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

Tiffany Jenkins

The Smartphone Pandemic

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


Allen Lane 400pp £25

In the early 2010s, the Monitoring the Future Project at the University of Michigan Survey Research Center identified a significant increase in the number of US high-school students who strongly agreed with the statement ‘Life often feels meaningless’. Multiple studies show that over the past ten to fifteen years, depression rates have surged among girls and young women. The rise has been more gradual among boys, but it is still evident. The situation in the UK mirrors this trend. Here, too, young people report suffering from poor mental health in ever greater numbers.

There are, of course, caveats. The last two decades have seen the destigmatising of mental health issues, with high-profile figures like Prince Harry opening up about his psychological difficulties on global TV. People are less likely to suffer in silence, as previous generations did. Definitions have also become more expansive. In times past, the afflicted would probably have received a diagnosis from a medical professional for a specific malady, but today ‘poor mental health’ encompasses a spectrum that extends from serious conditions like acute depression to self-diagnosed feelings of melancholy. Yet even taking these factors into account, there is little doubt that the generational anxiety is real. It is no longer possible merely to tell young people to shrug it off and get a grip. The kids are not all right. 

Enter Jonathan Haidt, an American social psychologist, whose recent works, The Righteous Mind and The Coddling of the American Mind, coauthored with Greg Lukianoff, examined the dynamics of political and cultural polarisation. In his latest book, The Anxious Generation, he identifies the influences at play in the problems of the iPhone generation. It is well researched and provides a comprehensive account of current social and psychological theories, the science of the brain and evolutionary influences, as well as a review of many academic papers on the impact of new technology.

His intellectual lodestar is the French sociologist Emile Durkheim and his concept of ‘anomie’, or normlessness, which arises from an absence of stable and widely shared values in society. While Durkheim, writing in the 19th century, attributed anomie to disruptions in the social order, modernity and the weakening of traditional

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