The Anxious Generation Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: The Anxious Generation shows how smartphones, social media, and helicopter parenting have led to a decline in young people’s mental health and offers actionable solutions to help both our kids and ourselves become mature, emotionally stable adults.

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One October afternoon in 2006, the 13-year-old Megan Meier hanged herself with a belt in her bedroom closet. Why? Megan had spent too much time on MySpace, and the mother of a classmate had been cyberbullying her under a fake profile.

I wish Megan Meier’s story was a tragic one-off. Sadly, it’s only one of thousands. Between 2010 and 2020, the rate of suicide among US adolescents aged 10-14 has increased by an average of 121%. It begs one question above all: Why? Why would such a young person, a child, basically, ever have cause to end their own life?

In his new book, The Anxious Generation, famed social psychologist Jonathan Haidt provides both explanations and solutions for what he describes as “an epidemic of mental illness.” His thesis? We are “overprotecting children in the real world and underprotecting them online.” Children need “a play-based childhood in the real world” to thrive, Haidt asserts. The 2 main factors preventing this kind of childhood? Smartphones and “fearful parenting.”

Here are 3 lessons to show you why mental health is down across the globe — and what we can do to improve it for everyone:

  1. There are 4 foundational harms that threaten the mental health of our children.
  2. With 4 foundational reforms, we can undo much of the suffering technology and overprotection cause for our kids.
  3. You can use 6 spiritual practices to improve both your own and your kids’ mental health.

Let’s dig in!

The Anxious Generation Summary

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Lesson 1: Our children’s mental health is endangered by 4 foundational harms.

Let’s say your child signed up to be one of the first humans to live on Mars. As you learn about the space company, you realize they only want test subjects and don’t care about safety at all. Would you let them take your child? Of course not!

Since 2010, tech companies have basically done the same, Haidt suggests: exploiting our kids’ attention and mental health for profit. “Childhood is an apprenticeship for learning the skills needed for success in one’s culture,” he writes. Millions of children are now hampered in learning those skills — because they live in their phones instead of reality.

Our connections in the real world share 4 distinct properties:

  1. They rely on body language.
  2. They happen in sync with others.
  3. Communication happens in sequence and with a few individuals max.
  4. They happen in communities with high barriers to entry.

None of this is true about our online activities. That’s why they are often detrimental to human flourishing. Therefore, Haidt sees a phone-based childhood leading to 4 “foundational harms:”

  1. Social deprivation. Since 2012, the time adolescents spend with friends in face-to-face settings has dropped 50% — and the pandemic only made it worse.
  2. Sleep deprivation. A lack of sleep leads to “depression, anxiety, irritability, cognitive deficits, poor learning, and lower grades” — and long-term studies have proven smartphones are making us sleep worse.
  3. Attention fragmentation. Since our phones are constantly interrupting us, our ability to focus is severely impaired.
  4. Addiction. Many kids are using their phones like dopamine slot machines, always in search of the next hit — and big tech has designed their apps to encourage this behavior.

How can we address these harms and create healthier, more grounded lives? Haidt has some ideas for that too.

Lesson 2: If we enact 4 foundational reforms, we can significantly improve the mental health of our young.

In the book’s 2nd half, Haidt discusses what governments, schools, and parents can do to provide healthy childhoods. He calls out 4 “foundational reforms” to combat the 4 foundational harms:

  1. No smartphones before high school. We should give our kids basic, text-and-call only phones until they are 14 years old.
  2. No social media before 16. When preteens are subjected to endless algorithmically chosen content and comparisons with influencers, it can damage their self-worth permanently.
  3. Phone-free schools. More than just disallowing phones during class, schools should force kids to lock them away altogether. “That is the only way to free up their attention for each other and for their teachers,” Haidt writes.
  4. Far more unsupervised play and childhood independence. Let your kids learn to “develop social skills, overcome anxiety, and become self-governing young adults,” naturally, Haidt suggests. Give them room to try, fail, and learn from it.

Laws and education must change, but those are slow to evolve. Thankfully, we largely control 3 of the 4 reforms. Remove phones and the internet, and bring back free-roaming and play.

“Just as the immune system must be exposed to germs, and trees must be exposed to wind, children require exposure to setbacks, failures, shocks, and stumbles in order to develop strength and self-reliance,” Haidt writes. Let’s make sure they get it while always having a safe haven to return to, and our young ones will become mature adults.

Lesson 3: Use 6 spiritual practices to restore and strengthen both your and your kids’ mental health.

Haidt also offers 6 spiritual practices we can use — even as adults — to lift ourselves out of the smartphone-swamp. “When people see morally beautiful actions, they feel elevated on a vertical dimension that can be labeled divinity,” he writes.

Here are 6 practices that lead to more such “beautiful actions:”

  1. Shared sacredness, which is participating in any group that is “organized for a moral, charitable, or spiritual purpose.” It could be singing during mass or joining a civil rights movement, for example.
  2. Embodiment, which could be any physical ritual, from eating together to doing sports to praying.
  3. Stillness, silence, and focus. This could be a meditation practice but really quietness of any kind.
  4. Self-transcendence, which is about sacrificing for a cause larger than your own, from donations to volunteer work.
  5. Less judgement, more forgiveness. Whether you take inspiration from Jesus, the Tao Te Ching, or the Torah, learn to “be slow to anger, quick to forgive.”
  6. Find awe in nature. Spend time outside. Whether it’s forest-bathing, breathing in salty sea air, or a walk across an impressive university campus, nature makes us feel connected in a way nothing else can. The book Awe by Dacher Keltner has plenty of ideas for this practice.

“There is a God-shaped hole in every human heart,” Blaise Pascal once wrote. We might not all fill it with religion, but with a strong spiritual practice, we’ll also strengthen our mental health. Let’s do it for our own and our children’s sakes.

The Anxious Generation Review

The Anxious Generation is a must-read for any current or future parent. Haidt roots his analysis in strong data and makes a compelling case. Pro tip: Follow this one up with his classic The Happiness Hypothesis for a roadmap to true happiness after your (and your children’s) mental health is fully on track!

Who would I recommend our The Anxious Generation summary to?

The 28-year-old school teacher who already feels disillusioned with her line of work just a few years into the job, the 35-year-old new dad who is overwhelmed by the world his son will grow up in, and anyone who knows they spend too much time on their phone.

Last Updated on May 6, 2024

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Niklas Göke

Niklas Göke is an author and writer whose work has attracted tens of millions of readers to date. He is also the founder and CEO of Four Minute Books, a collection of over 1,000 free book summaries teaching readers 3 valuable lessons in just 4 minutes each. Born and raised in Germany, Nik also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration & Engineering from KIT Karlsruhe and a Master’s Degree in Management & Technology from the Technical University of Munich. He lives in Munich and enjoys a great slice of salami pizza almost as much as reading — or writing — the next book — or book summary, of course!