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Jonathan Haidt on the ‘National Crisis’ of Gen Z

Warped by social media and a victimhood culture, today’s young people will imperil American culture and capitalism, the social psychologist warns.

By Tunku Varadarajan Dec. 30, 2022 4:12 pm ET

The phrase “generation gap” became popular in the late 1960s, as baby boomers were coming of age. To hear social psychologist Jonathan Haidt tell it, today’s generation gap has widened into a chasm. “We have a whole generation that’s doing terribly,” he says in an interview at his professorial office, book-lined and hushed, at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He calls it a “national crisis.”

At 59, Mr. Haidt is a young boomer, and he isn’t talking about millennials, some of whom are in their 40s by now. Rather, he has in mind the younger cohort, Generation Z, usually defined as those born between 1997 and 2012. “When you look at Americans born after 1995,” Mr. Haidt says, “what you find is that they have extraordinarily high rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide and fragility.” There has “never been a generation this depressed, anxious and fragile.”

He attributes this to the combination of social media and a culture that emphasizes victimhood. The latter was the subject of his most recent book, “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure” (2018), with co-author Greg Lukianoff. Social media is Mr. Haidt’s present obsession. He’s working on two books that address its harmful impact on American society: “Kids in Space: Why Teen Mental Health Is Collapsing” and “Life After Babel: Adapting to a World We Can No Longer Share.”

The former title is a metaphor. Mr. Haidt imagines “literally launching our children into outer space” and letting their bodies grow there: “They would come out deformed and broken. Their limbs wouldn’t be right. You can’t physically grow up in outer space. Human bodies can’t do that.” Yet “we basically do that to them socially. We launched them into outer space around the year 2012,” he says, “and then we expect that they will grow up normally without having normal human experiences.”

Mr. Haidt’s research, confirmed by that of others, shows that depression rates started to rise “all of a sudden” around 2013, “especially for teen girls,” but “it’s only Gen Z, not the older generations.” If you’d stopped collecting data in 2011, he says, you’d see little change from previous years. “By 2015 it’s an epidemic.” (His data are available in an open-source document.)

What happened in 2012, when the oldest Gen-Z babies were in their middle teens? That was the year Facebook acquired Instagram and young people flocked to the latter site. It was also “the beginning of the selfie era.” Apple’s iPhone 4, released in 2010, had the first front-facing camera, which was much improved in the iPhone 5, introduced two years later. Social media and selfies hit a generation that had led an overprotected childhood, in which the age at which children were allowed outside on their own by parents had risen from the norm of previous generations, 7 or 8, to between 10 and 12.

That meant the first social-media generation was one of “weakened kids” who “hadn’t practiced the skills of adulthood in a low-stakes environment” with other children. They were deprived of “the normal toughening, the normal strengthening, the normal anti-fragility.” Before 2010, teenagers had flip phones. “They’d text each other and say, ‘Let’s meet down at the mall.’ They would do things together.” Now, their childhood “is largely just through the phone. They no longer even hang out together.” Teenagers even drive less than earlier generations did.

Mr. Haidt especially worries about girls. By 2020 more than 25% of female teenagers had “a major depression.” The comparable number for boys was just under 9%. The comparable numbers for millennials at the same age registered at half the Gen-Z rate: about 13% for girls and 5% for boys. “Kids are on their devices all the time,” he says, but boys play videogames, often in groups: “Boys thrive if they have a group of boys competing against another group of boys.”

Most girls, by contrast, are drawn to “visual platforms,” Instagram and TikTok in particular. “Those are about display and performance. You post your perfect life, and then you flip through the photos of other girls who have a more perfect life, and you feel depressed.” He calls this phenomenon “compare and despair” and says: “It seems social because you’re communicating with people. But it’s performative. You don’t actually get social relationships. You get weak, fake social links.”

Mr. Haidt says he has no antipathy toward the young, and he calls millennials “amazing.” Older folks make fun of them, “but that’s the normal teasing across generations that you get going back to Plato.” To illustrate his point about Gen Z, Mr. Haidt challenges people to name young people today who are “really changing the world, who are doing big things that have an impact beyond their closed ecosystem.” He can think of only two, neither of them American: Greta Thunberg, 19, the Swedish climate militant, and Malala Yousafzai, 25, the Pakistani advocate for female education. By contrast, he says millennials remade the “entire world”—though not necessarily for the better. Mark Zuckerberg, born in 1984, founded Facebook when he was 20.

He concedes that his judgment of Gen Z may be premature: “It could be that you’ll see some impact in three or four years, by the time they’re 30. But I’m predicting that they will be less effective, less impactful, than previous generations.” Why? “You should always keep your eye on whether people are in ‘discover mode’ or ‘defend mode.’ ” In the former mode, you seize opportunities to be creative. In the latter, “you’re not creative, you’re not future-thinking, you’re focused on threats in the present.”

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