one called the police or the Coast Guard.  The latter may have admired our “ingenuity,” but the lack of life preservers would have been a most serious offense.  Still, we did not drown or get run over by a ship that could not see us and learned what not to do when back on terra firma.

[4] As an aside, in our experience as parents, my wife and I noticed early on that the symptoms of occasional sleep deprivation in our children (N = 2, but sometimes N = 1 is enough) are virtually identical to those of ADHD. Contemporaries of our children whose parents always seemed to say “our kids don’t need that much sleep” were apparently unable to recognize the symptoms in their own children.

[5] Elster’s argument here is taken largely from Making Sense of Marx, which is one of the foundational works of the Analytical Marxists who followed G.A. Cohen and his Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense (1978).

[6] This can be done at some level for most people, whatever one’s personal circumstances.  The fatal flaw of Liberalism is that good Liberals fail to recognize their own fortunate choice of parents, place, and time.  That self-realization is impossible for so many is a failure of the Liberal imagination as much as a failure of political economy.

[7] “Student satisfaction” is high on the list of accreditation issues for every medical school.  This is measured in pre-matriculation questionnaires, surveys after each year of medical school, and a graduation questionnaire.  One of the primary reasons for administrative hypertrophy is that people have to deal seriously with this stuff.  One sometimes wonders if the accreditation body understands that the satisfied student is the one who is pushed and then passes board exams with ease, rather that the student who was coddled and faces a looming uncertainty with absolute dread.  This is not to excuse the proverbial Old School, however, for their legendary arrogance and uncaring behavior in the classroom and the clinic.

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  1. Terry Flynn

    Thank you. Since, let’s just say “complaining officially” about a workplace environment 9 years ago (so I don’t get hassle for using the official term) my chronic anxiety has been debilitating and I’ve always been public.

    Two psychiatrists (each on a different continent) declared independently to me without prompting that (paraphrasing) “everyone thinks that schizophrenia/BPD or suchlike is the least treatable mental health problem. Rubbish. It’s anxiety. Every cure is as bad as the condition. We simply can’t cure anxiety.”

    Yep. Pregabalin was the most recent “cure”. Took me 2 years to get off that shit. I laughed hollowly when the BBC announced that the UK government was reclassifying it as effectively a controlled substance (not “completely” controlled but it’s now up there with benzos). I grew up before the Internet….God help those who have that stuff making life worse beyond genetic crap like I’ve inherited.

  2. Terry Flynn

    PS re whether psychology is a science. Mathematical psychology is definitely a science: stuff has been axiomatized, put forward as theorems, tested using 6 sigma criteria used in physics etc.

    Unfortunately the other approx 99% of psychology is “not even wrong” (i.e. untestable) like category rating scales. If you EVER are asked for a numerical (or “star based”) score on something then it is automatically crap. Because literally nobody has ever proved the necessary mathematical properties of your numbers (cardinality etc).

    1. Chris Cosmos

      When you are dealing with matters of the psyche you cannot bring reductionist scientific principles to that study. Shouldn’t it be obvious? We want to have a method to know “everything” but as those of us who have lived long and maybe hard know life and consciousness (the hard problem) is immeasurable. In the area of the psyche the criteria of study has to be different that mathematics as the field of economics has shown us.

  3. EarlyGray

    > Phone-free schools

    This isn’t the norm?!
    My daughter graduated this year from high-school in Japan and there was absolutely never any question of her using her phone during school hours. It was powered down before going through the school gates and powered off only after she came out and if she was caught using it in-between, it would have been confiscated.

    I don’t think there was ever an occasion urgent enough where we had to contact her while she was at school, but if there had been the school would have been happy to relay our message, or get her to the phone.

    Just goes to show how sheltered I am but I would have assumed this was standard practice everywhere.

    1. EarlyGray

      As a parent we worried about whether to let her have a phone, but in the end succumbed as all her friends had one and it was an essential tool for her to have a social life. Ideally we could have not let her have one and she still would have had a full social life but that’s not the world we live in anymore, unfortunately.

      My parents were stricter and would not let me watch TV for a long time. I still remember the pain of feeling very left out when friends were talking about TV shows etc. and that also informed my decision regarding my daughter.

      She is in university now and does suffer from anxiety but then so did my mother, my mother-in-law and wife, so I doubt her genes were ever going to let her escape that, regardless of the milieu she grew up in.

    2. Terry Flynn

      Unfortunately not the norm.

      My BFF is a Dean in Tokyo. They clamped down hard on phones early on…. And then enforced masks and social distancing and better upgraded ventilation back in 2020.

      The outbreaks of COVID were all traced to uni dorms and students doing what students do….. Not to any “official” classroom environments. Now, just like the west tells them, they don’t test because “covid is over”. Sheesh

    3. Rolf

      Some school districts in the US are finally moving to ban or restrict cell phone use: LA has banned them starting January 2025, and New York is considering a similar ban (apologies if this has already by discussed to death). My long view is that allowing cell phones in schools are a part of a larger disaster regarding the (ab)use of technology in K-12 schools. These policies and approaches — strongly driven by Mr. Market — can produce graduates who are averse or unable to read — never mind write — anything of any significant length or complexity.

    4. Goner

      Here in China, high school (and I believe primary and middle too) students give their phones to their homeroom teacher every morning when school starts and collect it after last class. Seems East Asia is more clear-eyed.

    5. eg

      Meh. “Phone free schools” while necessary, are clearly insufficient. Does anybody seriously believe that the pernicious effects of always on social media for the remaining 18 hours of the day are thus extinguished?

    6. gestophiles

      Of course, phones at school could theoretically be jammed. But consider another
      aspect of modern life- the school shooting. Then the cellphone is an absolute necessity.
      Also with climate change, tornadoes, hurricanes, excessive heat. There may not be
      a need to contact a child at school in most cases or for the child to phone out,
      but when it is needed, it is absolutely needed.

  4. funemployed

    I think the near total loss of unsupervised, unstructured time for middle-class children preceded social media, and caused a lot of these ills, which were then exacerbated dramatically when supervision of the children was turned over to machines.

    1. Neutrino

      That Dallas play area looks like fun, except for that person falling down. Social darwinism in action.

      One of several indicators of coming troubles was in the 1970s. The excitement of the 1960s music scene and freeform social interactions got suppressed in that post-Watergate downturn, along with jobs, enjoyment, inexpensive gas/living, standard time and hope. Or so magazine covers informed us.

      Cue the vapid disco scene to fill the vacuum with lowest common denominator crap, accompanied by new conformity in dress and action in schools and on campus. Financialization makes early appearances, geared toward crowding out value and self worth.

      Short hop to the 1980s, after another gas hike, and young people got the message. Conform or be marginalized. The train is boarding, and don’t be left behind or you, too, will miss the good life. Wall Street careers, Washington hobnobbing, Silicon Valley tech developments, accoutrements coming next like cell phones.

      Another round of sortition?

      1. Jeremy

        I was born in the mid-80s in Canada and unsupervised play time was completely the norm. By the time I got old enough to notice these things as an adult, “free range kids” had become a term – implicitly defining the old norm as an exceptional curiosity, demonstrating its absence. Indeed a shift had happened in the interim and I believe it was just before social media.

      2. Paul Harvey 0swald

        Re: falling. You’re referring to the one on a swing? The person to the lowest left? Go straight up and you’ll see the places where the chains attach to the top bar. There is also another on a swing to the right at the same height.

    2. Herclitus

      I agree. In addition, the various education ‘reforms’, beginning with those following ‘A Nation at Risk’ and continuing with ‘No Child Left Behind’, took lots of study hall, art and music classes, and extracurricular time and replaced them with lectures, usually about science and math. It is ridiculous that every student who graduates from high school is supposed to have four years of math, including, Algebra 1, Algebra 2, Geometry and a year of statistics. The average student simply can’t have a meaningful grasp of these subjects. And they did away with general math, which would be far more useful to most people.

      When I graduated from high school in 1979, we had to have eighteen credits to graduate. Today it is twenty-four, and there are essentially no study halls, so kids are always taking work home. This prevents them from enjoying many social activities, spontaneous or organized, that my generation participated in. Not to mention it prevents them from having after school jobs. I attended the best school district in my state (or so it is recognized now), and I don’t recall ever having homework.

  5. Patrick Donnelly

    TV is the medium. The medium is the message. Anxiety is a natu4ral response to an environment that cannot be trusted, based as it is, on lies and deliberate contradictions.

    It does not interfere too mmuch with productivity at least where those who cocnoct hose lies take their profits.

    How do we enslave, without bearing the cost of feeding, housing and medicating the slaves?

    1. RA

      “The medium is the message.”

      I tried to read Marshall McLuhan in the mid 60’s somewhere around high school or college. I didn’t get it. Thought that phrase felt mostly nonsense.

      Then I dropped out of college, got drafted and spent most of a year out in nature with any comfort and shelter only what I could carry on my back.

      Quickly back from that to USofA. One night I was driving up Woodward Avenue in Detroit. I was suddenly struck by the street lighting and even more so the stream of illuminated multicolor signs screaming at me all up both sides of the road. With nothing but nature around me for a year and nothing but quiet darkness at night, this garish stream of light and color that was a normal sight a year or two ago was now suddenly shocking.

      Oh, maybe Marshall was right. It was the bright signs, not the messages they were sending that shocked me. Maybe we accept what we become slowly accustomed to like the frog in slowly heating water. But drop us from quiet black and white suddenly into a loud technicolor world and we may see the message of just the medium.

      Somewhere during or maybe after I remember thinking that it takes about three weeks of getting rained on regularly before you stop feeling it is an improper assualt on you and shift to accepting you are just living within the nature of things.

      Some months after being back from the army I remember thinking I was losing my intimate connection with nature. One night it was raining and I went out and sat in the back yard for an hour or so.

      But everyone wants to be comfortable if possible. No human group on the face of the earth has not built or found some form of shelter to keep themselves out of the rain. Maybe that was the first step toward the smart phone.

  6. Tom Pfotzer

    Thanks, KLG.

    Some years back I decided to allocate 50% of my time to thinking, and the other 50% to doing. I’m still over-allocated with thinking .vs. doing, but it’s getting better.

    The doing-ness has certainly helped, not just psychologically, but physically. And a lot of my “doing” time is done outside. That’s also been a big help.

    I got a lot of unsupervised outdoors play-time as a youth; I remember my mother expounding on the whys and wherefores of that; it was decidedly a deliberate decision, not driven by circumstance but by policy.

    The Adventures of KLG sound similar to mine. I’m guessing that we got the somewhat sanitized version. I had many, many in-retrospect cringe-worthy experiences, and – some might say unfortunately – none of them were fatal. Easily could have been, and on many an occasion, not just a few.

    There’s another factor operating for Gen-Zers: what space, what place does the Gen Z person have to express their self-actualizing impulse? Where’s that sorta-cool, interesting place where different things to do are? Where’s that available-but-not-hovering adult who knows about cool things to do?

    My point is that it might be the equivalent of a “food desert” – where the terrain outside the smart phone has become sterile. There may be few stepping-stones to “get elsewhere and else-way”.

    Think of it: got to school, then back home .. you’re in your room, neighbors also home-inside. Nothing going on: look outside the window, and there’s … nobody. Cars driving by, that’s it.

    My favorite childhood memories of adults (excl. parents) were those that were doing interesting things, and somehow made a space where I could participate. Didn’t happen much, but it was great those few times it did.

    And almost all the (large amount) of trouble I got into was because there were few outlets / platforms for self-expression, adventure, and feats of derring-do … and not all that many great influences to learn from (beyond my parents; they were great examples to follow, although that didn’t actually happen much). Sports changed that in late teens, but prior to that … bo-ring. Nuthin’ to do ’round here, time to range about. Good thing I didn’t have a smart-phone.

    Parents have gotten themselves very busy these days – we’re all pretty busy. To pry kids away from that smart phone is going to require alternatives and gradually increasing involvement (from someone approachable, but different, and creative).

    I recall that one big depression-inducing force I encountered as a kid was not being able to make sense of all the commotion about me, and no one was talking about it.

    I noticed that the world was dysfunctional, and didn’t know how to interpret it, and certainly didn’t know how to proactively cope with it. I expect those forces have intensified a lot via smart-phone info deluge.

    1. Mikel

      “There’s another factor operating for Gen-Zers: what space, what place does the Gen Z person have to express their self-actualizing impulse? Where’s that sorta-cool, interesting place where different things to do are? Where’s that available-but-not-hovering adult who knows about cool things to do?”

      Where can they express themselves where there are no cameras? Previous generations were a lot more free to re-invent themselves or rather it was easier to move past any youthful indiscretions.

    2. RookieEMT

      It took a brutal two years of fleeing the city, going to a mountain town, volunteering at emergency services (sadly didn’t pan out), volunteering at horse stables, then spending some time volunteering at a homeless shelter. For the first time looking back at what I did the last couple of years, I don’t regret any of my decisions. I don’t regret my mistakes. A couple more cycles of this and I just might un-family blog myself.

      I completely understand now why over half the country’s youth have some kindof suicidal thoughts. It’s this godless neoliberal mentality of every man for himself. There’s no connection, no trust. Just emptiness.

  7. Ultrapope

    Thanks for the review KLG, I think I’ll check out Haidt’s book when I have a chance.

    Two things I’m looking for in Haidt’s book. First, is anxiety in older generations assessed (as in now, not when those generations were gen z age) and second, how is anxiety assessed. In assessing the root causes of my own anxiety, it is abundantly clear that I grew up in an environment with caregivers (parents, teachers, coaches) who were/are overwhelming anxious and depressed. When I go back to visit the northeast, the situation seems to have gotten much worse worse.

  8. Chris Cosmos

    I don’t think it is wrong to critique social-media as a contributing dynamic to the cultural malaise of younger people. But it also goes beyond that as many writers have shown–it rewires all our brains to the degree we live in the virtual world. But the critique of technology nearly always misses the fact of why people have rapidly embraced these clearly addictive technologies and I don’t just mean the online world only but also drugs, porn, and so on to deal with the pain and anxiety of a world with too much information without a strong means of parsing that information; clearly, our educational system has completely missed the mark and is only now beginning to think about maybe, just maybe, to use some of the ideas that have come to us in social science on how people actually learn and what motivates us. For decades these findings have been ignored. For example, it is clear that, for most people, helping others can bring far more happiness than self-indulgence and selfishness brings–so why are we still putting all our chips on selfishness? Is it because of Adam Smith? If so, those people have completely misread (meaning they did not read him). Society requires trust and some unifying principles (other than selfishness as a virtue) to thrive. We are not thriving.

    Our American Way of Life, emphasizes materialism, hedonism, and elevates deception, trickery (the dominance of advertising), lying, cheating all the while insisting that we are a good and moral society when it is clear that we have squandered whatever storehouse of psychic strength we had at the end of WWII (overcoming Depression and war) where we had a clear vision of creating a truly great and healthy society with liberty and justice for all. All that was only partially BS. The American working-class was marching towards and even occupying a middle-class way of life. Several things happened in the 1960s that put a damper on all that and we are now living with the consequences. Yes, those of us who are “boomers” did grow up with a culture where the male sex was honored for maleness to one where we men rather than women have to “stifle ourselves” and follow the female obsession with “safety” and thus no more metal jungle gyms, no more playing outside.

    Life is almost totally off-balance and our declining life-spans should have alarmed us (it hasn’t–there’s almost no commentary on this fact whereas had that happened in the 50s and 60s it would have been of prime concern) but hasn’t since only fake “problems” like maintaining a huge and expensive empire is considered truly important (follow the money).

    1. Tom Pfotzer

      Chris – what a great essay. Definitely resonates with me and my life experiences.

      And … we don’t have to accept what society is currently serving up. It’s perfectly appropriate for us men to believe in ourselves, and act accordingly. There are some fine, highly emotionally developed men still extant, and in some cases doing the thriving.

      I can think of several that regularly post here @ NC.

      Keep it going, Brothers.

      And just so I say it out loud, and make it clear: Keep it going, Sisters. Couldn’t live without you; much as you bug us, we _still_ love ya.

      1. Jonathan’s Holland Becnel

        We, Society-Builders, are finding each other left and right.

        And we are bringing back the OLD WAYS!


  9. RookieEMT

    It took a brutal two years of fleeing the city, going to a mountain town, volunteering at emergency services (sadly didn’t pan out), volunteering at horse stables, then spending some time volunteering at a homeless shelter. For the first time looking back at what I did the last couple of years, I don’t regret any of my decisions. I don’t regret my mistakes. A couple more cycles of this and I just might un-family blog myself.

    I completely understand now why over half the country’s youth have some kindof suicidal thoughts. It’s this godless neoliberal mentality of every man for himself. There’s no connection, no trust. Just emptiness.

    1. eg

      I believe that you have struck the essence of this problem — the trend toward supreme individualism/atomization in the Anglosphere under neoliberalism is antithetical to human flourishing.

  10. David

    Great post; I’ll have to check out Elster. This paragraph should be read to students at all levels, regularly:

    “… first-time consumption has a large utility (U), using the terminology of the economist. But after many repetitions, U decreases as the law of diminishing terms kicks in and more consumption is required to reach the unattainable original value of U. Addiction can present in many forms. On the other hand, when expending effort instead of money (and wasted time), U is low at first but increases with each succeeding attempt to master your goal: tennis or chess, reading the complete works of Thomas Hardy, writing that book, building a robust local community where you live. And if you find you are unable to play tennis as well as you like, there is always pickleball. We have been conditioned to consume (highly recommended) for more than a hundred years, but consumption is a dead end that requires the development of nothing particularly human, not to mention the death of a livable world.”

    At 64, I am no longer a student, but I could stand the reminder. It’s very true.

  11. Troy

    Nothing in there about the current No Child Left Behind test-driven curriculum nor school shootings, both which should probably figure more prominently in any research into anxiety in the current generation of students.

  12. Matthew G. Saroff

    I took a gap year in 1982-1983, and as a result, had a year where I was allowed to observe society in a rather detached manner.

    In addition to that time being my first exposure to MTV, and the first time that I ever heard of Crack cocaine, it was the height of the abducted child hysteria, where advocates were claiming that 80,000+ children were being abducted by evil strangers.

    This was a lie, achieved by counting every kid who was late from a visitation, or missing at a store for 5 minutes, or a non custodial parent abduction. The actual number was closer to 100.

    It was the end of free range children.

  13. nyleta

    Two generations of the policies of Dr Benjamin Spock come home to roost. It took until the generation brought up under his ideas themselves have become parents and brought up their own children for the pernicious effects to display themselves fully.

  14. Barnes

    Thank you KLM. I so want to wholeheartedly disagree with Haidt and you but I agree to the gist of it. Although I wouldn’t draw final conclusions just yet. Except for consumerism. Most of us are so deep into it that we are not really able to grasp the consequences. So there I fully agree.

    As for me, I grew up just behind the iron curtain in rural East Germany and we did have a splendid childhood. Solid schooling, yet no pressure that might have induced anxiety about the future, since all of us had a job guarantee and mostly no choice anyway. Turns out there’s no guarantee for anything but what the heck… In the planting and harvesting season we did garden work to supply ourselves for the winter. Absolutely zero tech gadgets, very limited TV (west german programs – goes without saying ;-), some cassettes and one player for all of the family.
    Our childhoods were spent entirely outside doing all kinds of “dangerous” activities, like digging burrows, building huge igloos in winter, playing hide and seek on slippery ledges and after 1989 skateboarding with 20-30 kids trying, and often succeeding, to topple each other in full speed (lots of bloody, painful but great memories!) going down a winding street (with car traffic). It was outright dangerous but we managed the dangers ourselves successfully by using our brains and through intergenerational teaching. From older kids and adolescents to younger.
    Alas my 4 years younger brother spent all of his childhood in front of some type of screen. That transition came really fast but compared to today’s kids, it’s not even comparable imho.
    But even if we wanted more unsupervised and unguided genuine playtime for the kids, we’d have to stymie the auto industry and reclaim the streets first. I am all for it but it’s a bit of a no-no, especially in Germany (and in New York apparently). Maybe China will solve this car industry issue for us eventually.

  15. ChrisPacific

    At my first school, there was a climbing frame consisting of a lot of tires roped together in a vertical square framed by three large logs. The cross-piece at the top was probably a good four or five meters off the ground, which was plain grass with no rubber matting or anything of the kind. It was an exercise in risk tolerance. I would climb as far as I felt safe, which meant as far as I had good handholds. Some kids would climb all the way up and sit on top of the log, a delicate exercise since it was smooth with no real handholds, and it was quite a reach up from the top row of tires.

    One of my friends used to do that, before falling and breaking his arm. He was very reluctant to go near it after that. I did convince him once to try again and he made it up as far as the second row of tires (about head height) before descending again. He was shaking all over.

    For those kids that never had any mishaps, it taught them that taking risks was part of life and could be fun, and while they might look back on it as dangerous in hindsight, they’d probably be alright. (See many examples of this in the comments above). For my friend, who was one of the unlucky ones, it was a traumatic experience that permanently put him off the idea of free climbing even very short and safe distances. Given that it was just bad luck it happened to him, and it could easily have been any of the others instead, I’m not sure that any of them had it 100% right. Instead they all learned to under- or over-weight risk depending on their personal experience.

  16. Susan the other

    I’m forever impressed by how well these younger generations actually communicate and conceptualize. They are geniuses compared to us goofy old boomers at their age. They may suffer social anxiety and sleep deprivation depression because everything has become so meta. That is, they are all aware of the possibilities and probabilities in this brave new world. Because they are fed a constant diet of them. We humans have always been creatures of high anxiety, so it’s probably good that we learn to live it. A phase of evolution that was bound to happen. Last night I watched a Lex Fridman interview of Sara Walker, a physicist so young and bright I saw her as my grand daughter, on how the universe is larger in time than in space because we not only live in the present but we incorporate aeons of the past and of future possibility. Human awareness is exponentiating in lockstep with all these exponentiating possibilities. She was so articulate, communicating her own awareness conceived in images, into logic and language it was amazing. Meta indeed. We are swimming in it. Young and old alike.

  17. Lefty Godot

    The deleterious social and cultural changes that in the 1980s and 1990s led to the death of free play are covered extensively in The Anxious Generation.

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the time period mentioned was when we had the Satanic Panic. A whole industry existed to promote the idea that sexual predators were lurking behind every bush, waiting to abduct your child (at worst) or at least tempt them away from the path of righteousness with drugs. I will be interested to see if Haidt makes that connection. The extreme overprotectiveness of parents now, egged on by “child protection” agencies, seems guaranteed to lead to more withdrawn and fearful children, with no available path to outgrow this condition.

    The other source of a “mental illness crisis” among young people could be the extreme unresponsiveness of the sociopolitical arena to any action they might conceive of doing. At least during the era from the late 1950s to early 1980s, young people were under the impression that they could actually effect change, that at least some of the adults in Congress or state governments could be moved by what youths were saying. Since that era, those in power have become so insulated from anyone outside the 1% and the lobbying groups funded by them that everyone else necessarily feels powerless and trapped in a massive machine spinning crazily out of control. Of course one can scarcely be “well-adjusted” in that situation, and the vast majority of the conditions labeled “mental illness” are actually disorders of adjustment to one’s society. The lock-in to small screens and the world of fake relationships and influence provided through them not only contributes to the maladjustment of the individual but also accelerates the disintegration of the society that tolerates such things.

  18. Albe Vado

    I’m going to take a completely different tact and say that based on my experience interacting with them, the kids are fundamentally alright. Or rather, if they’re more depressed or anxious it’s a rational response to declining material conditions (many of them are well aware they’ll never own their own home). But social media is not particularly rotting their brains, any more than TV or rock n roll did to past generations. Yes, many spend a lot of time on social media. And then they periodically stop and go do other things.


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