The Rise of Teenage Mental Illness – The Digital Connection

I was recently given Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation – How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness. Haidt is an American social psychologist who examines the increase in diagnoses of mental illness in Western countries from 2010, using data from US college students and emergency room visits. With childhoods driven by smartphones, social media and online gaming, we have created a generation who are less resilient and more prone to anxiety and depression. Girls are particularly vulnerable to the negative impact of social media, while boys are more likely to become engrossed in gaming and pornography.

Haidt suggests the mental health decline among Generation Z is linked to digital technology rather than the wider global crises such as climate change, economic insecurity and conflict. Supporting evidence includes the British Millennium cohort study, which found a correlation between social media use and depression, especially in girls. Girls are particularly vulnerable because they are more affected by visual social comparison and perfectionism, their aggression is more relational, they more easily share emotions and disorders and sadly, they are more subject to predation and harassment.

The research advocates for a re-evaluation of smartphone use among young people, restrictions on smartphones in schools and protective measures against online dangers to safeguard mental wellbeing.

Haidt’s conclusion resonated deeply with me: “Humanity evolved on earth. Childhood evolved for physical playfulness and exploration. Children thrive when they are rooted in real world communities, not in disembodied virtual networks. Growing up in the virtual world promotes anxiety, anomie and loneliness. The Great Rewiring of Childhood, from play based to phone based, has been a catastrophic failure.”

As adults, we need to be aware of the strength of this type of research, ensuring we create as many opportunities as possible for children away from digital worlds, to play, to develop real relationships and to gain a strong sense of self efficacy and worth.

I truly believe the range of rich experiences offered at KRB are the very essence of what makes our education so unique. Right from the beginning, students from ELC to Year 12 are encouraged to engage with activities and initiatives across the five program areas of Community and Active Service, Sport and Movement, Creative and Performing Arts, Intellectual Pursuits and Challenges, and Future and Global Competencies,

But we all know it takes a village. At school we will continue to provide opportunities for students to challenge themselves outside the classroom, to try new things and pursue excellence. At home, I encourage parents also to turn away from screens and towards each other more often. The ‘catastrophic failure’ Haidt described can be undone. We must all understand our role in breaking through the barriers of our phone-based behaviours, and believe instead, in our ability to ‘re-write’ the great ‘re-wiring’ of childhood.

Jonathan Haidt, The Anxious Generation (2024)