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“The Anxious Generation”: A Book Review



Jonathan Haidt's compelling book, "The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness," delves into the profound impact of childhood experiences on today's youth's mental health and well-being. Among the many thought-provoking topics explored in the book, one particularly intriguing aspect is comparing the “play-based childhood” (children who came into adolescence before 2010) to the “phone-based childhood” (children who came into adolescence from 2010 - to the present). Drawing on extensive research in child development and psychology, Haidt explains how these contrasting childhood experiences shape individuals' perceptions, behaviors, and overall resilience. I couldn't help but nod in agreement through most of this compelling book. As one of my teens said after reading it: “Yep, this checks out.”


What It's About


Haidt, also the author of the bestselling book “The Coddling of the American Mind,” argues that the pervasive use of smartphones and digital technology has fundamentally altered childhood, replacing traditional play and critical social interaction with isolated, sedentary, screen-based activities. This shift, he contends, has contributed to a host of psychological challenges among today's youth, including increased rates of anxiety, depression, and social isolation. Haidt underscores the importance of fostering environments prioritizing unstructured play, outdoor exploration, and face-to-face interactions for children's holistic development.


His chapter on play was especially interesting since I can’t help but compare it to my experience working in a Waldorf school, where our Early Childhood curriculum and the “work of the young child” (a phrase both Haidt and I use regularly) is play. The research on what kids learn from play is incredibly strong. Haidt directly correlates the lack of independent, risk-taking play prevalent in kids up to the 1980s and the shift in more parentally-supervised play from the 1990s to today. Even though the real world is actually much safer for kids today than before the 1980s, parents share they feel more comfortable having their kids directly supervised at all times.

“We are overprotecting our children in the real world while under-protecting them online,” remarks Haidt.

How Childhood Has Changed


Allowing young kids to use social media has been a grand experiment with unforeseen consequences, according to Haidt. He highlights the pervasive influence of social media platforms that have transformed childhood, often without adequate safeguards or understanding of their effects upon child development. With limited privacy protections and safety nets in place, children have become unwitting subjects in this digital experiment, with potentially detrimental effects on their mental health and well-being.


Haidt emphasizes the correlation between early exposure to social media, particularly during the formative years between 11-14 for girls and 14-16 for boys, and worsened mental health outcomes. This stark reality underscores the urgent need for comprehensive research, understanding, and regulation to safeguard the psychological welfare of today's youth in an increasingly digital world.


Backed by a wealth of correlational studies in child development and psychology, Haidt makes a compelling case for reevaluating our societal norms around technology use, particularly among children and adolescents. 


While not everyone agrees with Haidt's findings or the assertion of causation over correlation, Haidt and his research team maintain transparency about the preliminary nature of their hypotheses. Unfortunately, these research questions divert attention from actionable and sensible suggestions in the book that could genuinely benefit children.


As a parent, I personally find comfort in my children's elementary Waldorf school experience, where they are mostly shielded from the pressures of early smartphone access. However, amidst the growing concerns about the digital landscape's impact on our children, it's crucial to address regulatory gaps like the outdated Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which arbitrarily set age thresholds for social media access to 13 back in 1998 (ahem, before social media as we know it), and has since failed to meet the needs to address privacy, mental wellness, and the tech-giant overreach of our time.


We must advocate for stricter regulations and demand greater accountability from tech companies and social media platforms to safeguard our children's well-being and privacy.

What Waldorf Schools Got Right


When I consider Haidt’s work in light of Waldorf education, I’m so proud of our approach, largely swimming against the grain for the last fourteen years since the start of the “phone-based” childhood. Haidt advocates for four “new norms” to protect children going forward:


  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


For many Waldorf schools, these are their “established norms.” Most have adopted the Cyber Civics curriculum and have smartphone acquisition recommendations that align with the fact that their students will have specific media literacy education through Cyber Civics for three years during the formative years of middle school. If I have any critique of Haidt’s work in The Anxious Generation, he simply missed the opportunity to highlight the importance of media literacy education. 


For example, during Cyber Civics classes, we discuss daily media-use balance and track media use for 24 hours. Students categorize their media use (passive/active, creative/consumptive, social media/mainstream media, academic/leisure, etc.). This reflective process culminates with a written assignment about the true nature of an individual's time with the media. In addition, we then do a 24-hour media ‘fast’ together as a class. While optional, most students tend to participate, if nothing else, for the challenge! Unfortunately, getting parents on board to participate in the challenge with their students has been increasingly difficult—a complaint frequently brought up in class!


Items number three and four are hallmarks of a Waldorf Education. Haidt adeptly remarks that “away in class” is not enough concerning phones at school. The constant disruptions and notifications, coupled with the social impacts of students being “alone together” in between classes and during lunch or breaks, are devastating for adolescents' mental health, academic achievement, and social learning. Waldorf schools, again, are leading the way in educating children through the lens and science of child development rather than reacting to trends.


Haidt’s book offers a timely and well-supported examination of the contemporary landscape, particularly relevant for parents and GenZ individuals seeking insight into their world. Unlike many works in this genre that present only dire warnings without feasible solutions, Haidt's book stands out by providing thoughtful, actionable, and practical approaches to address the pressing issues at hand. It offers sensible strategies that are largely accessible and cost-effective. Haidt's assertion that “[i]f we really want to keep our children safe, we should delay their entry into the virtual world and send them out into the real world instead” offers a compelling approach to safeguarding their well-being.


About the Author:


Soni Albright

Soni joined the Cyber Civics team to focus on the enrollment and successful onboarding of schools, homeschoolers, and organizations. She also gives instructional webinars. As the Admissions Director and Cyber Civics teacher at the City of Lakes Waldorf School in Minneapolis, MN, she has extensive experience in the curriculum and also in education. Her classroom experience spans over two decades and includes homeschool/coop, Montessori, and Waldorf pedagogy. She holds a B.A. in Education and Fine Arts from the University of North Dakota.

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