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The consequences of a smartphone-centered childhood

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Smartphones are not only addictive, but they contribute to low self-esteem and feelings of isolation among kids. And with Big Tech companies barely policing any of their online products, young minds are susceptible to potentially damaging content. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says it's not too late to undo some of the damage if parents walk back what they allow their kids to access on their phones and delay when they give them smartphones. He lays out how in his new book, "The Anxious Generation: How The Great Rewiring Of Childhood Is Causing An Epidemic Of Mental Illness." He talked with our colleague Steve Inskeep about the consequences of smartphone-centered childhood and the value of face-to-face, old-school play.

JONATHAN HAIDT: My daughter really wanted a puppy. We have a puppy now, and she wants to play all the time. That's what puppies want to do. That's what young mammals want to do. Predator-prey games - I chase you, you chase me, hide and seek, tag, all those sorts of things. We develop social skills. We overcome our fears. But we've taken most of it away. We don't trust our kids to be outside. We began basically bringing them indoors. And we said, oh, you know what? You could be watching videos. You could be doing, you know, a math tutoring thing. And whatever problem screens have, the absence of play is a major, major obstacle to human development.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: I wonder if somebody would contend that online gaming is a proper substitute. It sounds like you don't think so.

HAIDT: Oh, I'm sure someone would contend it. Many people have contended it. You know, my son plays Fortnite, and I can see it's really fun. He's laughing his head off with his friends. But here's the thing. These platforms give boys what they want, but in a way that actually isn't as satisfying as if they were actually doing physical sports and, you know, having conflicts with a group of other boys that were real. So, yeah, sure. You know, it's fun, and they're interacting with other boys. But what happens to their mental state? They get really lonely. They start agreeing with statements on surveys - I often feel lonely.

And it's a similar story for the girls. Girls are lured on by the promise of talk to everybody, find out what everyone's doing, gossip about people. You can get instant updates on everyone. And so you'd think that this is like girls' heaven. But actually, this is girls' hell - everyone talking about everyone, able to shame or attack anyone anonymously, even on weekends. You can never escape. What happened when girls moved their social lives onto social media platforms was the same as for boys on video platforms. They get really anxious, lonely and depressed.

INSKEEP: Is it practical to ban phone use or particular platforms for somebody under a certain age?

HAIDT: Yes, and here's why. The way the law is written now, the platforms are not liable. They can show them any content. That's where we are - you know, 'cause the argument I often hear is, well, it's the parents' job to keep the kids off. It's up to them to keep the kids out. You know, don't make the companies do it. To which I would say, if we don't have the companies at least sharing the burden of age verification - you know, for pornography, like, any 10-year-old can be on Pornhub. My desire is not that Congress mandate that you must show a driver's license or government ID in order to get into Pornhub. That's not what I'm saying.

But if we simply said to the companies, you're offering a service that is harmful to children, you figure out how to keep kids off. We're not going to hold you accountable for 100% compliance. We know that there will always be kids who get around. But if it turns out that, you know, 20% of your users are underage, yeah, you are legally liable, and the parents can sue the pants off of you. That's what I want to see. If they had a little bit of motivation to do it, they would do it. Right now, they have a motivation to not know. It's very important that they not know because if they know, then they have to take action.

INSKEEP: If you make it harder for them to access a few sites, they're still going to have the phone in their hands. They still might spend hours on it.

HAIDT: What I'm saying is that we are now stuck in a set of collective action problems, and the kids have to be on all the time because all the other kids are on all the time. So I'm suggesting four norms that we can adopt even if Congress never comes to our help. No smartphone before high school. Just give them a flip phone. No social media till 16. Just don't let your kids open accounts, and you check the apps on their phone. Phone-free schools and far more independence, free play and responsibility in the real world.

So what I'm saying is just delay, delay, delay. Delay the age at which the kids are going to jump into this cesspool. Clear this all out of middle school, then we'll work on high school. But let's start by getting it out of elementary and middle school.

INSKEEP: And do you think that those steps, if widely practiced by large numbers of families, would make a meaningful difference?

HAIDT: Oh, my God. If we could get half or more of the families to adopt these four norms, we would see a drop in rates of anxiety and depression within a year. And I can say this because whenever a school has done one of these, they get results. And then - and here's the key - you can't just take away the screens and say, oh, no, kids, you know, screens are bad for you; you know, you have to wait. You have to give them back what they most need and want, which is each other.

Think about the most exciting times in your childhood. Were they times when you watched an amazing show on TV by yourself? Probably not. It's the times when you had a gang, a group. You were hanging out. Maybe it was one best friend, or maybe it was a group, but you were doing something. It was some adventure. You were probably away from adults. Kids don't get that anymore. They don't have adventures anymore. We don't let them. So if we're going to reduce screen time, we need to give them back real engagement and fun in the real world. And so that's why I say in the book what we've done is we have overprotected our children in the real world while underprotecting them online. We have to reverse both of those.

INSKEEP: One other question - having spent your career studying social psychology, the behavior of human beings with each other, what do you think our chances are against this device that is ubiquitous and designed to be addictive?

HAIDT: I think our chances are really, really good. And here's the exciting thing. I'm finding I have only one opponent. There's only really one thing standing in the way, and that is resignation. There's extraordinary resignation. And that was, you know, what was contained in your question - like, isn't it just too late? Isn't this just the way of the future? We can't put the genie back in the bottle. You know, the train has left the station. To which I say, if a train has left the station and it's full of children and it's going out on a track and we know that the bridge is out and it's going to plunge down a gorge and they're all going to die, should we try to call it back? I think we should.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Haidt of New York University is the author of "The Anxious Generation." Thanks so much.

HAIDT: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOSS OF AURA'S "WHEELS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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