Psychologist Blames Social Media for “Gen Z” Depression. But Where’s the Evidence?
I analyze Jonathan Haidt’s notion that social media is a major cause of depression among U.S. teens.
“Generation talk” is a popular way to chop and screw segments of the U.S. population.
This is because all one needs to create a half-believable narrative about a certain generation is to cast a net over tens of millions of people, and use selective data about any factor within that particular birth cohort (depression rates, economic standing, technology, etc.) to draw “conclusions” about its members.
The targets of such “thought experiments” are usually not corrupt politicians, oligarchs, and corporate lobbyists, but young people, marginalized groups, and other subsets of individuals whose voices are underrepresented on corporate media. This makes it easy for commentators and digital “influencers” to lump tens of millions of people into a single label with little differentiation when it comes to age, sex, race, religion, economic standing, and other interrelated factors.
This sideshow has nothing to do with credible research on generations by organizations like Pew Research Center, which make it clear that “generational analysis involves tracking the same groups of people on a range of issues, behaviors and characteristics” and that “factors associated with generational differences can be complex and overlapping.”
In fact, whenever generation “experts” avoid addressing the overlapping nature of generational analysis, chances are you are about to hear a highly reductive, sensational narrative about millions of people who happened to share the same 15-year sliver of human history.
In my writing, I often analyze the process in which various individuals define millions of people without presenting credible data to back their assertions. For example, I’ve discussed Simon Sinek’s “I wish that society and their parents did a better job” narrative about millennials, as well as the Democratic Party’s persistent dismissal of millennial bottom-up demands.
In this essay, I’ll analyze Jonathan Haidt’s statements on how overprotection and social media are major causes of depression among teens in the U.S. What data does Haidt provide to prove his claim and who actually benefits from such proclamations about Generation Z?
Framing The Issue
Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, and Joe Rogan, popular comedian and podcaster, recently discussed the leading causes of depression among members of Generation Z.
In the interview, Haidt makes the claim that, although we can’t be certain, “social media” is the leading candidate for the cause of depression among today’s teens.
Here’s an excerpt from the podcast from the Joe Rogan Experience:
“What is this graph you just pulled on,” Rogan asks, “depressive episodes?”
“So, what’s happening in America, and I know it’s happening the same in Britain and Canada … What’s happening is that rates of depression and anxiety were fairy stable — from the 90’s through the early 2000's — and what we are seeing here … is that the percentage of kids 12 to 17 who met the criteria for a major depressive episode … what you see is that the rate of boys has a somewhat substantial increase.
As you can see in the graph .. the line for girls was stable through 2010, and then right around 2011, 2012 it goes way up … to where 1 in 5 girls of American teenage girls have had a major depressive episode in the last year.”
“Whatever happened,” Haidt says later in the video, “it’s not affecting the millennials, it’s affecting Gen Z.”
“What’s the cause?” asks Rogan.
“We don’t know for sure, but because of the sex difference and the timing — the leading candidate is social media,” explains Haidt as he plunges into the history of Facebook, smart phones, social media, and how they have affected middle school kids.”
After his podcast with Rogan, Haidt tweeted graphs of depression and suicide rates among teens as further “evidence” for his claim:
“Oh, and one more graph, showing how sharp the divide is between millennials and Gen Z. This is the rate of self-report among US college students of having a ‘psychological disorder’. Rates increase as Gen Z replaces millennials.”
“Note that the increase for women in their 20s is small and linear,” Haidt wrote in another tweet. “They got social media in college or later; it wasn’t so damaging. But middle school is really hard, esp. for girls. Social media makes it much harder, may cause chronic stress for many.”
Haidt made the same argument in an earlier appearance on Bill Maher’s HBO show:
“Who can we blame?” asks Maher, “let’s start blaming, I want to blame, let’s play the blame game.”
“Ok, we will do all the parents and we will do all the teachers,” replies Haidt, as he continues to build his “case”:
“Kids born after 1995 — they don’t get driver licenses as much, they don’t drink, they don’t go out on dates, what are they doing — they are sitting at home talking on their devices, talking with each other. And this seems to be changing social development…This is not just some perception from outsiders, because the rates of anxiety disorders, depression, self-cutting, and suicide are way, way up, especially for girls, and it all begins in 2011, so it’s when this generation first enters college campuses and 2013 — this is where this new attitude about speech comes in.”
“Isn’t another reason why they are sitting home, instead of doing all of those fun things, because the parents insist on watching them all of the time?,” enthusiastically asks Maher. “Exactly,” replies Haidt.
In these two passages, Haidt manages to combine the essential elements of propaganda about generations — a perceived “sharp” divide between millennials and the next generation (based on the change of one variable), a grand theory on the causes of teen depression (with little to no correlative data), and an even more ambitious theory about how and why there was an increase in student demands on U.S. campuses in the early 2010’s.
I am not exactly sure how those things connect, but for Haidt they seem to play an important role in the fight against “safety culture.”
“What can we do to reverse these trends?,” he asks in a recent article for The Guardian. “How can we raise kids strong enough to handle the ordinary and extraordinary challenges of life? There’s a powerful piece of folk wisdom: prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child. As soon as you grasp the concept of antifragility, you understand why that folk saying is true.”
Haidt writes that “bones and banking” are two examples of “antifragility,” the theory that he posits as his solution to our problems, “both get weaker — and more prone to catastrophic failure — if they go for a long time without any stressors and then face a major challenge” he writes in the article, titled “By mollycoddling our children, we’re fueling mental illness in teenagers.”
Part Of A Larger Narrative
Haidt is no stranger to making grand statements about generations. He co-founded Heteredox Academy after his 2011 article, “The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology,” made people interested in creating an organization that promotes “open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning.”
In a 2016 essay titled “Why Universities Must Choose One Telos: Truth or Social Justice,” Haidt describes what he perceives to be a conflict between “truth” and “social justice” in U.S. universities:
Aristotle often evaluated a thing with respect to its “telos” — its purpose, end, or goal. The telos of a knife is to cut. The telos of a physician is health or healing. What is the telos of university?
The most obvious answer is “truth” –- the word appears on so many university crests. But increasingly, many of America’s top universities are embracing social justice as their telos, or as a second and equal telos. But can any institution or profession have two teloses (or teloi)? What happens if they conflict?
As a social psychologist who studies morality, I have watched these two teloses come into conflict increasingly often during my 30 years in the academy. The conflicts seemed manageable in the 1990s. But the intensity of conflict has grown since then … I believe the conflict reached its boiling point in the fall of 2015 when student protesters at 80 universities demanded that their universities make much greater and more explicit commitments to social justice, often including mandatory courses and training for everyone in social justice perspectives and content.
Now that many university presidents have agreed to implement many of the demands, I believe that the conflict between truth and social justice is likely to become unmanageable. Universities will have to choose, and be explicit about their choice, so that potential students and faculty recruits can make an informed choice. Universities that try to honor both will face increasing incoherence and internal conflict.
“Trigger warnings and safe spaces are necessary to protect fragile young people from danger and violence,” Haidt wrote in the essay, “But such a culture is incompatible with political diversity, since many conservative ideas and speakers are labeled as threatening and banned from campus and the curriculum.”
It doesn’t take a Masters in politics and marketing to deduce how the choice between “truth” and “social justice” can be used to augment propaganda against the concept of social justice — something that has been happening on the right and far-right for some time now.
Haidt does address his extravagant opinion about social justice, but seems unable to explain why exactly we have to choose between social justice and truth:
I am also not denying that many students encounter indignities, insults, and systemic obstacles because of their race, gender, or sexual identity. They do, and I favor some sort of norm setting or preparation for diversity for incoming students and faculty.
But as I have argued elsewhere, many of the most common demands the protesters have made are likely to backfire and make experiences of marginalization more frequent and painful, not less. Why? Because they are not based on evidence of effectiveness; the demands are not constrained by an absolute commitment to truth.
Here, Haidt blames student protesters for being disingenuous in their demands. While he admits that “some sort of norm setting or preparation for diversity for incoming students and faculty” is needed, Haidt is adamant that such demands can “backfire” and make “experiences of marginalization more frequent.”
To be fair, Haidt’s core argument makes sense from a first principles perspective — yes, we should be exposed to information that challenges our ideological silos.
However, his reasoning as to why Gen Z members are depressed, as well as the alleged sources and outcomes of their depression, is not based on solid evidence. When it comes to proclaiming a certain grand narrative about The New Generation, lack of supporting data and clear methodology, and failure to acknowledge previous research, are obvious red flags.
Haidt’s portrayal of conservative speakers as victims of a nation-wide witch hunt is on equally shaky ground, simply because the actual scale of free speech issues in the U.S. isn’t what Haidt and others claim it is. A recent study at Georgetown University suggests that the “campus free speech” crisis is “somewhat manufactured:”
There are well over 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States,” Vox Senior Correspondent Zach Beuchamp wrote in August 2018 about the issue of “political correctness” on U.S. campuses. “And multiple attempts to catalog free speech incidents on campus, from different sources, keep coming up with numbers in the dozens. And of those dozens, a fairly large percentage of the targets are liberals, and a fairly large percentage of the others were conservative speakers who seem to have come to campus with the intent of provoking students.
In the context of a huge conflict between truth and social justice, Haidt’s statements about the leading causes of depression among Gen Z aren’t that shocking. His narrative needs a “cause” to blame for students who demand a social justice-oriented curriculum — and what a better excuse than to blame parents and technology, the usual suspects?
Cracks In The Theory
Clearly, overprotection and social media play a big role in the psychological development of young people. However, unified theories about the relationship between social media, depression, and overprotective parents simplify the experiences of those involved, and often rely on assumptions, rather than facts.
While there isn’t much evidence linking social media to depression among teens, there are a number of studies suggesting such concerns might be overblown.
A recent paper published in Nature, titled “The association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use,” states that “The association we find between digital technology use and adolescent well-being is negative but small … Taking the broader context of the data into account suggests that these effects are too small to warrant policy change.”
Another evidence-based literature review on the subject, published in a UNICEF report, states that “The evidence … is largely inconclusive with respect to impact on children’s physical activity, but indicates that digital technology seems to be beneficial for children’s social relationships. In terms of impact on children’s mental well-being, the most robust studies suggest that the relationship is U-shaped, where no use and excessive use can have a small negative impact on mental well-being, while moderate use can have a small positive impact.”
Haidt’s own Twitter followers offered their critique of his presentation. “Well, hang on,” wrote one follower. “We don’t know if it’s a cause. It’s also possible it’s the other way around: teenage girls with depression use social media more than their peers. As I understand it, there’s little evidence to support causation: it’s an association.”
“It’s pretty easy to craft a narrative when you choose a very particular plot with a large amount of data missing. Pretty clear why you stopped at 1999,” replied another user.
Even if we were to accept Haidt’s contentious theory, he fails to mention the positive impacts of social media, which is the bare minimum when arguing that something is the leading cause of depression for millions of people.
According to a 2018 Pew survey about teens’ media habits, “Roughly eight-in-ten teens ages 13 to 17 (81%) say social media makes them feel more connected to what’s going on in their friends’ lives, while around two-thirds say these platforms make them feel as if they have people who will support them through tough times.”
According to the poll, “teens tend to associate their social media use with positive rather than negative emotions, such as feeling included rather than excluded (71% vs. 25%) or feeling confident rather than insecure (69% vs. 26%).”
Of course, that doesn’t mean depressed Generation Z’ers are not on social media. However, it does suggest that Haidt’s conclusions about the major causes of youth depression may simply amount to “HARKing,” or Hypothesizing After the Results are Known.
To be clear, I believe there should be no age limit or ideological test when it comes to expressing one’s opinion on any subject. Nevertheless, there is a difference between conducting a genuine inquiry into generational dynamics and muddying the waters with selective data about millions of people (in this case, teens and young adults), before those people have a chance to speak for themselves.
I am wary of anyone who points out a sudden rise in one variable only to connect it to ballooning debates about “free speech” and arguments about “truth” versus “social justice.” I’d take a hard pass on that.
The intellectual jump from social media, to depression, to unreasonable student demands — without much evidence to support either of those claims — is a good reason to avoid similar proclamations about Generation Z.
The Show Must Go On
As a leading expert on the subject of coddled American minds, Haidt’s writing and research have been promoted by commentators on both sides of the political spectrum in the U.S.
Notably, Haidt was recently quoted by Trump’s secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who mentioned his work at a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia:
Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist and professor at New York University, argues that institutions of learning cannot pledge to pursue truth and at the same time oblige ‘a welcoming atmosphere,’ ‘civility,’ or even ‘social justice,’” DeVos said. “The latter are to be voluntarily embraced by each member of the community. A school, on the other hand, must make a choice as to its purpose. Let’s call it ‘Haidt’s choice’: Pursue truth or pursue harmony.
Haid later told The Chronicle of Higher Education that DeVos “oversimplified” his point. DeVos essentially butchered his choice between truth and social justice, by making it a choice between truth and “harmony.” A Trumpian slip, perhaps.
In any case, being quoted by Trump’s Secretary of Education is probably not something to write home about.
Then again, the opinions expressed by Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions, who themselves have been protested by students, aren’t that much different from Haidt’s narrative, which fittingly portrays conservatives as the victims on U.S. campuses.
“Imagine if conservative students felt free enough to challenge our dominant ideas, and bold enough to pull us out of our deepest ideological ruts,” Haidt wrote in his popular address to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. “That is my vision for our bright post-partisan future.”