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A Letter from the Executive Director of NAMLE (National Association for Media Literacy Education)

Editor's Note: This Letter is reprinted by permission. We read it and felt you had to read it too!


In July 2023, I wrote in my NAMLE E.D. newsletter about my frustration with social media bans and about an article that appeared in the Atlantic on June 6, 2023, Get Phones Out of Schools Now written by Jonathan Haidt. I reached out to some NAMLE members to get their take on the topic of “no phones in school” and most had similar thoughts to mine; let’s lean into educating people to thrive, not banning or prohibiting use. 

The Great Rewiring
The Anxious Generation


      














Over the last several weeks, these topics have become top of mind again. I have been reading and thinking a lot about the TikTok law that was passed. It’s also been impossible not to see a lot about Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Anxious Generation. He’s been everywhere from the NY Times to Jessica Seinfeld’s Instagram feed. Either Haidt has an amazing publicist or Penguin Press has an incredibly large marketing budget. Or both. It’s amazing the attention one can get when they claim to solve the teen mental health crisis in four easy steps:


  1. No smartphones before high school.

  2. No social media before 16.

  3. Phone-free schools.

  4. More independence, free play, and responsibility in the real world.


In the midst of the PR whirlwind for the book, I realized that I could sit and mumble to myself at my desk about how media literacy education is absent from the conversation or I could pick up the book and actually read it to see what it said. So I did. (Spoiler alert: media literacy education is not mentioned.)


The press is covering this book as if it’s only a call to arms against social media and smartphones. Not surprising, right? That’s a great headline. The truth is there’s a lot of stuff in here focused on giving kids more freedom (step 4), which could lead to very interesting conversations, but it’s getting lost in the rhetoric that is getting more clicks (steps 1-3). The way this book is being promoted is a media literacy lesson in itself. I actually agree with Haidt’s notion that we have overprotected young people in the real world and underprotected them in the virtual world. He writes,


“In recent decades, America and many other Western nations made two contradictory choices about children’s safety, and both were wrong. We decided that the real world was so full of dangers that children should not be allowed to explore it without adult supervision, even though risks to children from crime, violence, drunk drivers, and most other sources have dropped steeply since the 1990s. At the same time, it seemed like too much of a bother to design and require age-appropriate guardrails for kids online, so we left children free to wander through the Wild West of the virtual world, where threats to children abounded.” (Pg. 67)

We should absolutely create a world in which kids have more freedom, more free time, and lots of time for play. We should make sure they are getting enough sleep, hanging out with their friends, and living balanced, healthy lives. There should definitely be a road map for how we introduce technology and media into kids’s lives at different ages. We should do what we can to protect children from the harms of the online world. We should look toward effective regulation of social media companies to ensure that the online world is as safe as possible, especially for young people. 


This is where my alignment with Haidt falters. And it veers off pretty significantly. 


In this book, Haidt is doing exactly what led parents to restrict their children’s freedom over the last few decades: scaring the crap out of them. In the book, he speaks against “media fueled fear” (Pg. 254), and yet this book is one long worst case scenario. I had to put down the book a few times as I was reading it because it was stressing me out so badly. He generalizes an entire generation with cherry picked studies focused solely on countries in the Anglosphere. He does not distinguish different social media platforms, multitudes of content, and context of usage. He presents an incredibly privileged perspective with solutions that are generalized for all. (Too much screen time? “Go camping.” “Find a sleepaway camp with no devices.” - Pg. 273.) 


Haidt, and the media covering him, want there to be a clear answer to the mental health crisis for young people. Haidt proclaims that social media and smartphones are causing the mental health crisis. He dedicates only three pages to alternative theories; academic stress, 24/7 news media, climate change, political polarization, the economy. Nope. His argument against other reasoning is thin. For example, when mentioning that teen’s poor mental health could not be about the rise in school shootings (the Sandy Hook school shooting was in 2010, the pivotal year he mentions in the decline of mental health for teens), he claims that since students in Canada and the United Kingdom are also seeing declining mental health, it can’t be connected. Of course, this absolutely disregards that we live in a global news environment. Just because something is happening somewhere else doesn’t mean it can’t stress us out. 


If you look at these two graphs beside each other, you can see something happening in 2010. An increase in school shootings and an increase in smartphone use. Seems convenient that Haidt doesn’t dive into this a bit more. I am not saying school shootings are the reason teen mental health is on the decline, but I am saying that it’s likely a complicated, nuanced, messy mix of things. This is just one example that is incredibly easy to find of something else that might be impacting them. 


Number of school schootings
Major Depression Among Teens

 









Haidt also seems to look back with nostalgia at a time that may not have existed for most of us. A world in which teens sat around talking and sharing their feelings with family and friends. Now he says, “Family life has come to be dominated by disagreements about technology” (Pg. 21) as if teens and parents had nothing to fight about before. He claims that “Over the course of many decades, we found ways to protect children...” (Pg. 14) As a Gen X woman, I can say it sure didn’t feel that way to me growing up. And while we are at it, I got to play alone in the street with my friends, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t fraught with anxiety and body image issues in my teens. I’d argue that teenagers have always needed mental health support. At least now, we are talking about it and seeking answers. 


The most egregious part of the book however is outlined in Candice L. Odgers review, The great rewiring: is social media really behind an epidemic of teenage mental illness?. The bottom line: the science doesn’t support Haidt’s argument that social media and smartphones are the cause of the teen mental health crisis. Odgers writes,


“Hundreds of researchers, myself included, have searched for the kind of large effects suggested by Haidt. Our efforts have produced a mix of no, small and mixed associations. Most data are correlative. When associations over time are found, they suggest not that social-media use predicts or causes depression, but that young people who already have mental-health problems use such platforms more often or in different ways from their healthy peers.
These are not just our data or my opinion. Several meta-analyses and systematic reviews converge on the same message. An analysis done in 72 countries shows no consistent or measurable associations between well-being and the roll-out of social media globally. Moreover, findings from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, the largest long-term study of adolescent brain development in the United States, has found no evidence of drastic changes associated with digital-technology use. Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, is a gifted storyteller, but his tale is currently one searching for evidence.”

You can hear Dr. Odgers debate this with Jim Steyer from Common Sense Media on this episode of WNYC’s Open to Debate. She does an incredible job laying out the evidence. Another podcast episode that I highly recommend (thanks, Faith Rogow for sharing about it!) listening to is Tech Dirt’s interview with Professor Andy Przybylski from the University of Oxford. This is a brilliant, reasonable discussion about the issue. Professor Przybylsk is also interviewed in this piece Inside the debate over the Anxious Generation. As he sums up, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Right now, I’d argue he doesn’t have that.” 


There’s even evidence that phone bans in school may not be effective. These Australian researchers looked at evidence on mobile phone bans in schools and their study suggests “the evidence for banning mobile phones in schools is weak and inconclusive.” 


We cannot erase the reality of the world. We cannot go back to a world that is not saturated with media and technology. Media messages are everywhere. Technology is ubiquitous. Home assistants. Laptops. Chrome books. Television. Streaming services. Grade tracking apps. If we take away smartphones or limit social media until young people turn 16, they will still have access. They will still need to confront the news of the world. They will still navigate a media saturated ecosystem. They will still need to manage growing up in a complex and confusing world. By focusing on social media and smartphones as the cause of the teen mental health crisis, we risk not solving the problem and giving young people the support they need and education they deserve. As Dr. Odgers states in her book review, “the bold proposal that social media is to blame might distract us from effectively responding to the real causes of the current mental-health crisis in young people.”


Education Not Offered As a Solution


In 298 pages, Haidt never mentions media literacy education, digital citizenship or digital wellness interventions. Interestingly, he makes an argument for media literacy education without intention. He speaks about “discover mode” saying that “People who go through life in discover mode are happier, more sociable, and more eager for new experiences. Conversely, people who are chronically in defend mode are more defensive and anxious, and they have only rare moments of perceived safety.” (Pg. 70) Media literacy education is ultimately about discovery and inquiry. Don’t young people deserve the chance to learn and grow in the environment they live in? 


I believe they do. That is why I work every day to advance media literacy education. I believe the conversation should not be about how we shield young people from the world that surrounds them but about how we prepare them to thrive. (See NAMLE’s Deputy Director’s thoughts on this topic that she shared with Michael Smerconish, the host of a daily radio program on SiriusXM’s POTUS channel, on how we need to be directing our efforts to media literacy education.) Right now, the moral panic over the changes in technology is dominant in cultural conversation. Haidt’s book sales prove that. But to me, it’s all a rallying cry for media literacy education. If we want to support young people, we need to educate them, and we know media literacy education interventions work.  


Here are five meaningful outcomes of media literacy education, identified through a large-scale analysis of media literacy research from 2016-2024 (Gambino, 2024). 


  1. Media literacy education helps people discern quality information and make more informed decisions,

  2. Media literacy education helps young people develop healthy mindsets,

  3. Media literacy education helps people make sense of the world and themselves,

  4. Media literacy education teaches learners to use media creatively and impactfully,

  5. Media literacy education brings learning to life.


Young people deserve to be empowered and to participate fully in society. If you have ever met a teenager, you know you can’t hold them back. Instead, we should be giving them every ability to be successful with the tools and skills available to them. As Haidt says himself, “Our kids can do so much more than we let them. Our culture of fear has kept this truth from us. They are like racehorses stuck in the stable. It’s time to let them out.” (Pg. 256)


I couldn’t agree more. 


About the Author:

Author Michelle Lipkin

Michelle Ciulla Lipkin has served as Executive Director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education since 2012. Michelle has helped NAMLE grow to be the preeminent media literacy education association in the U.S. She launched Media Literacy Week in the U.S. now in its 10th year, developed strategic partnerships with companies such as Thomson Reuters, Meta, YouTube, and Nickelodeon, and restructured both the governance and membership of NAMLE. She has overseen seven national conferences, created the National Media Literacy Alliance for teacher membership organizations, and done countless appearances at conferences and in the media regarding the importance of media literacy education. Michelle was the recipient of the 2020 Global Media and Information Literacy Award given by UNESCO.

Michelle is an alumni of the U.S. Dept. of State’s International Visitors Program (Australia/2018). She regularly serves as Adjunct Lecturer at Brooklyn College where she teaches Media Literacy. She sits on the Advisory Council for the ML3: Librarians as Leaders for Media Literacy initiative led by Project Look Sharp.


Michelle began her career in children’s television production, in various roles on both corporate and production teams. She earned both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from New York University. Michelle focused her grad work on children and television where she caught the “media literacy bug”. After graduate school, Michelle worked as a facilitator for The LAMP (Learning about Multimedia Project) teaching media literacy and production classes for Pre-Kindergarten to 5th grade students.

Her passion for media literacy education stems from a very personal place. Learn more about Michelle’s story here.


When not thinking about media literacy, Michelle is either sitting at home in Brooklyn with her dog and husband, most likely reading, or at one of her kids’ music gigs somewhere around the country.

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