Book Review: The Anxious Generation by Jonathan Haidt

Mark Bratton reviews ‘The anxious generation: How the great rewiring of childhood is causing an epidemic of mental illness’ by Jonathan Haidt (Penguin Press, 2024)

Jonathan Haidt, a prominent American moral and social psychologist, has already authored two influential books exploring the moral psychology of political and religious differences and the culture of ‘safetyism’ afflicting American universities. 

Haidt’s latest bestseller explores the alarming rise in depression, self-harm, and suicide among the first generation to come of age with smartphones, called ‘Generation Z’. Haidt argues that the decrease in free play over the past few decades, coupled with the rise of smartphones since the 2010s, has contributed to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and various other mental health challenges among teens. This trend, which has mainly spanned across English-speaking countries, affects both boys and girls, but pre-teen girls have seen the most dramatic increase. While parents closely monitor their children’s activities in the physical world, they often neglect to provide the same level of oversight in the virtual world, where adolescents can spend up to nine hours a day and potentially encounter harmful influences.

Haidt argues that fear-based parenting, coupled with the excessive use of social media facilitated by smartphones, is hindering children’s natural adaptability and disrupting the crucial brain development that occurs during childhood.

Haidt argues that children possess an inherent antifragility. This means that they have an evolved capacity not only adapt to new and risky situations but to thrive in them, fostering their development of personal autonomy. They need early experiences of risky play to increase their confidence in approaching opportunities while defending against threats (discover mode vs defend mode). Like all young mammals, children need the elasticity to explore ‘off-base’ while tethered to their secure home base thus developing confidence and healthy attachment. Haidt holds that fear-based parenting, coupled with the excessive use of social media facilitated by smartphones, is hindering children’s natural adaptability and disrupting the crucial brain development that occurs during childhood. Haidt identifies four key harms of a “phone-based childhood”: social deprivation, sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation, and addiction. These factors have profound consequences for children’s well-being, social development, and family dynamics. 

Haidt contends that social media directly fuels depression in girls, citing research showing a significant link between heavy use and increased depression risk compared to non-users. Studies also suggest their mental health improves when they reduce or quit social media, bolstering his claim of a causal connection. Girls, more than boys, are deleteriously affected by the “socially prescribed perfectionism” that cajoles them into the fruitless pursuit of  impossibly high standards of social acceptability. Boys, in contrast, are more prone to withdrawing from the physical world into an immersive virtual world leading to a greater range of social and occupational dysfunctions, including a “failure to launch”. Despite these concerns, Haidt expresses optimism that parents, schools, and governments can work together – both socially and through legislation – to significantly reduce the harms of overprotection and social media use. 

Haidt’s book provides a broader explanation for the rise in children, particularly girls, identifying as transgender and seeking gender clinic services, Disappointingly, he suggests (p.165) that for some this may form part of a broader spectrum of adolescent gender exploration, similar to the concept of “coming out” with a sexual orientation. However, Haidt also proposes that the significant increase in transgender identification likely stems from underlying social and psychological factors requiring further investigation. For this reason, this book should be of interest to those committed to upholding the biological reality of the two sexes against self-defined gender identities.

Mark Bratton

Mark Bratton is an ethicist, lawyer, and an anglican parish priest, serving as the Rector of St John the Baptist, Berkswell and as an honorary lecturer in medical ethics and law at the Warwick Medical School.  Additionally, he is an Honorary Canon of Coventry Cathedral and has a background as a barrister

Q & A

Q: Tell us a little more about yourself, Mark.

A: I was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, until the Lebanese Civil War forced my family to move to another part of the Middle East. After completing my education and qualifying as a barrister, I trained for ordained ministry in the Church of England. I served as a curate in Ealing and as the Anglican Chaplain at the University of Warwick before my current role. I’ve also represented the Diocese of Coventry on General Synod twice, where I successfully moved a Private Members’ Motion to secure parity of pension provision for surviving civil partners. I’m married to Emma, and we have two grown-up children, Katy and Theo, who still live at home.

Q: Can you elaborate on your work and interests?

A: Alongside my parish duties, I teach medical ethics and law on a sessional basis at the Warwick Medical School, where I completed my doctorate. I sit on various ethics committees and was the Bishop of Coventry’s Adviser on Medical Ethics. My writings on medico-legal topics have been published in respected journals and the church press, and I regularly review books for the Journal of Contemporary Religion.

My interest in medical ethics and law stems from the profound questions posed by advances in medical technology, particularly concerning life and death and what it means to be truly human. For instance, I wrote an article on the ethics of separating conjoined twins, where I explored the bonds that bind humans and the pain associated with breaking those connections.

Q: Why do you support LGB Christians?

A: LGB Christians articulate clearly the immutability of biological sex and the dangers of separating sex and gender, which has led to significant medical abuses of children. The national church’s inadequate response to this crisis is both a theological and pastoral disaster. The Vatican and English RC bishops have responded superbly in contrast. The profound misogyny and homophobia within ‘genderism’ must be fought and removed from both church and society.

Q: How do your beliefs influence your views on gender-affirming care?

A: The issue of gender-affirming care, involving significant medical and surgical interventions, raises crucial questions about autonomy, welfare, and the integrity of the human person. From a Christian perspective, the human person is an integrated totality of body, mind, and spirit, implying that our physical selves cannot be separated from our identities. While surgery may be warranted in a very small number of extreme cases, I believe the recent increase in children seeking therapy is socially influenced. The fundamental difference between those who argue that gender can vary independently from sex and those who do not lies in their foundational philosophical and theological convictions.