'Worrying about the wrong things': 'Anxious Generation' author on what parents are missing with smartphones

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Parents are overprotecting children in the real world and underprotecting them online, says Jonathan Haidt, author “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.”

“My goal is from today on, no mother will have to hear her kid say ‘I’m the only one’” without a phone, Haidt told TODAY’s Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager. He noted, “When kids are rooted in real relationships, they’re not washed away by social media.”

“People say, ‘Phones are here to stay.’ Well, cars are here to stay, but we don’t let 11-year-olds drive them,” Haidt said.

How much screen time is too much for young kids? Should tweens have smartphones? Is social media appropriate for young teens?

Parents have debated these technology questions among themselves. Now, social psychologist Haidt offers extensively researched answers in his new book.

After reviewing the rise of technology in children’s lives over the last 15 years, Haidt tells TODAY.com in an interview, “We have overprotected our children in the real world and underprotected them online.”

In his research, Haidt found that in 2010, few kids had smartphones and Instagram didn’t exist. In 2015, 80% of teens had smartphones and most of the girls had Instagram. In short, we have shifted from a play-based childhood to a phone-based childhood.

“It’s the complete transformation of childhood in a space of five years,” he says.

The change isn’t permanent, however. Haidt thinks parents are ready to “revolt” and that by the end of 2025, the role of phones and screens in kids’ lives will look completely different.

Smartphones are 'experience blockers'

Before 2010, teens had flip phones. They would text each other just like they do today, but the process was slower and more cumbersome ... and less satisfying.

"If you have to press the '7' key three times to get the letter 'S,' you're not going to write long paragraphs about how much you hate your mother," Haidt says about our flip-phone era. But because texting and dictation are so easy now, teens are spending way more time on their phones, dramatically shifting their daily experience.

"I call smartphones 'experience blockers,' because once you give the phone to a child, it's going to take up every moment that is not nailed down to something else," says Haidt.

"That means that there will be very little other experience other than through the phone," he continues. "It's basically the loss of childhood in the real world."

Technology affects girls differently than boys

Back in the '80s and '90s, Haidt says, boys spent more time on computers than girls, likely due to the popularity of video games. Today, boys still veer toward gaming and YouTube while girls gravitate toward social media sites, like Instagram and Pinterest.

Haidt says he has plenty of evidence to demonstrate the ways social media harms girls: "It especially affects those who come to it with anxiety or with perfectionism. It exposes them to endless sexual solicitation from older men and sexual blackmail from boys in their class. It exposes them to the risk of being publicly humiliated, which is a major driver of suicide." The list is long.

The risk is not quite as clear for boys.

For them, "it's not just one thing," Haidt says. Instead, it's the gradual and increasing technology creep in their lives that starts to change their behavior.

What can parents do to protect their young kids?

For younger kids who don't have the constant drum of peer pressure, the suggestions for parents are a bit easier.

As many parents know, "an iPad is extremely effective in calming a child. So we all gave our kids our phones and our iPads a lot," says Haidt. "And what the research shows is that even from the age of 1 or 2, the kids who have a lot of screen time are doing worse than the kids who have had little to none."

But not all screen time is bad.

The trouble lies in "leaving a kid alone with a device, especially one that will reward them on a variable-ratio schedule," explains Haidt. (Examples of a variable-ratio schedule include video games, social media "likes" and slot machines.)

First, parents can help kids see the distinction between "stories," like movies or TV shows, and things that are "quick action, quick reward," like video games and TikTok, for example. Watching a movie with your child can be a bonding experience, but allowing your child to scroll YouTube shorts leaves them wanting more.

Second, parents can monitor the amount of time kids spend online. If your child is in the 3- to 5-year-old range, spending three hours a day on a screen is too much. But giving them limited screen time during the week and stretching to three or four hours of "stories" on the weekend would be fine, Haidt recommends.

The one exception to the screen-time rule is video chatting with a parent or relative. “It’s synchronous, and it’s a real relationship,” Haidt says.

What can parents do to protect their tweens and teens?

Kids get iPhones at 10 years old because other kids get iPhones at 10 years old, Haidt says. To avoid this social pressure, he recommends joining forces with other parents to delay the smartphone years.

"Nobody wants their kid to be the only one. Nobody wants their kid to be alone," he says. "If [parents] coordinate with the parents of their kids' friends, they can all escape the collective action problem. All it takes is three or four other families."

In addition, Haidt recommends filling that space with real life connection, like a standing playdate or monthly sleepover.

"Kids need three real friends, not 300 pseudo-Instagram friends," he says.

Haidt references grassroots campaigns in places like the U.K. in which parents are banding together to delay their children's smartphone use. "I think that's going to happen here, too."

In fact, some parents have already begun organizing. A prime example is the "Wait Until 8th" campaign that empowers parents to rally together to delay giving children a smartphone until at least the end of 8th grade. So far, more than 50,000 families have signed a collective action pledge to hold off on handing out smartphones.

You can't just take away smartphones

Simply forbidding smartphones isn't the answer, Haidt cautions. Kids need to be "going out, exploring and playing and having adventures" without an "overprotective" adult hovering nearby.

"The way kids learn is repeatedly trying things in a low-risk environment," Haidt says. "They're going to have conflicts. Let them work out the conflicts. That's the most nutritious part. They're going to come up with games that are stupid or even a little bit dangerous. Let them, unless it's a risk of death. If they could just fall off the swings, that's good. Children need risks."

When kids are given the opportunity to face small dangers, they can overcome some of their childhood fears and gain confidence.

"It is literally the case that by protecting our children from risks, we are making them more anxious and less able to handle risk as adults," he says. "We're worrying about the wrong things. And in the process, we're crippling our children's development by not letting them face risks and conflicts on their own."

This article was originally published on TODAY.com