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‘The Anxious Generation’ Totally Changed My Perspective on Kids and Screens—Here’s Why


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the anxious generation book review"
the anxious generation book review
Source: Kathy Sisson
Source: Kathy Sisson

I’ve always thought of myself as a “moderation parent,” one who takes a somewhere-in-the-middle approach to junk food, bedtime, and screentime. It seemed to work well for my two boys, ages 4 and 6, who can access daily TV and the occasional iPad break. Then, I read Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation—and my viewpoint on screen time changed.

Haidt, a social psychologist, and coauthor of the New York Times bestselling book The Coddling of the American Mind, explains the connection between increasing mental health issues in kids and the use of screens, most prominently, smartphones equipped with internet, social media, and boundless apps.

To be honest, I haven’t given much thought about how screen time affects my kids’ brains. I assumed that if they were doing well in school, were socially adjusted, and their behavior was (mostly) fine, there wasn’t a problem.

But what Haidt shows in his book, backed by data point after data point, is that the issues of screen overuse in our children can cause countless issues with our kids: from anxiety and depression to attention fragmentation, addiction, social comparison, and even sleep deprivation. Here’s what I took away from The Anxious Generation about screens and social media with my kids.

the anxious generation
Jonathan Haidt
The Anxious Generation
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Key Takeaways from ‘The Anxious Generation’

So much of parenting young kids is making it from one milestone to the next, through one challenging period until another pops up. For me, it’s become a survival technique to take parenting as it comes. But with smartphones, I want to be proactive. That’s why I’m adopting some of the actionable steps Haidt lays out in The Anxious Generation. These are foundational reforms to help reverse this rewiring of childhood include:

  • No smartphones before high school
  • No social media before 16
  • Phone-free schools
  • More unsupervised play and independence

While my kids are too young for phones just yet, nearly all of their friends have their own iPads or access to one, and some, like my oldest, have video game consoles. I know that the day their peers start to get phones isn’t far off, and I want to be prepared when it happens, so here’s what I’m doing now.

Setting Limits With Tablets, Smartphones, and Social Media

Right now, my plan is that my kids won’t get smartphones until they’re 16. That way, they won’t be tempted by having a smartphone but a no-social-media boundary. But I will consider other forms of tech, like a kid-friendly smartwatch, phone, or good old-fashioned flip phone, another one of Haidt’s suggestions. It’s not the one-to-one communication I want to keep them from; it’s the access to social media and unfettered internet access I want to avoid.

Second, I’m hoping their school will eventually enact a no-phone rule, but if not, I will. I know if they really, truly need to reach me, they can call me from the school office.

Source: Alex Green | Pexels

Talking to My Kids About Screens

I still remember the day I happened to walk by the TV while my youngest was watching something that was served to him by YouTube Kids’ algorithm. It was so inappropriate, it made me gasp. That night, I did a deep dive into our TV’s parental controls, blocking YouTube and a few other channels. 

Naturally, when they found out, they were devastated, since one of their favorite shows was now inaccessible. We had to have a really hard and honest conversation about how we have to be careful what we put into our bodies, not just what we eat and drink, but what we watch and read, too. I think I may have used a silly metaphor like, “If you watch too much YouTube, your brain will turn into mashed potatoes!” Funny, but it got my point across. 

My kids don’t always agree with the boundaries I set. But they know we can always have open conversations about them. I plan to do the same with cell phones when the time comes.

Letting Go in Real Life

One other big takeaway from The Anxious Generation is the idea that, as parents, we’re too overprotective in the real world and not overprotective enough online. This hit home for me. My kids already get plenty of unsupervised play and independence, so I’m going to continue to build on that, but like many parents, I worry about the big scary dangers out in the world, like kidnapping, sex offenders, and the like. But what we really should be worried about, Haidt says, is what’s on their computer or smartphones. 

Since my kids don’t yet have phones, I’m focusing on what I can do to ease up in the real world to give them more freedom, independence, and autonomy, in hopes that they’ll use these skills to make good decisions in the future, both online and off. 

Opening up the Dialogue With Other Parents

One of the things I loved about The Anxious Generation is that everyone is talking about it—even Oprah and Dr. Becky! It’s truly opened up the dialogue about kids and screens. From the moms at the splash pad to my childhood friends, even the waiter at an airport restaurant, everyone had an opinion on what screens were doing to our kids—and how to fix it. 

Every parent’s approach to metering their child’s screen usage may differ, but I think sharing our various approaches: what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what challenges may be just around the corner can only help. As Haidt says, kids and screens are a “collective action problem,” and it’s up to all of us to solve it. 

“Kids and screens are a ‘collective action problem,’ and it’s up to all of us to solve it.” 

While I loved The Anxious Generation, some parts were hard to read. Learning about how we as parents often pick convenience over our kids’ mental health, i.e., letting our kids have their iPads while they need to get work done like I am right this second. Or how our kids aren’t getting the same kind of freedom we enjoyed as kids due to too much supervision in the real world and not enough online. 

Final Thoughts on ‘The Anxious Generation’

No parent is perfect, just like no approach is perfect. But armed with the knowledge of what screens and smartphones can do to our kids’ health, we can make better choices about how and when to introduce them to our kids—and evaluate our own smartphone and social media usage. As for me, I’m with Haidt in getting our kids back to a play-based childhood, not a phone-based one, as soon as we can.

I Try to Stay Off My Phone When My Kids Are Around—Here's Why and How I Do It
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