Review and Summary: The Anxious Generation

The Anxious generation Book Cover

As a millennial, I sense a marked difference in the childhood experiences of today’s kids compared to my own. Of course, I know that each generation is different to each other and incomparable just like how mine differed significantly from the boomers’. However, the shifts I observe nowadays don’t seem entirely positive. It’s become more common to find children who are quick-tempered with short attention spans. Encountering kids with a deep sense of empathy is becoming rare. At the same time, it’s increasingly typical to see children with eyes glued to YouTube and iPads in their hands.

I believe most of us aware that those issues are triggered by the rising usage of smartphones and social media. Still, I do not have deep understanding on it. Thus, I was thrilled to find that Jonathan Haidt has covered this global concern in his latest book, The Anxious Generation. I found this book is full of explanations in child development and human evolution that are hard to ignore. Haidt encourages readers to understand the importance of allowing children the freedom to explore the world and interacting with peers of various ages. He also recognizes that experiencing and overcoming physical risks in the course of outdoor play can build resilience and prepare children to tackle real-world challenges.

Gen Z is paying for the high exposure to digital devices and social media with rising numbers of anxiety and depression. Some might argue that this increase in mental health issues could be due to Generation Z’s greater awareness of mental health. However, Jonathan Haidt challenges this assumption by analyzing rates of emergency psychiatric care and hospital admissions for self-harm. These findings suggest an actual growing trend in mental health problems, with girls being specifically more vulnerable.

There are many more surprising revelations and explanations in The Anxious Generation. More than exposing the effects of technology and social media, Haidt also offers several advices to governments, schools, and parents on creating a friendly environment for our children. I think this book is not only suitable for parents but also for anyone because we all are exposed to tech and social media that our mental health is unconsciously suffered by the negative effects of their existence so we can create healthy environment to ourselves and support the next generation in the era of inevitable technology advancement.


Kids benefit greatly from having plenty of unstructured playtime. This kind of play involves overcoming small challenges and setbacks, which act like early lessons in resilience, preparing them for bigger hurdles later in life. Historically, free play was a major part of childhood, but it has significantly decreased since the 1980s.

Human evolution has extended childhood not just for learning, but to embed three key instincts that naturally enhance learning:

  1. Motivations for free play
    • Play has always been central to how children learn and grow, mimicking how hunter-gatherer societies raised their young with abundant playtime. This kind of upbringing aligns with how human brains have evolved, expecting significant amounts of play during development.
    • Kids need to engage in active play regularly. This kind of play helps develop their brains through physical activities and solving problems in real-time, in a fun, low-pressure setting. Whether they’re figuring out how to climb a tree or play tag, they’re learning through action, not instruction.
    • The most beneficial play occurs outdoors, with other kids of various ages. This type of play often includes physical risks, which teach children important lessons about taking care of themselves and others. The beauty of play lies in its nature of being self-directed and not aimed at any goal beyond the joy of the activity itself.
    • It’s not structured activities like homework or classes on emotional management that best prepare children for life; it’s the rich, varied experiences they gain through play. This aligns with insights from cognitive behavioral therapy, which suggests that personal experience is crucial for emotional growth.
  2. Attunement
    • From an early age, children are programmed to sync up with others through shared activities and emotions. This starts with simple games with adults and evolves into more complex social interactions as they grow. These interactions, often playful and rhythmic like a tennis match, are essential for developing social skills.
  3. Social Learning
    • As humans evolved into cultural beings, children who were skilled at observing and mimicking others had an advantage. This innate desire to imitate helps them learn effectively, especially when they choose the right models to follow.

Critical and Sensitive Period

Humans go through many sensitive periods. These periods mean when it’s easier for us to learn specific skills or absorb new information. After these periods, mastering the same skills can become much more challenging.

One of the best example of sensitive periods is language learning. Young kids can pick up multiple languages and speak them flawlessly. This skill declines sharply after puberty. For instance, when families move to a new country, children under 12 often adapt quickly and can blend in with native speakers seamlessly.

In the past, children’s learning experiences were deliberately planned to take advantage of these sensitive periods, particularly through interactive and hands-on play. However, in current digital era, with the existence of smartphones and other devices, children’s learning environments are less tailored and more out of sync with their developmental stages. They often encounter adult content and complex situations prematurely, which can disrupt their natural learning process and prove less effective.

The Impact of Technology on Generation Z’s Development

Generation Z, those who began hitting puberty around 2009, experienced their adolescence in a unique technological environment. This period marked the significant tech developments: the widespread adoption of high-speed broadband, the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, and the explosion of hyper-viral social media platforms. As a result, Gen Z became the first generation to go through puberty by having a gateway to the world in their pockets.

Historically, humans have evolved as physical beings, relying on face-to-face interactions and body languages for communication. These interactions occur in real time and are integral to developing social skills and emotional intelligence. However, Gen Z’s experience is markedly different. Instead of developing communication skills through direct interaction, they are learning to talk using digital symbols like emojis.

This shift represents a significant departure from the traditional, real-world social environments that have shaped human development for millennia. Haidt refers to this transformation as the Great Rewiring of Childhood, suggesting that Gen Z is at the forefront of a radical experiment. This new way of adulting could have deep implications on how they learn, communicate, and form relationships.

The Great Rewiring of Childhood

The transformation in how children grow up isn’t only because of the new technologies that occupy their time and attention. This shift characterized by an increasingly protective parenting that limits children’s independence in the real world. This well-intention but ultimately harmful trend suggests that any child going or playing outside without adult supervision could potentially become a target for kidnappers and sex offenders. Consequently, gadgets tend to become more appealing, traditional unsupervised outdoor play declined, leading to a shift from a play-based childhood to a phone-based childhood.

As this transition took hold, many children and adolescents seemed happier to stay indoors, engaging with the online world instead. This shift meant they missed out on the challenging physical and social experiences necessary for developing essential life skills. These experiences help young mammals learn to handle complex situations, conquer natural childhood fears, and become more independent from their parents.

Maybe It’s Not Just the Gadgets and Social Media—Perhaps the World Is Getting Tougher?

Well, it is true that the world doesn’t look like getting any better but this is not the first time human have to overcome challenging global issues.

The Millennial generation (born 1981-1995) also faced substantial multiple challenges. They witnessed disruptions in their previously stable childhood environments and saw their prospects for economic advancement diminish.

In fact, people don’t become depressed simply from facing threats together; they become depressed from feelings of isolation, loneliness, or feeling unnecessary. While collective anxiety can unite people and motivate action—an often exhilarating experience—recent studies suggest a change.

Today’s young activists, including those engaged in climate change movements, frequently report worse mental health compared to activists in previous generations. This decline may be linked to modern activism’s heavy reliance on online platforms, which impacts mental health differently than in-person community-based activism.

Key Harms to Gen Z’s Development

  • Social Deprivation
    • The shift to digital connectivity has devastated Gen Z’s social lives by linking them globally while isolating them locally.
  • Sleep Deprivation
    • Adequate sleep is crucial for academic and life performance, especially during puberty when the brain is developing rapidly. Sleep-deprived teens struggle with concentration, memory, reaction times, decision-making, and motor skills, increasing their risk of accidents. They are also more irritable and anxious, impacting their relationships. Prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain, immune suppression, and other health issues. Teens need significantly more sleep than adults—at least 9 hours for preteens and 8 hours for teens.
  • Attention Fragmentation
    • Adolescents are expected to develop executive functions, which include self-control, focus, and resisting distractions. These are vital for planning and executing tasks. A childhood dominated by phone use can severely impair the development of these essential skills.
  • Addiction
    • Engaging with smartphones and social media can lead to addiction. The rewards from these platforms trigger the release of dopamine, enhancing the desire for more interaction rather than satisfying it. This mechanism creates a strong and persistent behavior pattern, particularly problematic in variable reward environments like social media.

My Favorite Bits

We are over protecting our children in the real world while under protecting them online.

Jonathan Haidt, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.

Author: Jonathan Haidt

Publication date: 26 March 2024

Number of pages: 400 pages


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