Children of the Algorithm

In 1952, the Radio Corporation of America revealed it was developing a portable receiver small enough to fit in a vest pocket. Glass vacuum tubes, the ana­logue precursor of the computer processor, would be replaced by a semiconductor smaller than a pea. By the end of the decade, the portable transistor radio was fast becoming ubiquitous among teenag­ers, fuelling rising moral panic about their charac­ter. “He has music wherever he goes,” reported the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1960. “It comes from the pocket-sized radio tuned to rock-’n-roll of the new and wildest sort.”

The impact of the transistor on my generation came to mind as I tried to pick holes in Jonathan Haidt’s compelling argument in The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness that the smartphone is the ruination of Generation Z, the cohort born between 1997 and 2022.

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His thesis is that two recent trends—parental over-protection in the real world and under-protection online—have produced an anxious, demoral­ised, fragile and disconnected generation lacking the resilience required of adults. His conclusion, if rightly drawn, is more than a little alarming for those of us who lie awake at night fretting about the future of humankind. The implication is that, sooner or later, the preservation of Western civilisa­tion will be in the care of a damaged generation.

I sought comfort from this disturbing reflection in the Beat generation whose sullenness, impertinence and lack of interest in the finer pleasures of music proved to be a passing phase. There were many social changes in the 1960s and 1970s that we now have cause to regret, but it would be wrong to pin the blame on technology nor yet proclaim that they were precursors of the end of civilisation. Haidt’s arguments are not so quickly shrugged off, however. It is hard to dismiss this distinguished thinker as just another moral-panic merchant when he brings solid data to the table.

Haidt traces a significant and sudden upturn in major depressive episodes beginning around 2012. The pattern is the same in every country where reli­able data is collected. Major depressive episodes in the United States have increased by 145 per cent for girls and 161 per cent for boys. The incidence of anxiety and depression among college students was around 10 per cent in the early 2010s. Recent data shows depression now affects a fifth of US college students, and one quarter are afflicted by anxiety.

Degrees of anxiety correlate with age. The rate has decreased since 2012 by 8 per cent among the over fifties, but increased by 139 per cent for Americans aged between eighteen and twenty-five.

Haidt recognises that corre­lation is not causation and does the honourable thing by trying to destroy his own thesis. Could it be that more awareness of mental illness is leading to more frequent reporting? That seems unlikely when episodes of self-harm requir­ing hospital treatment are up by 188 per cent in girls and 48 per cent for boys. Suicide rates are up by 91 per cent for boys and 167 per cent for girls. Mental health hospitalisa­tions for young Australian women aged twelve to twenty-four have increased by 81 per cent, and young men by 51 per cent.

Haidt takes stock of confounding variables, but concludes that none of them stack up. Unemployment over the relevant period trends in the opposite direc­tion. Neither the Great Financial Crisis nor Covid can account for the trend. Everything points to the dismal conclusion that the rapid spread of social media since 2010 and smartphones since 2012 is responsible for what Haidt calls the great rewiring of childhood.

After slapping us into submission with statistics, Haidt draws from his specialist field, social psy­chology, for clinical evidence. He demonstrates that the proliferation of anxiety is just what we would expect when childhood goes online. Haidt makes the case that four foundational harms—social dep­rivation, sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation, and addiction—inevitably flow from spending a large slice of one’s developing years with half an eye on the smartphone. We have been conditioned to respond to alerts like …

Like what exactly? When social psychologists are reduced to rats and mice, they begin to lose their moral compass. Sure, when David Attenborough moves on to bonobos, it can occasionally feel as if we’re looking in a mirror, but just because we prefer mothers made of flesh and blood to those fabricated from wire and cloth doesn’t make us Harlow’s mon­keys any more than salivating for beer when the sun goes down makes us Pavlov’s dogs.

We must resist the urge to respond to fatalism with fatalism or succumb to the feeling that we are flotsam and jetsam tossed around on a sea of trou­bles. Humans have agency. They are responsible for their own actions, ruling out the notion of techno­logical determinism.

We have language which allows us describe problems and harness our collective skills to find solutions. We can find the will to resist harm­ful reflexes since we are blessed with what Robert Menzies called the greatest free­dom of all: the freedom to do our best and make our best better.

Haidt, to be fair, leans more lightly than most psycholo­gists on behavioural studies of our furry and feathered friends. Nonetheless, his book would have been easier to read if he hadn’t leant on them at all.


THIS IS WHY I found Abigail Shrier a more comforting com­panion on the journey to discover what’s messing with young people’s heads, despite Haidt’s many invalu­able insights. Shrier builds on the ground covered in her last book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters (2020), which courageously forged into a world in which others fear to tread.

Shrier finds an explanation in the prevailing therapeutic culture and the influence of parents who have gone to extreme lengths to keep their children from harm, including the perceived damage inflicted by putting children in their place. They are reluctant to criticise poor behaviour or draw attention to a child’s mistakes. In doing so, they have robbed a generation of the capacity to act independently, to make their own choices irrespective of the social and cultural environment. They have been stripped of the ability to set goals, make decisions and take actions to shape the world around them.

Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up draws upon similar data to Haidt to demonstrate the disturbing differences between Gen Z and its predecessors. Like Haidt, she notes the significance of the introduction of smartphones, an instrument that puts a child at greater risk when left alone in her bedroom than when left to her own devices in a playground.

Yet Shrier points the finger not at technology, but at the responsible adults who allowed and even encouraged Gen Z to take part in a dangerous exper­iment. First and foremost, she aims at the therapy industry by highlighting an obvious paradox: How does a generation that has received more psycho­logical counselling than any in history turn out to be the loneliest, most anxious, depressed, helpless gen­eration on record? How do adolescents growing up in unprecedented affluence with the enabling power of digital technology turn out to be so pessimistic, fearful and fatalistic?

Previous generations grew up with what psy­chologists called an internal locus of control, a belief in one’s ability to improve one’s circumstances. The therapeutic culture Shrier attacks has encouraged an external locus of control which attributes events to external things, such as other people, climate change or bum luck.

Haidt’s prophylactic recommendations to restrict teenage access to smartphones are sound. One of the first actions of Christopher Luxon’s conservative coalition in New Zealand was to ban them from schools. Any state government in Australia that does not take steps to enforce a similar ban here cannot be serious about reducing the prevalence of youth mental illness or reversing the decline in aca­demic performance.

Yet age restrictions on smartphones are unlikely to be any more successful than age restrictions on smoking, particularly, as Haidt explains, social media designed to be addictive by the same evil Silicon Valley geniuses who think the age of consent for registering for an individual smartphone account is thirteen.

Which is why Shrier’s recommendations seem more helpful to me. She suggests we fight back against the vested interests in the therapy and phar­maceutical industries that stand to gain from the pathologisation of aberrant childhood behaviour. It’s time we offered resistance to those who try to insist that there is no such thing as a picky eater, just children who suffer from “avoidant restrictive food intake disorder”. We might work on helping kids improve their handwriting rather than make excuses for their “dysgraphia”. We might empower teachers to crack down on bad behaviour rather than excuse the perpetrators as the victims of “opposi­tional defiance disorder”, and encourage shy kids to come out of their shells rather than offering the debilitating diagnosis of “social anxiety disorder”.

In short, it is time to stand up to the tyranny of the experts, the wellness gurus and therapists responsible for the most unwell generation in recent history.

Yet Shrier does not spare Gen Z’s parents, whose lives are busier than ever. The mums are more likely to work than those of any previous generation, and smartphones have altered their behaviour, too. Adults, no less than children, respond to alerts and check their messages and social media posts. They are not opposed to interrupting family meals to take a phone call from the boss.

Like the delinquents in West Side Story, is Gen Z not entitled to defend itself against Officer Krupke’s allegations by claiming that it’s just their bringin’ upke that gets them out of hand?

Of course not, since avoiding personal responsi­bility is a symptom of the problem we’re trying to solve. Haidt points to abundant statistical and clini­cal evidence to show that the growth of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is related in part to the rise of screen-based childhood.

The question Shrier raises is how those with primary responsibility for children’s welfare—their parents—might find a non-pharmaceutical solu­tion by reviving some of the essential features of old-school parenting. Rather than imagining that the diagnosis exonerates them of responsibility, and seeking salvation through medication, might they not try harder to modify behaviour through chores, discipline and structure?

While by no means intending to diminish the gravity of Haidt’s conclusions, more attentive and conscientious parenting is surely worth a try. We rightly recognise our wartime ancestors as the great­est generation, but let’s not burden Gen Z with low expectations, sabotaging its chance to become the greatest generation of all.

The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness
by Jonathan Haidt

Penguin, 2024, 400 pages, $36.99

Bad Therapy: Why the Kids aren’t Growing Up
by Abigail Shrier

Sentinel, 2024, 320 pages, $32.99

Nick Cater is the author of The Lucky Culture (2013). He reviewed Arthur Calwell by James Franklin & Gerry O Nolan in the April issue.

9 thoughts on “Children of the Algorithm

  • Katzenjammer says:

    It’s due to divided and merged families. Family as the bedrock of society has been shattered, with shattered socity as an outcome.

  • Dallas Beaufort says:

    No medication values placed on the positive, Enthusiasm, No wonder it’s not considered, only Anxiety in the negative suits.

  • GG says:

    Two other factors if I may, Nick.
    First, the pathologising of conditions like depression and anxiety spawned a multibillion dollar therapeutic industry that’s determined to keep its wealth and growth. What was once called melancholy and stress, became depression and anxiety, and electromagnets for cash. These mega-businesses, therapeutic and pharmaceutical, do everything to stoke the fires.
    Second, the fading of the social taboo. As recently as 20 years ago few people would ever admit to seeking help for fear of embarrassment. Now the abovementioned businesses have made it a badge of ‘honour’.

    • lbloveday says:

      Quote: What was once called melancholy and stress, became depression and anxiety
      Exemplified by my mother being prescribed anti-depressants after the death and before the funeral of her loving husband of 50+ years. I suggested she throw them in the bin on the basis that her “depression” was normal mourning that humans had handled without pills forever and that time was a better remedy.

  • Michael Mundy says:

    Previous generations had to cope with guilt inducing religious conditioning, ‘Reds under the beds’ and the possibility of square eyes. We are just another species undergoing social evolution. Those most fit, cope.

  • rossstanbrook says:

    All this, and no mention of the childcare generation. I heard a child-psychologist remark that the first question he asks parents of troubled children relates to how long they were in institutional childcare. It is well known how cortisol levels are so high for such unfortunates. What are they taking into adolescence? Nobody loved me at home. Got to find a tribe of some sort.

  • cel47143 says:

    Spent 2 hours of my life I will never get back yesterday at a ‘community’ meeting on how to get kids in this town to go to school. All but 3 of those present were on some sort of payroll for being there, only 3 of us not. The ‘importance of the wellbeing’ and ‘mental health’ of kids was a constant refrain from employees.
    It is not just the pathologising of mental health it is how there are now so many ‘jobs’ to help people with their mental health. 4 of the 17 employees were in the game, none were teachers.

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