The Internet Is a Wasteland, So Give Kids Better Places to Go

In January, I had the odd experience of nodding along with Senator Lindsey Graham, who can usually be relied on to be wrong, as he berated supervillain Mark Zuckerberg, head of Facebook’s parent company, Meta, about the effect its products have on kids. “You have blood on your hands,” said Graham.

That evening, I moderated a panel on social media regulation whose participants included New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, a progressive crusader and perhaps Donald Trump’s single most effective antagonist. Her position wasn’t that different from that of Graham, a South Carolina Republican. There is a correlation, she pointed out, between the proliferation of addictive social media algorithms and the collapse of young people’s mental health, including rising rates of depression, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

“And I’ve seen that for myself,” she said, describing helping the family of a young girl find a scarce psychiatric bed during the pandemic. “She talked to me a lot about social media.”

Because alarm over what social media is doing to kids is broad and bipartisan, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt is pushing on an open door with his important new book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.” The shift in kids’ energy and attention from the physical world to the virtual one, Haidt shows, has been catastrophic, especially for girls.

Female adolescence was nightmarish enough before smartphones, but apps like Instagram and TikTok have put popularity contests and unrealistic beauty standards into hyperdrive. (Boys, by contrast, have more problems linked to overuse of video games and porn.) The studies Haidt cites — as well as the ones he debunks — should put to bed the notion that concern over kids and phones is just a modern moral panic akin to previous generations’ hand-wringing over radio, comic books and television.

But I suspect that many readers won’t need convincing. The question in our politics is less whether these ubiquitous new technologies are causing widespread psychological damage than what can be done about it.

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