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The Social Media Generation

Featuring Jonathan Haidt

Is social media safe for children? How old do kids need to be to have smartphones? Is Gen Z’s mental health declining because of TikTok? Zachary and Emma speak with Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and author of “The Anxious Generation.” Social media’s effect on brain development, TV Parental Guidelines and the internet’s lack thereof, and the influence of video games on young men are discussed here today.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

Jonathan Haidt: What we have since 2012 is random weirdos on the internet selected by algorithm for their emotional extremity. Kids are spending five, some are spending 10. Half of our kids say they’re online almost constantly. So even if you think that they’re talking to you, they’re not really present. They’re actually thinking about what’s going on online.

So, you have kids who are going through this entire critical period being socialized by random weirdos.

Zachary Karabell: What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, joined as always by my co host Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And What Could Go Right? is our weekly podcast where we ask, you guessed it, what could go right? So many people are constantly asking the question of what could go wrong. We thought it could behoove all of us collectively to at least ask the question of what could go right. So one of the things that is animating all of us today is the nature of social media and its effects on childhood in particular.

And we’re going to talk today with someone who has a bestselling book that identifies both social media and the way in which kids are being raised today as one reason for an anxious generation. One reason that a lot of younger Gen Z people, both in the United States and throughout the developed world in particular, are seeming to have higher rates of depression and anxiety and social adjustment issues than any generation before.

So Emma, who are we going to talk to today?

Emma Varvaloucas: So today we’re going to talk to Jonathan Haidt. He’s a social psychologist at New York University, specifically the Stern School of Business. We’re going to talk to him, as you mentioned, about his book called The Anxious Generation. He’s the author of several previous books.

One of them that you might recognize is called The Righteous Mind. So I am very, very intrigued to hear what Jonathan has to say today. Are you ready?

Zachary Karabell: I’m ready. Let’s do it. Jonathan Haidt. It is good to be talking to you again. We had a conversation with you a couple of years ago as we were all emerging from the pandemic about a rather different set of topics.

I think we talked about the nature of politics and cultural attitudes and tolerance, but today we’re going to talk about something more related to the book that you have. You have become, as of this recording, a rather ubiquitous presence in our cultural landscape and have touched a chord about people’s both concerns and questions about what is the nature of our technological world right now, particularly in terms of social media and the ubiquity, not just of Jonathan Haidt, but the ubiquity of smartphones.

So your book, if I may generalize is around 2012 when social media apps, particularly Instagram and Snapchat and some of these others suddenly became ubiquitous and young people were downloading and utilizing these things with abandon because none of the parents and very few of us had a strong sense of what the ultimate outcome was gonna be and you began to notice late 2010s that there was seem to be a massive uptick, not just amongst your own students, but generalizably more depression, more anxiety, more suicide. You came to the conclusion and have now concluded in this book, The Anxious Generation, that it’s causative and that this is true, not just in the United States, but in Europe, you sort of normalized for you can’t just say this is a cultural thing, you can’t just say it’s the Great Recession and that that converges with a parenting trend of the past 20 years, which is overprotective, helicoptery, overpresent, and the result is to create coddled kids who are then denied a physical based childhood, play and talk, and et cetera, thrust into essentially a virtual childhood where all the social interactions or the predominance of social interactions are through these apps and media.

Jonathan Haidt: You got it. That’s a very good summary of what the book argues.

Emma Varvaloucas: No notes. That’s a good grade.

Zachary Karabell: Thank you all for listening today. I hope you go out and buy the book.

Emma Varvaloucas: I’m going to zoom in on what Zachary said about you shunting aside the counter arguments that this is correlative and not causative. And I would love to dive deeper into that because how do we know that it’s social media, not like any number of other factors that have gone on these days.

Jonathan Haidt: Sure.

Well, so first of all, I entered this debate heavily in 2019. I mentioned it in, in the Coddling of the American Mind, which Greg Lukianoff and I wrote in 2017 into 2018. So we mentioned this possibility in the book that basically social media and smartphones are what caused … students, students who arrived on campus around 2014, 2015, were very different from students before. They were much more fragile. They were much more easily harmed by words, even words that were not directed at them. So something was very different. And we thought at the time, those were millennials. We all thought that students were millennials, but now we understand that Gen Z, there was a real change. If you were born after 1995, you’re just substantially different psychologically. On average, of course, there’s many exceptions, but you’re different than say an older sister who is three years older, who is a millennial. At first, we didn’t know what was causing it. And a lot of the evidence was just correlational. All along, there’ve been studies that heavy users of social media are more mentally ill than those that are not. And then people say, Oh, well, that’s reverse correlation. Maybe it’s just that anxious people spend a lot of time. They’re more likely to seek out social media. And that could be, and if all we had was correlational data, then we’d say, gosh, we just don’t know.

And then we would try to track down, well, what are the alternatives? And I’ve tried to track down all the alternatives and none of them can explain why it happened at the same time, in the same way, in so many countries, right around 2012, 2013. So we’ll come back to that, but your question was about causation.

In the social sciences, our bread and butter is how do we look out at a messy world composed of people, not composed of planets or rocks or things that sit there and let you study them, but people who are complicated and they co-create meanings and cultures. Social science is much harder than rocket science.

Rocket science, you can calculate exactly where you want the rocket to go, but social science is much harder. And the central question for us is causality. How do we know that X causes Y? And in the social world, you rarely have X causes Y, end of story. It’s always multiple causation, but sometimes there is one big one.

For example, leaded gas, when leaded gas was heavily used, it caused brain damage and it caused a drop in IQ and a rise in crime. I mean, lead poisoning was, especially in the United States, one big factor that had many, many neurological and developmental effects. And the evidence that I’ve been collecting, and I’ve been collecting a lot of studies, people accuse me of cherry picking, but I’m the only one who picks all the cherries from the tree.

I say, let’s find all the studies on every side. Let’s find all the correlational studies, the longitudinal studies, the experimental studies, the quasi-experimental studies. Let’s find the direct testimony. What do kids say when you survey them? So I’ve collected all of these in giant Google Docs. I have then summarized them in multiple Substack posts.

And so it’s a little irritating that there are three or four major critics. They keep saying I have no evidence. And oh, oh, and they keep saying I don’t know the difference between correlation and causation. I’m mistaking correlation for causation. So it’s just kind of irritating because it’s as though they haven’t read my book or my work.

In the book, I have a whole long section on the difference between causation and correlation, how we know that it’s causation. I have so many substack posts. So, you know, my critics, it’s fine if they want to say, okay, he presents a lot of evidence for causation, but we’re not persuaded and here’s why. That would be a normal, fine scientific debate.

But for them to repeatedly say that I don’t have any evidence is just untrue. It’s a falsehood that keeps being spread around. And then journalists sometimes repeat it. And it’s frustrating because I don’t know what else I can do. Jump up and down and say, here, look at these five websites. I’ve been laying out the evidence since 2019.

Zachary Karabell: For anyone who’s read the book, and I’ve certainly read most of it, if not, all of it, that you are totally legit in saying that you have provided substantial statistical quantitative evidence of causation. I think the cross cultural stuff is very powerful in particular, right? Because it filters out the, maybe this is just Americans being discontent or et cetera. Let us stipulate for the purposes of this conversation that the evidence of causation is fairly substantial in the book. I’d like to maybe widen the aperture for a moment and maybe pick up some of what another Progress Network member, Tyler Cowen, and you had, I think, a conversation on.

Jonathan Haidt: Oh yeah, that was a fun conversation.

Zachary Karabell: If you had looked at responses to new technologies, printing press, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, early years of the internet, social media and now AI. Let’s just safely throw that in there. And you took out the specificity of each one of those innovations. You have a extraordinarily similar set of mantras.

Jonathan Haidt: Yes.

Zachary Karabell: About the rise of new technologies. This is ruined. And a lot of it focuses on the young.

Jonathan Haidt: That’s right. Socrates thought that writing would ruin their memories. Yes. No, that’s right. The response is very, very similar across the ages. That’s true.

Zachary Karabell: So what do you make of that, first of all?

Jonathan Haidt: Yeah.

Zachary Karabell: As a kind of a stepping back from the moment.

Jonathan Haidt: Yeah. No. So I acknowledge, I acknowledge that this looks like a moral panic. And actually it is a moral panic in that I’m saying something very serious is happening. So the question is, is it a groundless moral panic, like some of the ones you mentioned, or is it actually a terrible thing that’s happening?

And Jean Twenge was one of the first to ring the alarm. Jene Twenge and I, are we alarm ringers or are we alarmists? And I grant that, and most of my critics are people who have been studying technology for a while, and so they say, Oh, you know, we’ve seen this before with violent video games. We’ve seen this before with comic books.

So that’s a perfectly reasonable hypothesis. And then it’s up to me to show that no, this time actually is different. Here are just two of the differences. One major, major difference is that the dynamics of past moral panics is very dependent on sensationalist news media accounts. So a kid read a comic book and then he ax murdered his mother and maybe it happened, maybe it didn’t, probably it never happened, but the story gets spread around and people say, Oh my God, we’ve got to ban comic books.

That’s not what’s happening this time. This time, everyone has seen it. Everyone has seen it. If not in their own children, they’ve seen it in the children of someone they know. Daughters who are self harming, boys and girls who are suicidal, a fragility of the anxiety. So when journalists interview me, they usually say, you know, I’ve seen this in my own kids.

So this is very unlike previous moral panics. This is not dependent on sensationalist news stories. Second, in all previous moral panics, if the grownups are saying, Oh, comic books, you know, they’re destroying the kids. The kids are like, no, leave us alone. We don’t want you to take our comic books. But Gen Z, when you ask the question, you know, if you say, how about if I take you off social media they’d say, no, no, I can’t go off social media because I’ll be dead, you know, I’ll be, you know, because their whole social life is now on social media.

So they’re terrified of being basically ostracized and put into Siberia, which is what happens if you take a child’s phone away. They sometimes commit suicide, or at least they’re at elevated risk of committing suicide because the parents don’t understand. You’ve now given them social death, but whenever you phrase the question to them, how about if everybody got off?

So in one study that was done at the University of Chicago last fall, one of the questions was, would you prefer TikTok were never invented? And the majority, and for TikTok, it was even the majority of regular users of TikTok. So 58 percent said, I would rather that this was never invented. Over and over again, we find young people are saying, this is destroying our generation.

This is ruining, this is making us anxious. You didn’t find that with any of the previous moral panics. You didn’t find young women of the 18th century saying, Oh, please take away the novels. It’s making me sexually desirous. Like this is really, really different.

News Clip: New report reveals that students around the world are performing worse academically now than in any time this century. According to the study, test scores in science, reading and math have plummeted since 2012. One possible factor contributing to the decline? Cell phones. The report cites an example in math classes with around 30 percent of students reporting that they get distracted using digital devices and around 25 percent of students indicating that they become distracted by other students who are using digital devices.

Zachary Karabell: So let me preempt Emma for a moment and say, what if you challenged the premise that those were moral panics without legitimate fear of societal, massive societal disruption, particularly generational and said some of those what you’ve just described as moral panics were legitimate fears about the disruptive effects of these new things.

So the people who were saying about the printing press that the spread of the written word was going to undermine the church, it was going to undermine authority and social order in many ways were as valid for the disruptive effects of that particular technology, the written word in the book. It’s not a moral panic.

It’s a legitimate panic about a disruptive technology. But when you broaden the aperture out from like the collateral damage, and I’m not suggesting. That could sound really crass about a generation of millions of people who are being harmed. The worst situation is when you’re caught in inflection points.

Jonathan Haidt: Uh huh.

Zachary Karabell: The before and the after tend to normalize, but the inflection point can be hugely disruptive. So let’s say everything you’re saying is true. It is still possible that the harms of the present will be counterbalanced, as they were maybe in the past, by a collective good of connectivity, of normalizing something that is currently imbalanced.

Jonathan Haidt: So if we’re talking about the internet, I think that’s the correct way to look at it.

The internet is incredible. We all saw it as incredible when we were introduced to it in the nineties. It has made our lives better. So the internet is amazing. And the internet, it’s exactly what you said. Yes, there are all kinds of problems, terrorists, you know, boys getting sucked into rabbit holes and the internet, I’m totally with you.

Social media is very different. Social media is one particular application. It’s the one that is most directly tied to mental illness, especially in girls. It’s the means by which strangers get to our boys and sextort them. And, and so far 20, 20 cases of suicide are known that the FBI has identified. 20.

Millions of boys are getting sextorted, are getting contacted by people who seem to be a sexy girl, and they send them a naked, a nude photo, and social media is an insane way of letting strangers, including criminals, contact young children, and so I had this conversation with Tyler, and Tyler was pushing back and saying what you were saying, Well, you know, we’re going to adapt, children will adapt to this, their brains will adapt to being raised on a screen rather than walking around and running around outside.

And my basic argument to him was, Well, yeah, maybe we’ll adapt, Tyler, but the way we adapt is not by waiting for evolution to rewire the human brain so that kids can grow up in a different way. The way we adapt is by keeping this from children and saying, you know what, let them have a normal human childhood.

Let them have a normal brain. Let them develop physical skills, social skills. And then when they’re 18, then they can get on, they can gamble. They can go to brothels. They can do all sorts of things that we don’t let nine year olds do. My conversation with Tyler was, I mean, it’s always fun. Like, I think he’s great and he’s incredibly creative and he thinks differently, but I think that’s what it came down to is Tyler just said, we don’t have to do anything because we’ll adapt.

And I’m saying, yeah, let’s do some things to adapt.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah. I mean, I was going to basically ask a corollary question, which is, you know, while I was reading your book, I was comparing my experience downloading Instagram when I was 22. So I wasn’t a teenager. I was 22 years old, versus downloading Tik Tok when I was 32, right?

And Instagram had a pretty profound mental health effect on me, even though I was an adult.

Jonathan Haidt: Tell me about, can you tell me more? What effect would you say it had on you?

Emma Varvaloucas: Well, at the time I was dancing semi professionally and the thing that Instagram did for me was open up a world of comparison to not only the people that might be in class with you, or might be in the professional arena in your certain city or location or whatever, but to literally the best dancers in the entire world. So the comparison game got very intense and the status game of the people that are more around you and the people that are, as I said, all over the world, how many likes are they getting?

Jonathan Haidt: Mm-Hmm.

Emma Varvaloucas: How good are they versus me? Like what kind of rewards, societal rewards are they getting? That kind of thing. But when I downloaded TikTok as a fully formed 32 year old, like I didn’t have that experience at all. And after the initial shock of like the very intense, let me get out of the Tik Tok whole thing, which is I think more difficult.

Jonathan Haidt: Right, right.

Emma Varvaloucas: The overall effect of Tik Tok on my life, I think has been positive. And I do wonder how much of that, like in your formulation, how much of it is just like the brain is simply not ready versus as teenagers, you know, you have all kinds of angst and all kinds of like. Your life hasn’t been set up yet, right?

You know, like there’s no solid base for you to like download Tik Tok as a 32 year old and be like, well, I have a career. I have friends. I have a partner. Maybe you have a family or whatever. It’s just a much easier, much easier runway, I guess. So how much of it is that and how much of it is like your literal chemistry?

Jonathan Haidt: I think if we look at the costs and benefits of this technology and here we’re talking about, especially about social media and the prototypical ones. So Instagram is very much about posting. YouTube and TikTok, and especially YouTube shorts, they’re about consuming, consuming, consuming huge numbers. I mean, thousands of videos a day.

Some kids can take in, they can be on for six, eight hours a day. So if we look at adults and social media, I see very little about it. It appears kind of messes us up too, but we’re adults. We can make our choices. And a lot of adults will say that they wish it was never invented or they’re happy when they get off.

They can see it’s doing a number on them, but it’s also clear that social media does a lot of things for adults. It’s a tool that we can use to network; I use Twitter to find information and to put my work out. So social media has many pluses for adults. Of course, businesses are using it. Advertisers are using it.

So I don’t advocate any limits for adults. The cost benefit ratio. I think it’s positive for many people. It’s negative for many people, but people make the choice. Let’s now move down to middle school. Cause that’s what I’m most concerned about is underage use, early puberty. Tell me what needs 11, 12, 13 year old girls have to network with strangers.

What needs they have to get their brand out? Oh, it was, Oh, you know, there’s pluses and minuses. Really? For seventh grader, what are the pluses? I really don’t see them. You know, when they say, Oh, it connects me to my friends, you know, it would connect you better with your friends, getting off the phone and actually doing something with them.

And they say that themselves and they miss that. So, if we look at the pluses and minuses, I think there are essentially no pluses for young children. For teenagers who are getting politically active, yes, I understand there’s some pluses. Although even there, I would debate with you because I think to have 13, 14, 15 year old kids immersed in our culture war, I think is just horrible.

I don’t think that’s good activism. I think kids need to grow up first. They need to learn some stuff. They need to have normal human relationships. So that’s the first point. The second was, what was your exact question about?

Emma Varvaloucas: Like, how much is the negative reaction, how much is in the harms that are being done upon teens and young kids?

It’s just from their brain not being developed? Like, they really need to get through puberty to develop the ability not to become wildly addicted to these things? And how much of it is just like, you’re a teenager and you don’t have a self yet and life is tough?

Jonathan Haidt: Yeah. So first, we have to be clear. There are about 20 different ways that social media harms different kids.

So, the debate has narrowed in on one, hours of social media correlated with depression anxiety. It leaves out the bullying, it leaves out the loss of sleep, it leaves out the loss of exercise, it leaves out the sextortion, it leaves out seeing beheading videos and feeling upset by that. The empirical debate has been about one, just one causal thread, which at most could explain a small amount of variance.

So you ask me, how much is it this or that? My answer is, for different kids, it’s many, many different threads. But I think we can clearly say that human development is really different from that of other mammals because we have this really long childhood, much longer than other primates, and we have this long period for cultural learning, especially it seems to really lock in around age like 9 to 15 seems to be the period during childhood, you spend time in that period.

As you go through puberty, you’re sort of locking down into your culture. And all over the world throughout history, adults in a society have helped children make that transition. They care a lot about what the kids are doing. They’re trying to enculturate them, convey the secrets of the tribe or the religion, cultivate in them virtues, cultivate in the boys, a certain kind of toughness generally.

So puberty is an incredibly important time. The frontal cortex is the last part to myelinate, to lock down. And so you take this time when both your identity of the psychological level and your neurons, especially in the prefrontal cortex are all like, the neurons are kind of like trying to decide which connections stay, which go, it’s an incredibly sensitive time and it would be great if we had like moral guidance for kids from their culture.

But instead what we have since 2012 is random weirdos on the internet selected by algorithm for their emotional extremity. And so kids are spending, you know, five, some are spending 10. Actually, half of our kids say they’re online almost constantly. So even if you think that they’re talking to you, they’re not really present.

They’re actually thinking about what’s going on online. So you have kids who are going through this entire critical period being socialized by random weirdos. And again, I mean, the videos that people see can be so horrific. In your feed, you may not have gotten the animal cruelty videos, but a lot of the boys end up watching fights and car accidents and shootings.

I saw one video. I shouldn’t have clicked on it, but it was a large teenage girl sitting on the chest of a small teenage girl and smashing her head into the pavement. I mean, bashing her, literally bashing her brains out. And the girl, she survived, but she has severe brain damage. I can’t unsee that. Now, you didn’t see that on TikTok, but that will be there.

And then maybe they’ll take it down. Maybe they won’t. And so there are so many avenues of harm and there is such a sensitive period. So how about what I’m saying, I don’t think it’s radical. Let’s let kids get through the most sensitive period of identity formation and brain development before we expose them to what is probably the nastiest toxic brew of garbage ever created.

When I was a kid, there was all kinds of talk about violence on TV, but you know what? Before anything could be shown on TV, it had to pass filters. It had to pass sensors. So yes, we saw cop shows where people got shot and we’d see the blood and that was yucky, but it’s nothing like seeing an actual head being chopped off.

It’s nothing like seeing an 11 year old girl’s brains bashed out on a playground. It’s just crazy to me that we’re like, Oh, we can’t let you outside. We can never like, you know, American parents, like, I can’t let you go to the next aisle in the supermarket, cause you might be abducted, but here you can spend nine hours a day watching kids brains being bashed out.

What do you say to that? Both of you?

Emma Varvaloucas: Oh, I should say I’m not against you at all. I am actually a hundred percent, but yeah, Zachary was entering the boxing ring, but I’m really here just to cheerlead.

Jonathan Haidt: Okay. Thank you, Emma. Zachary, what do you say to that?

Zachary Karabell: I say that before some moment in the 20th century, you know, most of human experience may not have been Hobbesian as in nasty, brutish and short, but it certainly was much more physically proximate to violence and death.

Jonathan Haidt: As Steve Pinker has pointed out, I’m with you and Steve Pinker on that.

Zachary Karabell: And abuse. Now the counter argument to that is human beings were also, lived in more brutal callous societies where there was a casual indifference to any particular life and to say that most of human history people did in fact see heads chopped off or they saw wanton cruelty to animals or to the poor or to lepers or…

Jonathan Haidt: Crucifixions.

Zachary Karabell: And those were not societies we would want to return to. So you could say it’s not a good counter argument. In fact, it’s part of the argument, which is the exposure to that potentially is part and parcel of a society that is, in fact, more indifferent to any one particular.

Jonathan Haidt: Oh, that’s, that’s a good argument.

Thank you, Zach. I’m gonna write that one down.

Zachary Karabell: So there you go. But human beings also were able to transcend that and create things and move on. I mean, I do think there is a, I’m not sure you can have it both ways, which is the more that people are in the world in theory, at least the more they should encounter all of what the world has to offer, including some of the ugliness.

I mean, I think one of the advantages of growing up in a place like New York City where I did and my kids did is that you are in fact less insulated. You do get exposed to more of like what it is to be a human in a less coddled way. You’ve talked about the coddling and a lot of that’s also you don’t take cars everywhere.

You have to encounter people physically, right? You can’t just go from your house to your car, from your car to a place, and then you can kind of manage to hermetically travel through life. And the other thing I would say, so I have an 18 and a 21 year old, two sons who would agree with everything you’re saying and probably be even more radical in their solutions.

Jonathan Haidt: All right.

Zachary Karabell: They wouldn’t even allow the smartphones at 12. I mean, I think you have certain break points. But then you have COVID, March of 2020, and there’s a good year and a half where without these social media devices, this entire generation would not have been able to have a physical childhood because the adult world wouldn’t let it.

In the absence of some of these communication tools, they would have been almost completely isolated.

Jonathan Haidt: So that’s just not true. What I’m talking about here is not the internet. Nobody’s saying they can’t have the internet. What I’m saying is they should not have smartphones till they’re 14, and they should not be able to have accounts on social media platforms till 16.

And I’ve heard this all the time during COVID. Oh, thank God for social media. Kids would have been cut off. To which I’m like, yeah, can you imagine if during COVID, the only thing they could do is call other kids on the telephone, or text them, or FaceTime, or Skype, or play video games with them. Oh, and how would they find information?

Like kids in the 90s, you know, LGBTQ kids in the 90s, they used the internet to find information to find each other. You don’t need social media platforms, which are driven by an advertising based revenue model, which are designed to keep you on and stop you from doing anything else, which are indifferent to the strangers trying to sextort you or manipulate you.

So, I say, please distinguish between social media and the internet. The internet is amazing and wonderful. It has some downsides, but the internet is comparable to previous technologies. Social media, I think, is much more like leaded gas. Leaded gas had a lot of usefulness. I mean, it did give us better mileage or more power or something like that.

So, it’s not that leaded gas had no use. But the trade off was an entire generation, Gen X, which was much more criminal and suicidal. Leaded gas literally blocked neural development of the frontal cortex, it interferes with it, especially early on, I think there it’s more the first two or three years, and in utero, it’s not so much in puberty.

Please don’t equate social media with the internet, social media is leaded gas. The internet is the printing press.

News Clip: Why at this late date are the heads of social media platforms still denying their platform’s roles in causing the teen mental health crisis? This week, Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg was one of five tech leaders to testify at a Senate hearing about the protection of children from online sexual exploitation.

In a dramatic moment, Zuckerberg turned to face and apologized to dozens of parents holding up photos of their teens whose deaths they blamed on social media. But in a prepared statement, he still maintained that his platforms, Facebook and Instagram, did not bear any direct responsibility.

Zachary Karabell: So what is something like Fortnite?

I mean, you mentioned that in the book and you talk about it, there’s a whole bunch of things that are kind of in a fuzzy gray zone between strict social media and the internet.

Jonathan Haidt: That’s right.

Zachary Karabell: Where does that fall? I tended to feel maybe wrongly with my sons that playing Fortnite with your friends, I guess Fortnite is crested as a thing, but I think most people will be familiar with it, was a more interactive game that you could do socially, like it wasn’t just sitting in your room in the dark, and therefore, net net was better than a lot of other things, but maybe not.

Jonathan Haidt: Right. So I would agree with that with a couple of big exceptions. So let’s talk about the boys situation. When I started the book, it was really clear that there’s a special link between social media and girls. And I kind of knew from the research I’d done, I kind of knew what I was going to say about what’s happening to girls, but I really didn’t know what I was going to say about boys when I started.

And I had a great research assistant, Zachary Roush, a young man, he’s born in 1995. So he’s technically the last year of the millennials or 94. I said, Zach, you figured this out. Like you collect everything. And then we talked about all kinds of hypotheses. He created these huge Google documents. If anybody wants to see our work, Go to We have all these Google Docs collecting all the evidence we can find on dating apps and gambling apps and all the things that boys and girls are doing. And what we found is that the research on video games is very mixed. Most of the research that is said to be a moral panic was about violent video games or first person shooter games.

And it turns out very interestingly, the content of the game isn’t very important. So all the panic over, Oh, there’s violence in the video game, therefore, they’re going to go out and be violent in real life. No, that isn’t really true. And that’s why many experts dismiss this as a moral panic. But when you look at heavy users of video games, when you look at the boys who are spending six, eight hours a day on video games, they’re always doing much worse than everyone else. And so video games, when I was young, you know, Pong came out. I mean, they’re amazing. I mean, it’s so much fun. And those were so primitive and the video games are so incredible. My son plays Fortnite. I didn’t let him on in sixth grade. We did let him on just before COVID and I’m glad that we did.

So video games are not harmful to most boys, but between five and 12%, depending on how you count it, end up addicted. There’s a debate. Is a behavioral addiction truly an addiction? As far as I can see, if gambling is an addiction, if most people can go to a casino, but 5 or 10 percent of people will get addicted and will destroy their family’s fortunes and will ruin their lives.

So if gambling is an addiction, I think video games and social media can be an addiction. And so if you have this. Imagine a toy that’s the best toy ever invented for boys. I mean, they just love it. They will do it instead of everything else. And for most of them, it’s good. And it brings them into contact with their friends, but you know, for five or 10%, it’s going to ruin their lives and it’s going to block their sexual development, it’s going to block their social skills, it’s going to impede them for the rest of their lives.

I mean, I think the pluses and minuses kind of in that case are on the minus side. So I’m not saying ban video games, not saying keep boys off them, but I am saying in the book, parents need to be really careful about their sons playing three or four hours of video games a day. I think they shouldn’t do that.

You know, two or three hours a day on the weekends, I think is great. Like they are really fun. And if you’re just doing it on the weekends, I don’t think you’re going to have real addiction problems, but if you’re doing it every day, I mean, the degree to which this stimulates quick dopamine release, that’s the key where you can easily trigger fast dopamine release.

Then you’re asking for addiction. Whereas in normal life, the way we evolved, you work hard for something, you climb the tree, you get the fruit and then you bite into the fruit. Ah, that feels great. I’m going to climb more trees and get more fruit. That’s slow dopamine. What video games have done is incredibly fast dopamine.

And a lot of boys can’t take it, especially during early puberty. How’s that?

Emma Varvaloucas: Jonathan, what do you…

Jonathan Haidt: Please wait, wait, I want to, I want to hear Zachary push back. Zachary, if you want to frame this as a battle between us, I’m, that’d be really fun.

Zachary Karabell: Oh, I wasn’t, I wasn’t trying to do the battle. I think it’s more like it’s probing than a battle cause I’m not like, I’m not like totally in the other camp.

I am in the, I don’t know that a 90 10 split in society. I mean, if you were to say to me that 90 percent do okay to well and 10 percent get completely screwed, I am on the fence about when and how we are supposed to structure social policies to protect the 10%.

Jonathan Haidt: Are you kidding me? Wait, Zachary. Are you kidding me?

We’re talking about children here. You’re saying,

Zachary Karabell: I’m aware, but…

Jonathan Haidt: if a product only harms severely 10 percent of the kids, how do we balance that?

Zachary Karabell: It depends on how severely. Depends on how severely. I mean, look, if it was killing them, I would certainly say absolutely not.

Jonathan Haidt: Well, okay. So look, you know, lawn darts were banned years ago, but you know, it’s a game, you throw it, it’s a metal dart.

I think one kid was killed. I don’t know. It was almost nothing. That’s too much. If it saves one life, it’s worth it. No, that’s not true. But the number, just the number of suicides, we’re talking thousands of suicides, and that’s just the ones that we know about. I mean, so many of them are unreported and that’s just in the U S.

So if we’re talking many thousands of suicides, that would not have happened if the kids weren’t suddenly shamed or bullied on social media. So we’re not talking about saving a couple of lives. We’re talking about thousands of kids are actually dead because of this. Now that’s less than 1%. It’s much less than 1 percent of children die because of social media.

So if that’s all it was, if it was one in a thousand, let’s suppose it was one in a thousand kids are dead because of it. Then what would you say? Would you say, well, you know, we don’t know.

Zachary Karabell: No, no, no. I would say if you look at statistics of suicide, grim though, it is, and I’m using Statista now,, people want to go into that as a thing. Aggregate suicide rates in the United States, at least, are about 10 percent higher than they were in 1970. That doesn’t account for some of the suicide rates you talk about, which is teens and tweens, where the suicide rates are clearly substantially higher, but it is still a relatively small number.

Again, it’s hard to talk about this without seeming kind of bloodless about it because you know, all of this is profoundly tragic in any one family story. So I’m not, I get the fact that this could sound indifferent to the actual intensity of that being a bad thing. The problem of like the social science methodology in general is you can study what we know, but you can’t study the pathways that we didn’t take.

And so let’s say there’s 2000 people who you can say causatively kill themselves over the past five years because of addiction to a video game. I’m just, like, stipulating. Let’s say that’s a hypothesis. What you don’t know, particularly with COVID, but also just with society, is how many people would equivalently have had depression, anxiety, disconnection without the connective tissue that some of these things provided in an alternate universe, because you don’t get to play the tape.

But you do get to say that suicide rates were really bad 50 years ago. They probably were a lot worse 50 years ago than we think because of the social stigma.

Jonathan Haidt: That was Gen X. Yeah, we have a post on this. So this is another thing the skeptics have done. We were focused, Zach and I were focused on anxiety, depression, and self harm.

That’s a cluster of traits related to anxiety. They really travel together. We didn’t talk about suicide very much early on, in part because suicide is not a direct readout of mental health. For men in particular, when men go bankrupt, they often kill themselves. There are a lot of reasons why people kill themselves.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that they were mentally ill. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they have depression. It often means that they are shamed or humiliated and it’s an escape. And suicide is also thankfully very, very rare. So we didn’t focus on suicide. And then some of the skeptics said, well, okay, you know, uh, you’re talking about depression and anxiety, but that’s all self recorded.

Suicide, that’s the only really hard metric. Like that’s, you know, it’s pretty accurately counted. Yeah. So let’s talk about suicide. Okay. So we went and we talked about suicide. And then they said, well, you know, suicide is only it’s around where it was 30 years ago. So it’s cyclical. Like, no, it’s not cyclical.

There was a thing called leaded gas. It raised the rates of suicide and criminality all over the English speaking world. We have data on that. So you get a huge surge in the seventies and eighties from leaded gas. And then we banned leaded gas around 1980 plus or minus. And 15 to 17 years later, crime rates and suicide rates plummet everywhere.

So, there is a long term historical decline in suicide, especially since around 2000, as the lead gas stuff got it worked out. There’s a long term global decline in suicide. That’s great. But guess what? When you zoom in, we’re talking only developed countries because that’s a whole nother story. The developing world is different.

What Zach and I have done, we have a post here, I would urge, I hope people will subscribe to my Substack, It’s free, no paywall. We have a post there. Suicide rates are up for Gen Z across the Anglosphere, especially for girls. So sure, you can plot the long term decline of suicide. That’s great news all around the world for the last 20 or 30 years.

But let’s zoom in on teenagers. And let’s zoom in on Teen Girls. What do you see? You see that starting in the early 2010s, they start going up. So in the societies, we look at, we have data, we have all these graphs. You can find all the data. We’ve got links to all the sources. Yeah, fine. Let’s talk about suicide.

Yes. It’s declining around the world. Zoom in on teen girls. You see a different story. And remember, my argument isn’t just social media is everything. My argument is social media is particularly bad for girls. Here’s the evidence. Here’s more evidence. Here’s more evidence. Let’s look at suicide, self harm, hospitalizations.

I mean, I don’t know what else I can do to make the link clear for social media and girls. But there’s so much more to the book than the story. This isn’t a book about social media. It’s a book about the loss of the play based childhood. Substituted in is the phone based childhood. And this harms literally hundreds of millions of children in many different ways. And so you can’t just say, Oh, well, the link here is too small on this one link. Yeah, but there’s 50 links.

Emma Varvaloucas: Jon, I have a question for you. But actually, first, I have a question for Zachary, which is, you’re done. We’re really flipping the script every which way on this episode. You’re done raising your kids. So this this point is kind of moot.

Zachary Karabell: Maybe.

Emma Varvaloucas: If you were to have a kid again now, right? I feel like the practical suggestions that Jonathan gives in the book around social media use at what age and like how to do it are very, they’re not extreme.

They seem very realistic to me. And I don’t have a kid, but even this, like, I remember my boyfriend’s at the time, little sister was 12 when she got a social media account and she did have an issue. The parents find out that she was talking to some man who was 50 years old and some other state, you know, just that one possibility would be enough for me to be like, yeah, let’s, yeah, let’s follow these practical suggestions.

So the question for me would be like, why not do that?

Jonathan Haidt: Can I just list the four of them so we know what we’re talking about here? Because this is the key to the whole book. Once you understand that this is not an individual choice, like how much candy to eat, this is a social addiction because kids are on it, they have to be on it because everyone else is on it.

But that means that if we get off, if everyone gets off at the same time, then it’s easy. So the four norms that I’m proposing to reverse this are no smartphones before high school, just give them a flip phone or a phone watch, no social media before 16, phone-free schools, just get the phones entirely out of schools, lock them up in the morning, you get them back in the afternoon, you have six hours a day free from your phone, you might even listen to the teacher or talk to another kid, and the fourth one is more independence, free play, and responsibility in the real world. We can’t just take away the screens. We have to give kids back engagement with each other, with outdoors, with nature.

They have to be unsupervised, out having fun and learning to be self governing. So just four norms. And yeah, as you say, even my critics are saying, well, you know, the four norms are actually pretty reasonable and we could do them.

Zachary Karabell: I was probably predisposed to be more lax about all these things, but that was more of a lattice of things, including drugs and drug use.

And that societal fears about Inputs into childhood, I think are excessive. Now, some of that you agree with Jon, because the whole play based childhood thing, a lot of the absence of that was based on societal fears about, Oh my God, they’re going to fall. They’re going to hurt themselves. They’re going to do this.

Jonathan Haidt: There’s a lot of risk in it.

Zachary Karabell: Again, there’s a degree of like living in a city where a lot of the motion is pedestrian rather than cars get a little more of that.

Jonathan Haidt: The bicycles are crazy these days. The e bikes, they’re really dangerous.

Zachary Karabell: I mean, that’s true too. I did agree with like limiting TV time. So before the social media stuff.

Now, I mean, my wife and I might have disagreed about whether it should be an hour a day, or an hour and a half, or whether it should be two, you know, meaning there was a debate over the amount of time, there was not a debate that there should be an amount of time that was finite and established as part of a balance, right?

And it did happen very quickly. And hard to discern. And I felt like a lot of the people who were most adamant about like putting tracking software on their kids computers or shutting off the internet for the house were much more part of that lattice of fear that also segued with, don’t let them walk to school alone and don’t, it was hard to find someone who was like, go walk to school alone, but don’t do social media. Right?

Jonathan Haidt: That’s right.

Zachary Karabell: And so I tended to err on the side of, let’s try to have them establish some degree of balance, if they’re still having conversations, if we’re still together, if they’re still engaging, things are probably okay. And in retrospect, meaning there is no possibility of retrospect, because you can only have dealt with the effects over the past 10 years.

I would have been more mindful just like I was at screen time. Screen time then being just like iPads and movies and TV. It wasn’t social media.

Jonathan Haidt: That’s right. I was just thinking the other day how much I lament. I gave my son a smartphone in fourth grade when he started walking to school. I gave him my old iPhone, because we didn’t know any better back then.

My daughter, we delayed as long as we could, but during COVID, she was in sixth grade. They kind of insist you kind of had to have a smartphone to deal with all the restriction. And so my wife and I have played the policing game, the, what are you doing? Get off your phone game. Yeah. We tried various things and our kids are doing okay.

They never had huge addiction issues, but I think about all the time they spent, I think about how dependent they’ve become on their devices at a young age. And I just wish to God that I wouldn’t have been alone if I’d done the right thing. And that’s what I’m trying to do here. That’s what we’re trying to do with the book, with the movement.

People go to and look at Take Action because from now on, in every school, if a parent says, you know what? I’m not giving you a phone in third or fourth grade, which is the norm now. We’re going to wait until high school. You can have a flip phone. If a parent does the right thing, they won’t be the only one.

That’s my goal. And I think the uptake on the book is so rapid. I mean, cause people see this, everyone, look, parents are really afraid of this. And I’m offering them a way out. You can escape if you do it together. It’s hard to escape on your own, but just team up with the parents of your kids’ friends.

You’re probably on a text thread with them anyway, from the last birthday party. Oh, I’ll pick them up. You know, so you’re already communicating with the parents of your kids friends. So just do it together and it becomes easy and fun.

Zachary Karabell: I mean, that really is the key as you talk about, which is, it’s a little like grade inflation.

Like the one professor who says, I’m just, I’m going to lay down the line here and grade on a normal curve of grades. If it’s only one person, all you end up doing is penalizing that particular group of students and making them resent you. There’s absolutely no social utility. In fact, there’s negative social utility.

Jonathan Haidt: That’s right.

Zachary Karabell: It has to be done as a collective.

Jonathan Haidt: Oh, that’s a nice example. Thank you. I will use that one too.

Zachary Karabell: So. I certainly agree with that. Fear as a driver. You said earlier, are we alarmists, or are we raising the alarm? I don’t think you’re alarmist. I do think it’s a little too soon to tell, by the way, and it’s not too soon to tell what…

Jonathan Haidt: Wait,, what do we need?

Like what you tell me what we need.

Zachary Karabell: No no no, I think the data is clear.

Jonathan Haidt: Okay.

Zachary Karabell: I think that these things play out over a longer period of time. And we might have Abigail Shrier on the podcast in a few weeks. And one of her great issues is that the category of mental illness, i. e. depression and anxiety, has also become a promiscuous category that is socially reinforced.

And so, levels of depression and anxiety, and I’m not talking about the self reported, I’m talking about the category, does raise the question of, is this generation more anxious? First of all, we have no idea what the 1920s or 1880s generation were. They may have been completely mentally fucked up. We just don’t know because it wasn’t a category of examination.

Jonathan Haidt: But there’s all kinds of journals and diaries and letters. I mean, I don’t know the research on this, but I don’t think there’s ever been a generation this identified with anxiety, but I don’t know. I could be wrong about that.

Zachary Karabell: On this question of have we invented a category of self awareness that is problematic in and of itself?

Jonathan Haidt: Yes. And it feeds back on itself. And I mentioned this in the coddling. We mentioned this. There’s a thing called looping effects. And so if you tell kids, Oh, you know, Oh, you’ve got an anxiety disorder or you’ve got ADHD. So let’s say you’ve got an anxiety disorder. So now the kid is thinking of going to a party, but you know, but I’ve got anxiety disorder, so maybe, maybe I shouldn’t go.

Well, if you do go to the party, you’re a little nervous and then you have fun and you get over it. But if you identify with your disease and then you limit your experience, then you don’t get over it. So these are called looping effects where embracing a definition or a diagnosis, then actually can loop back to make the diagnosis more true than it was before.

So I’m completely with Shrier on this. I think that she has a big piece of the puzzle here. I didn’t know enough about what is actually happening between therapists and children. I do know that an argument I get a lot is, isn’t it great that we’ve destigmatized mental illness? Isn’t it great that kids are talking about it more?

I think Shrier’s right, that actually, no, it’s not good. It’s really not good. Of course, we don’t want stigma, but we don’t want valorization. And for many girls, especially girls who on, if you go to, you know, dissociative identity disorder Tik Tok or depression Tik Tok or anxiety Tik Tok, you’ll find lots of kids, not all female, but mostly, who get more followers and likes and more written support, the more extreme their symptoms.

And so in those communities, many young people, especially girls are coming to see that it is socially desirable to be ill and they are developing an external locus of control. They don’t feel they can do anything. They feel the world is against them. And this is at a time when girls are crushing boys.

Boys are dropping out of the real world. They’re not graduating from school as much. Girls are crushing boys for the last 20 or so years. But girls suddenly feel as though they can’t, they won’t be allowed to succeed. Everything is sexist. Everything’s oppression. I’m anxious. So I think that social media has made all the concerns that Shrier’s talking about, many of them predate social media, but I think social media has made them worse.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah, if I see one more person on Instagram that has ADHD now, I’m like, what?

Jonathan Haidt: Mm-hmm.

Emma Varvaloucas: Your whole life, I’ve never known that.

Last question for me, per the March of Time discussion we were having before, do you think that Generation Z is going to be a lot better about all of these issues with their own kids? Because they are the first generation to have gone through this, and they’re like, we don’t want to.

Jonathan Haidt: Yeah.

Emma Varvaloucas: Now, they’ve had personal experience.

It’s different when you have a parent that isn’t Actually on TikTok or really isn’t on these platforms. They don’t understand what’s going on.

Jonathan Haidt: Well, that’s a good question. I don’t know. If we look on the tech side, I think we’ll probably see a split. I think many Gen Z parents will because of their own personal experience.

But if the norms are still that you give your kid her own iPad, I just saw a shot. It’s like a third of American kids have their own iPad by age five or six, something like that. So we have to change the norms. But where I’m especially alarmed is that because Gen Z is now 28, the oldest of them are turning 28 this year, that means that kids going forward, most kids will be born to a parent who never was allowed to play outside unsupervised.

We’re going to have a generation raised by kids who have no idea what a free range childhood is, and I’m asking them to give their kids a free range childhood. So what I’m hoping is that grandparents will step in, because grandparents are humanity’s last reservoir of knowledge about how do you play outside?

How do you take care of each other? How do you navigate and find your way home if you don’t have a smartphone with you all the time? So I’m hopeful that grandparents will really step up and help their Gen Z kids to raise the next generation with a more normal and humane childhood, which will allow them to have normal brain development, normal social skills, and then they can plunk their head into a toilet bowl for the rest of their lives at the age of 18.

Zachary Karabell: Well, Jonathan, I know we are at our time. I want to thank you for the conversation. It was illuminating for me, and I think for Emma, and I hope for our listeners. You’ve done a valuable service in trying to identify something that is core to our moment. It’ll be interesting if you like write a book about AI in 10 years, we try to figure out where the artificial intelligence part of all this plays into all of this.

And that in a weird way, the movement of technology is so unbelievably hypercharged and rapid in our world that at the very moment you’ve identified a massive proximate problem with the past 10 years, we may be on the verge of an entirely new proximate problem for the next 10 years.

Jonathan Haidt: I just have a couple minutes, I’ll make one comment about AI.

So humanity has a long history of developing tools and we give some of these tools to our children and our children now have calculators and is this making them stupid? Well, you know, we can argue about that, but something I’ve come to see is that the problem isn’t giving our kids tools. The problem is giving our kids servants.

When you have servants and you see this in the accounts, you know, Frederick Douglas has an incredible account of this in narrative of the life of a slave, how he was given to a daughter of the slave owner. And she was so sweet and lovely at first. But once she had a slave, a human being was her servant, she became a monster.

And he talks about the fatal poison of irresponsible power. Now, every kid, I actually haven’t checked whether their age was, probably not. Any kid can create an AI boyfriend or girlfriend. So you can now have a person that you can interact with. You can make them look however you want. You can change their personality, order them around.

So, you know, you can make them do all sorts of sexual things. Obviously they’re not physical yet, but they will be soon. They will be in sex dolls and robots. And so what will be like when our kids have an infinite number of servants, when our kids are raised with an army of servants, not tools, it’s fine with me if you want to use AI to draw something, but if you can say, hey, you know, Bobby, my servant, my AI servant, take care of this thing for me, I have this thing to do, you do it, I don’t think our kids should have servants, I think our kids need to learn how to do things themselves, and how to use important tools, but I don’t think they should have servants, that’s going to really, really warp things.

So that’s why it’s so urgent that we establish the principle now in 2024, that technologies that are good for adults are often terrible for children. And I think the case is very clear for social media. Let’s at least agree on that. And then I think it’ll be easier for us to see that giving our kids unlimited access to AI servants, boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, probably a horrible idea and we should not do it.

Zachary Karabell: Maybe that’ll be your next book, the AI part two.

Jonathan Haidt: Yeah, I hope not, but it may be. You’re right.

Zachary Karabell: Thank you so much, Jon.

Jonathan Haidt: Okay, Zachary and Emma, my pleasure.

Emma Varvaloucas: Thank you, Jon.

Zachary Karabell: Well, Emma, I mean, that’s clearly one we could have gone on for another two hours and Still felt like we hadn’t scratched the surface. Look, I didn’t think I was in total disagreement with him.

I think, as we know from our conversations, you know, my own bias is kind of against an alarmist sensibility. Now he said, look, I’m not an alarmist. I’m ringing an alarm. And I think that’s a totally valid point. It’s also hard to untangle kind of cultural fear about something new and what that leads to in terms of knee jerk reactions against something, and again, I’m extrapolating from a lot of the war on drugs and the kind of the way in which the pendulum doesn’t tend to swing toward balance, right?

I mean, it does eventually, after multiple swings to imbalance, it stops in the middle.

Emma Varvaloucas: Hopefully.

Zachary Karabell: But that’s after a lot of oscillations from one extreme to another. And I do get uncomfortable with a degree of alarmism, even if it’s ringing an alarm, meaning the tonality of it. We talk a lot about this in the Progress Network of a sensibility of how do you deal with critical issues.

Look, Jonathan is a really interesting guy and he’s done fascinating research. He’s more engaging in that he’s not shrill, he’s not hyperbolic, he does the work and he has a point of view. And I think that’s incredibly valuable. And I think the book, as I said at the end, has done us a service of raising something of an issue and then what do we do about it? But it does feed into a kind of a () kind of social hysteria that I get uncomfortable with.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah, I guess what we didn’t really parse out is the studies about the rates of rising depression and anxiety and stuff that are self reported, how much that ties into the issue that we brought up about people being overly self aware of their mood disorders these days. And is it really like across the board, you know, like teenagers can’t handle this? Or is it what we were discussing in the beginning where it’s a small subsection that are like really seriously harmed and like, but by and large, everybody is scraping by like that sense of like the absolute numbers of the thing I don’t have a clear picture of.

And I think would help the kind of alarmist bell to sound perhaps less intensely.

Zachary Karabell: And then you do have a Gen Z reality and then a lot of Gen Z are in a hundred percent agreement with this. They feel this has been toxic and harmful and harm them and harm the social development and are kind of indignant.

I mean, I know this in conversation, not just with my sons, but with a whole cohort that to them, it’s fairly obvious what the harms have been. And I think that the issue is, of course, we’re much more acutely aware of the harms than the benefits, and the harms are observable, and the benefits are amorphous, and it’s a little like the challenge of bad news travels quickly, good news travels slowly, bad things happen in an instant, good things take a while, just raises this question of, we are acutely aware 10 years in of what the harms are and therefore the solutions, which are, I think, prudent of in the face of that knowledge, because he’s not saying don’t use these things at all.

And if he had said that I would have much more issue with the book. He’s really just saying, wait a few years, give it some time, have people be exposed to other things. There’s not a lot of harms that come with that, like the wait a few years thing. And that’s where I think the book is much more balanced.

Although it’s gonna be hard to find people who are balanced in their approach to it, but I think he is much more balanced. But it’s just like, I’d like to know what the benefits are, and I’d like someone to study the benefits. I would like there to be a social science study of someone would have been depressed without these and got happier.

It’s like, just like, I’d like the study of CBD and THC and marijuana of, we know that people who become psychotic, crazy, and addicted, but what about the people who become creative, connected, and loving, right? Like, where’s that study?

Emma Varvaloucas: Well, I don’t, I mean, do you know any adults that have become creative, connected, and loving through social media as like a, like, they’ve become more that way because of social media?

Zachary Karabell: I don’t know. I mean, I like, I, the point is, has anyone set out to actually study that as a set of variables? How would you even study it?

Emma Varvaloucas: I think that Jonathan would agree with you that there are benefits to social media. Like there are plenty of benefits that we pull as adults, like as we said in the conversation, I love TikTok.

Like, TikTok brings joy to my day. Or like, I really, really like YouTube because, well, I don’t know if YouTube even counts as social media.

Zachary Karabell: Enjoy it while you can. ’cause if you come back to the United States, there may be no TikTok for you to enjoy. So that’s a reason to stay in Greece.

Emma Varvaloucas: But you know, like there are things that people enjoy about being on social media, right?

Like I also enjoy that I can easily keep an eye on what’s going on in my friend’s lives, even when they’re in like vastly different parts of the world. Okay. I think his point is just simply like just delay that a little bit, you know, like it’s not altogether bad. It’s just particularly difficult at a certain age.

So just push it back somewhat, you know?

Zachary Karabell: Oh, I agree. I just, I would like those other studies. I’d like someone to try to establish what would the variables be of, you became more connected, you became more open, you became more aware than you would have been without it, and unfortunately, the only way to do that would be like control groups, like there’s one group at 15 who doesn’t get social media to 20, and there’s one group that gets a lot of it, and then what would a placebo be in that study?

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah, yeah. I understand what you’re saying. There’s a very small amount of data from Pew, like, self reporting about, like, teens own views of social media. And, like, they do find, like, there’s a lot of positive things about it. Connection being one of them, as you mentioned. So there is some cherry picking.

I mean, Jon does mention that data in his book, but does not go into it very much. But there is at least some on the other side, but you’re right that there’s a dearth of it, it’s not a lot.

Zachary Karabell: Right, so to be fair, like, I’m not saying that he has in any way cherry picked the data, I’m saying there’s a whole realm of statistical questions, and this is definitely true of drug use, that we simply have not asked and simply don’t study, and it would be really hard to study, given it’s hard to have control groups of human beings.

I know there are lots of social scientists out there saying, no, no, no, that’s not true, we can do meta studies and lots of stuff, and yes, there are ways of getting at it, but I’m just talking about some ideal world where you could ask a different question and study the results differently. And most of the studies study harm, they don’t study benefits of these things.

Emma Varvaloucas: Fair enough, I guess, because it was beneficial. I mean, what were we to do with that? Just let things be, you know.

Zachary Karabell: Maybe. We may have gotten off on a tangent here, but it’s a tangent that I’m particularly interested in. It’s a great book, and it’s a great argument to engage. And at the end, he made the point, we did focus hugely on social media in our conversation.

A lot of his point is also the coddling part, meaning kids don’t go to playgrounds, they don’t go on play dates, they don’t have a physical childhood, they have a virtual childhood, and that there’s huge harms of that, particularly in conjunction with social media. I mean, it’s not counterbalanced effectively by a physical childhood and he’s a huge advocate for that.

And as he pointed out the end, you can’t understand his overall argument without that component of it.

Emma Varvaloucas: Right.

Zachary Karabell: It’s not just what happens in social media land. It’s what doesn’t happen in physical land.

Emma Varvaloucas: Right, he wants us to be more like the parents on that Japanese TV show with like those really young toddlers, like 34 years old, where they send them out for an errand.

Zachary Karabell: Right.

Emma Varvaloucas: And obviously a TV crew is following them, but they go, you know, one mile away to go to the mini market and like the fun of the show is like is the kid gonna like really do the errand and like they’re supposed to or they’re gonna eat the thing on the way home or whatever but like, of course it’s a TV crew there but like that’s the premise right that like kids are capable of doing a lot of stuff at a much younger age than they’re given credit for a lot of the time in American life.

Zachary Karabell: So go buy the book Anxious Generation, Jonathan Haidt. Let us know what you think about this conversation if you think we’ve insufficiently invested it with the urgency of the moment or not. This is clearly a set of conversations we will keep having and all of us are going to keep having because we’re trying to figure out what the hell’s going on with all these new tools and servants. I love that distinction he made at the end of, tools are good, servants, maybe not so good, particularly for kids. Sign up for our newsletter. It’s What Could Go Right?. And it is on Send us your questions, comments, ideas. And we will do our best to address them.

So thank you for your time today. We’ll be back with you next week, and thank you, Emma, as always.

Emma Varvaloucas: Thanks everybody.

Zachary Karabell: What Could Go Right is produced by the Podglomerate executive, produced by Jeff Umbro, marketing by the Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right, the Progress Network, or to subscribe to the What Could Go Right newsletter, visit

Thanks for listening.


Meet the Hosts

Zachary Karabell

Emma Varvaloucas


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