Reviews of Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Anxious Generation’

Candice L. Odgers, who is a “developmental psychologist with expertise in adolescent mental health”, reviewed Jonathan Haidt’s new book for Nature:

Two things need to be said after reading The Anxious Generation. First, this book is going to sell a lot of copies, because Jonathan Haidt is telling a scary story about children’s development that many parents are primed to believe. Second, the book’s repeated suggestion that digital technologies are rewiring our children’s brains and causing an epidemic of mental illness is not supported by science. Worse, the bold proposal that social media is to blame might distract us from effectively responding to the real causes of the current mental-health crisis in young people.

If you read the Penguin Random House page, you might get the impression that the New York Times called it an “important new book”. But it is telling that it is a quote from Michelle Goldberg’s generalist opinion column instead of the more critical review by Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, who is a professor of psychology:

Yes, digital absolutism might convince policymakers to change laws and increase regulation. It might be a wake-up call for some parents. But it also might backfire, plunging us into defense mode and blocking our path of discovery toward healthy and empowered digital citizenship.

So that is two psychologists who study the effects of digital technologies on adolescent health have serious qualms with the lack of nuance in Haidt’s writing, but one opinion columnist who thinks it is great. In fairness, Haidt is a social psychologist, but I get the impression from these and other reviews his pop psychology work does not carry a particularly high level of scholarly care.

In a way, Goldberg might be right: this may be a very important book, but for all the wrong reasons. Independent of the book, plenty of U.S. states are passing age verification laws for using social media platforms — there is a federal bill, too — and at least one Canadian party would like to do the same. Haidt has added four hundred pages of justification for ineffective and distracted laws.

Update: Haidt has responded to Odgers’ review.