What the Washington Post editorial board got wrong about the research
The data in undeniable. But a social explanation (missing time they should be out playing or doing other age appropriate activities) is only half the story. There has also been a slower increase in mental illness among most people living in modern industrial societies for the past several decades, even back as far as WWII. The larger trend here is due to living in a technological society.
Our brains have a very powerful area called the prefrontal cortex that allows us to create and use technology among many other things. But this area is meant only for relaxed contemplation in attention, problem solving, and seeing things in our mind's eye. It is not meant for use during stress or for long periods (let along all day). Yet that is exactly what we now do.
When used this way the PFC begins to fail (we cannot concentrate, think of words or, find things) and importantly, we lose emotional control and become irritable. In the long term any vulnerability to mental illness we have then can become released. This sequence I describe here is all now accepted scientific knowledge.
The increased use of smart phones by adolescents poured gas on this fire. It took a group with under-developed PFCs and immersed them into a virtual world that their brains must create for them. The conclusion is amply described by Professor Twenge.
In my book, "Frontal Fatigue. The Impact of Modern Life and Technology on Mental Illness", I describe this process in detail. It essentially puts a mechanism underneath the observations noted in this substack.
But my book is only half the story. Now immersed in their phones instead of the world around them young people are deprived of the connections we all need--and they need more--of other people and the world of physical reality.
We need a two pronged approach to this issue. First to ease the pressure on the PFC (smart phones first, but there are other ways tech life infiltrates what we do) and second, to reconnect with others and the world around us. No one has all the details of such a plan but we all know wherer to begin. From there we learn from each other how to proceed.
its safe to say at this point that the washington post is wrong about literally everything
Perhaps allowing the owner of a $127B online business, which relies heavily on social media advertising, to also own a major national news outlet wasn’t a great idea after all?
Another angle that isn’t mentioned in the article behind WaPo not wanting to admit that social media is a problem is that it would lead to a decrease of social media use among teens and parents becoming aware and limiting social media use among their kids. These days, many many different political ideologies and ideas are pushed thru social media and these ideas are predominantly left-wing (think BLM, transgenderism, climate change, neo-feminism, the gender pay gap etc) teens are exposed to these things on TikTok, tumblr, Facebook instagram snapchat all predominantly left wing social media sites and therefor are being taught these ideologies without parental supervision. That’s what the legacy media and WaPo don’t want to lose. The direct avenue into the kids minds. They should leave the little kids alone.
The more I see from the legacy media, the more I feel they against children being able to be, we’ll just kids! I would also argue that the increased access to 1:1 technology in schools has added to the decrease in social connectedness. This is another important aspect of mental health. We need more face to face human connection since we are social beings! Thank you for your important work in this area!!
As infuriating as the column is, one has to remember that WaPo are just shills for Tiktok. And from the comments posted below the piece, it’s evident to anyone with just a passing interest.
Oh, trust me, they know. These are same people who for years insisted upon masking children, locking down children, mass mRNA vaccinating children — all based on zero, zero!, evidence. But to take smartphones away from kids needs a 40 year long 20 million person billion dollar trial… yeah, right. It’s lies upon lies, and don’t waste your time engaging.
The more I see from the legacy and main stream media, the more convinced I become that they want to destroy childhood. I would also argue that along with social media, the trend that schools have moved to 1:1 access to technology at much younger grades has contributed to the mental health decline as well! There is much less face to face human connection, which is what we need for our mental health! Kids in school are staring at computers the majority of their day. We are social creatures and innately need social connectedness, away from devices. Thank you for your work in this area!!
This question: “How much longer are we going to wait when rates of self-harm have quadrupled among 10- to 14-year-old girls?”
This is an extremely poignant question that I suspect has a great deal to unpack behind it.
I'm sure you are right about this. But here's a question I have found myself pondering recently: Had it not been for the massive additional 21stc malaise.....the falsely therapeutic, victimhood-signalling and culture of narcissism that has been pouring out of our institutions of 'higher education' for decades now (and reaching tsunami intensity in the smart-phone era) would the social media technology of itself have been such a toxin for the mental health of young people? https://grahamcunningham.substack.com/
Another cause of the demonstrable uptick in mental health problems in youth is probably the widespread and aggressive indoctrination with deeply alienating and debilitating gender ideology, CRT, and the Misoponosian trilogy of fragility, emotion over reason, and demonization of the Other.
While I agree with the influence of social media on mental health, defining the health of the economy by unemployment and GDP (which Mr. Haidt often uses) and are not the best indicators, and I would encourage Mr. Haidt to consider other indicators like income inequality, the percentage of Americans living paycheck to paycheck and the percentage of income dedicated to food, healthcare, childcare and other necessities.
Unemployment isn't a bad indicator, but GDP is practically useless since debts ran up off the backs of poor and middle class Americans are counted as a credit to banks and therefore net GDP growth when really this just describes a wealth transfer to banks. I know you're not an economist, but it's important to look beyond statistics like GDP and the stock market to capture how economic conditions effect average people.
Why is there such a resistance to what seems more than suggestive evidence about the role of social media in teens' mental health?
A lot of people are saying "correlational studies don't mean anything". However, in Haidt's google doc Social Media and Mental Health, there's an entire section on a plethora of studies with random assignment that indicate a causal effect. I think it would be useful to write a post on these studies - they are largely getting overlooked.
I recommend Generations by Twenge. Fascinating and enlightening and I am only as far into it as the Millennials chapter. Twenge and Haidt are essential voices in improving life for our kids. I hope that social media companies can be challenged in a more timely manner than tobacco or leaded fuel. Thank you for the great article!
Relative to social media and smartphone use among adolescent girls 10-14 years of age. There is a sub-category of rising concern.
What does the research show relative to 10-14 year old girls suffering body image/eating disorder issues? Was that condition part of or present when considering what qualifies as “self-harm”? Is the identification of depression and loneliness typically a factor, or correlated in any way, or dismissed as dissociative in these studies?
How often is loneliness and depression also present?
What is at risk should parents remove social media, texting and/or smartphone use in its entirety from a 10-14 year old suffering from any of these mental health and/or potential physiologically impacting issues?