Jonathan Haidt had a piece on the Alantic on social media’s effects on culture called “Why the Past Ten Years of American Life Have Been So Uniquely Stupid.” It got a lot of attention, although one portion of it is underappreciated, as he gets to a major reason for the subtext of so many culture war fights.
Childhood has become more tightly circumscribed in recent generations––with less opportunity for free, unstructured play; less unsupervised time outside; more time online. Whatever else the effects of these shifts, they have likely impeded the development of abilities needed for effective self-governance for many young adults. Unsupervised free play is nature’s way of teaching young mammals the skills they’ll need as adults, which for humans include the ability to cooperate, make and enforce rules, compromise, adjudicate conflicts, and accept defeat. A brilliant 2015 essay by the economist Steven Horwitz argued that free play prepares children for the “art of association” that Alexis de Tocqueville said was the key to the vibrancy of American democracy; he also argued that its loss posed “a serious threat to liberal societies.” A generation prevented from learning these social skills, Horwitz warned, would habitually appeal to authorities to resolve disputes and would suffer from a “coarsening of social interaction” that would “create a world of more conflict and violence.”
And while social media has eroded the art of association throughout society, it may be leaving its deepest and most enduring marks on adolescents. A surge in rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm among American teens began suddenly in the early 2010s. (The same thing happened to Canadian and British teens, at the same time.) The cause is not known, but the timing points to social media as a substantial contributor—the surge began just as the large majority of American teens became daily users of the major platforms. Correlational and experimental studies back up the connection to depression and anxiety, as do reports from young people themselves, and from Facebook’s own research, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Depression makes people less likely to want to engage with new people, ideas, and experiences. Anxiety makes new things seem more threatening. As these conditions have risen and as the lessons on nuanced social behavior learned through free play have been delayed, tolerance for diverse viewpoints and the ability to work out disputes have diminished among many young people.
You can write another cover story article on just this one question. Someone will likely do that soon enough.
In general, parents are controlling children too much.
Children are growing up into young adults who don’t know how to manage basic conflict.
Haidt considers potential solutions to this question, and to the harm social media causes children, although there will likely be pushback.
The most important change we can make to reduce the damaging effects of social media on children is to delay entry until they have passed through puberty. Congress should update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which unwisely set the age of so-called internet adulthood (the age at which companies can collect personal information from children without parental consent) at 13 back in 1998, while making little provision for effective enforcement. The age should be raised to at least 16, and companies should be held responsible for enforcing it.
This may get to why some parents freak out so much about pop culture. Obviously kids always had pop culture, but they would also have structured play (IE- sports leagues) and unstructured play. Now we’ve got more structure play than ever, but the main alternative is pop culture, which means that parents who are used to keeping an eye on their kids may be worried about propaganda from adult entertainers. With so many forms of pop culture, it’s also impossible for parents to keep track of everything their kids watch and listen to, which further increases the suspicions. With more material for children, it’s also easier for adult media to do some nutpicking, and point out the craziest things some kids somewhere may be exposed to.