OPINION

It’s not for nothing that social media has been dubbed “the Big Tobacco of the 21st century”. Like Philip Morris and Rothmans in the ’50s and ’60s, companies like Meta have done their internal research and know how harmful their products are. Especially to teens. Yet that’s just who they continue to market to.

Perhaps social media companies would be better held to account if the damage they inflicted was as physically obvious as lung cancer. Unfortunately, their ill effects are more intangible: the crippling of the mental health of a generation. In his new book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that the smartphone is the ruination of Generation Z, the cohort born between 1997 and 2022.

Not solely to blame of course: cotton-wool parenting is the other great issue Haidt identifies.

Put together, the impact has been insidious.

Haidt traces a significant and sudden upturn in major depressive episodes beginning around 2012. The pattern is the same in every country where reli­able data is collected. Major depressive episodes in the United States have increased by 145 per cent for girls and 161 per cent for boys. The incidence of anxiety and depression among college students was around 10 per cent in the early 2010s. Recent data shows depression now affects a fifth of US college students, and one quarter are afflicted by anxiety.

Degrees of anxiety correlate with age. The rate has decreased since 2012 by eight per cent among the over 50s, but increased by 139 per cent for Americans aged between 18 and 25.

Unusually for many academics, Haidt critically examines his own thesis.

Could it be that more awareness of mental illness is leading to more frequent reporting? That seems unlikely when episodes of self-harm requir­ing hospital treatment are up by 188 per cent in girls and 48 per cent for boys. Suicide rates are up by 91 per cent for boys and 167 per cent for girls. Mental health hospitalisa­tions for young Australian women aged 12 to 24 have increased by 81 per cent, and young men by 51 per cent.

Haidt also dismisses the influence of the economy and Covid.

Everything points to the dismal conclusion that the rapid spread of social media since 2010 and smartphones since 2012 is responsible for what Haidt calls the great rewiring of childhood.

Rather than just rely on simple correlation, Haidt posits specific causal factors.

Haidt makes the case that four foundational harms – social dep­rivation, sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation, and addiction – inevitably flow from spending a large slice of one’s developing years with half an eye on the smartphone.

But it’s not all the fault of new technology. The prevailing culture is just as culpable, according to Abigail Shrier’s new book.

Shrier finds an explanation in the prevailing therapeutic culture and the influence of parents who have gone to extreme lengths to keep their children from harm, including the perceived damage inflicted by putting children in their place. They are reluctant to criticise poor behaviour or draw attention to a child’s mistakes. In doing so, they have robbed a generation of the capacity to act independently, to make their own choices irrespective of the social and cultural environment. They have been stripped of the ability to set goals, make decisions and take actions to shape the world around them.

Therapy culture – Gen Z are the most counselled and medicated generation of young people in history – hinders rather than helps. Instead of internalising control – believing in one’s ability to improve one’s circumstances – therapy culture, not to mention education and media, encourages externalising control. In other words, it’s all the fault of the ‘one per cent’ or climate change.

So, what to do?

Restricting youth access to smartphones, even completely banning them in schools, as the Luxon government is, is just a start. It’ll be about as effective as banning cigarettes and drugs. The real change will come from within. Kids can only say ‘No’, if they have the psychic armament to do so.

[Shrier] suggests we fight back against the vested interests in the therapy and phar­maceutical industries that stand to gain from the pathologisation of aberrant childhood behaviour. It’s time we offered resistance to those who try to insist that there is no such thing as a picky eater, just children who suffer from “avoidant restrictive food intake disorder”. We might work on helping kids improve their handwriting rather than make excuses for their “dysgraphia”. We might empower teachers to crack down on bad behaviour rather than excuse the perpetrators as the victims of “opposi­tional defiance disorder”, and encourage shy kids to come out of their shells rather than offering the debilitating diagnosis of “social anxiety disorder”.

In short, it is time to stand up to the tyranny of the experts, the wellness gurus and therapists responsible for the most unwell generation in recent history.

Nick Cater/Substack

It all starts, of course, in the home. For the moment, parents are still primarily responsible for their children (although Canada is one state busily overthrowing that ancient institution). So: take responsibility.

Punk rock philosopher. Liberalist contrarian. Grumpy old bastard. I grew up in a generational-Labor-voting family. I kept the faith long after the political left had abandoned it. In the last decade...