59 pages 1 hour read

Jonathan Haidt

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

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2024

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Summary and Study Guide


The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness is a 2024 book by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and professor at New York University. Haidt explores how the rapid integration of digital technology into children’s lives has contributed to the rise of mental health issues in members of Generation Z. Haidt draws on his extensive research and expertise in moral psychology to provide a basis for understanding the various effects of modern technology on youth. The book falls under the category of contemporary social science and psychology nonfiction; it addresses themes such as the Impact of Technology on Social and Psychological Development, Changes in Childhood Play, and Societal and Parental Roles in Child Development.

This guide references the 2024 Penguin Press e-book edition.

Content Warning: The book discusses mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, and touches on cyberbullying and digital addiction.


The book begins by examining how the optimism of the early 2000s tech boom soon gave way to concerns about the personalized and engaging nature of digital devices, which captured children’s attention extensively. Haidt introduces the concept of “phone-based childhood” and argues that the decline in unsupervised outdoor play has led to significant mental health issues in Generation Z.

Part 1 explores the rise in adolescent mental health issues from 2010 to 2015, using both anecdotal and statistical evidence. Parents have reported conflicts over screen time and behavioral changes in their children. Data shows a sharp rise in major depressive episodes, particularly among girls, linked to the rapid adoption of smartphones and social media. Haidt emphasizes that non-self-reported data, such as hospital admissions, corroborates this increase, highlighting the severity of the mental health crisis.

Part 2 examines how smartphones and social media impact childhood development, focusing on five key aspects: slow-growth childhood, free play, attunement, social learning, and sensitive periods for learning. Haidt further discusses the importance of unsupervised, risky play for children’s psychological development. He contrasts the increasing restrictions on children’s physical activities with their unrestricted access to the digital world. He argues that unsupervised outdoor play builds resilience and confidence, teaching children how to handle risks and challenges. He discusses how “safetyism” and smartphones act as experience blockers, depriving adolescents of the real-world interactions needed for healthy development.

Part 3 explores the negative impacts of a phone-based childhood, identifying four primary harms: social deprivation, sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation, and addiction. Haidt explains how smartphones reduce face-to-face interactions, leading to loneliness and isolation. Haidt examines why social media harms girls more than boys, using Alexis Spence’s story to illustrate the impact. He outlines four main reasons: visual social comparison and perfectionism, relational aggression, emotional sharing and contagion, and predation and harassment.

The author also explores the unique challenges boys face in the digital age, discussing how digital immersion leads to social isolation and fragmented attention. Part 3 concludes by highlighting the impact of technology on spiritual well-being, arguing that the phone-based life leads to spiritual degradation for both adolescents and adults.

Part 4 emphasizes the urgent need for societal action to mitigate the harmful effects of smartphones and social media on children. Haidt addresses the need for legislative and technological interventions to create a safer digital environment for young people. He discusses the exploitative practices of tech companies and proposes several legislative actions, such as asserting a duty of care, raising the age of internet adulthood, and facilitating age verification. Haidt further outlines strategies for schools to address the growing mental health crisis among students, advocating for phone-free schools and more free play. Haidt and Lenore Skenazy conclude Part 4 by providing parents with practical strategies to foster healthier development in children, emphasizing balancing independence and protection.

The conclusion of the book underscores the urgency of addressing the mental health crisis among Generation Z youth, explaining the “Great Rewiring” of childhood between 2010 and 2015, when smartphones and social media became ubiquitous. Haidt proposes four key reforms: no smartphones before high school, no social media before age 16, phone-free schools, and more unsupervised play. Haidt emphasizes collective action and community involvement to implement these reforms and improve child and adolescent mental health, calling for a return to real-world interactions.