Jonathan Haidt on the importance of keeping kids away from a ‘phone-based life’

Virgin Radio

11 Jul 2024, 10:51

Jonathan Haidt at Virgin Radio, and with Chris Evans

Credit: Virgin Radio

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt visited Virgin Radio to discuss how the rise of smartphone usage has contributed to increased mental distress among teenagers.

With his new book, ‘The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness’, out now, the author joined the Chris Evans Breakfast Show with webuyanycar. He said: “We can't keep our kids off of the internet, but we must keep our kids away from continuous 24/7 access to the internet in their pocket, in private, in their bedroom, when strange men all around the world are trying to contact them and get them to share photos.”

Jonathan added: “Don't keep away from the internet, but do keep them away from the phone-based life.”



Dr Rangan Chatterjee explains why now is ‘the best time of year to make changes’

Movement therapist Helen Hall shares tips to help you ‘go faster for no more effort’

Dr Mindy Pelz explains how you can take ‘your health power back’ through fasting


When Chris asked why a laptop might be better for children than a smartphone, the social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business replied: “A laptop is better for a couple of reasons. What I tell my daughter is, ‘Look, you want to be in touch with your friends, use your laptop.’ 

“Touchscreen technology is uniquely powerful. B.F. Skinner, one of the founders of behaviourism, taught us that if you want to train an animal, the trick is to give them a reinforcement as quickly as possible after the behaviour, and if you wait an extra second, you get much less learning. So on a laptop, you have to move the cursor. You click what you want, you hit it, it takes a second or two to do something, whereas on the touchscreen, it's pretty much instant.”

He added: “It's also more colourful, it's also closer to their eyes. And so, for a lot of reasons, a phone-based childhood, which is what Gen Z has, is much worse for development than a laptop-based childhood, which is what Millennials had, to some extent.”

The academic continued: “So, that's part of it. But also, I think what I would advise here is, send your kids out, give them a phone, but it should be a flip phone or a brick phone. Your kid does not need the internet in their pocket to go to the ice cream store, to go to school. 

“Let them have a flip phone before 14. And then when you do give them a smartphone, have some times that are phone-free. The most important is school. Get the school to be phone-free. Then they use the phone to get home. As soon as they get home, that was the rule in my house, ‘You put your phone on the kitchen counter. You can charge it, but that's it. You can use your laptop and no screens at all at mealtime, and all screens out of the bedroom by a certain time.

Chris asked what the difference is between the current concern over smartphones and previous parental worries about things such as rock n roll, telly, and even comic books, Jonathan said: “There were a lot of previous moral panics.”

However, he explained: “This is different for a couple of reasons. One, there's never been an instant, huge increase in mental illness the instant kids got on a technology. It did not happen with comic books. 

“Second, we never saw kids organising to say, ‘Please, comic book makers, please make your comic books less addictive. We can't stop reading them. Please stop.’ But we're getting all kinds of Gen Z organisations, because you talk to any Gen Z kid between 20 and 28, and you ask them, ‘Would you say that growing up with phones and social media has been good for you and your generation?’ You will never find anyone saying yes.”

He added: “They know this thing is destroying them and they need a way out. That was not true with comic books or television or anything else. So this is really different.”

The Anxious Generation: How The Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness is out now.

For more great interviews listen to The Chris Evans Breakfast Show with webuyanycar weekdays from 6:30am on Virgin Radio, or catch up on-demand here.