Jonathan Haidt on Adjusting to Smartphones and Social Media (Ep. 209)

Are we in for a decades-long dip in teen mental health?

In The Anxious Generation, Jonathan Haidt explores the simultaneous rise in teen mental illness across various countries, attributing it to a seismic shift from a “play-based childhood” to a “phone-based childhood” around the early 2010s. He argues that the negative effects of this “great rewiring of childhood” will continue to worsen without the adoption of several norms and a more hands-on approach to regulating social media platforms.

But might technological advances and good old human resilience allow kids to adapt more easily than he thinks?

Jonathan joined Tyler to discuss this question and more, including whether left-wingers or right-wingers make for better parents, the wisest person Jonathan has interacted with, psychological traits as a source of identitarianism, whether AI will solve the screen time problem, why school closures didn’t seem to affect the well-being of young people, whether the mood shift since 2012 is not just about social media use, the benefits of the broader internet vs. social media, the four norms to solve the biggest collective action problems with smartphone use, the feasibility of age-gating social media, and more.

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Recorded February 14th, 2024

Read the full transcript

Special thanks to Mike Theroux for sponsoring this transcript:

“This sponsorship was intended as a small thank you to Tyler for CWT and Marginal Revolution, both of which have been incredibly valuable to me for many years.” 

TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m chatting with Jon Haidt, who needs no introduction. We’ve already done an episode with him. I should stress that Jon has a new book out in late March. It is called The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness. Jon, welcome.

JONATHAN HAIDT: Tyler, great to be back. Great to see you.

COWEN: Let me start with some nonbook questions, though they’re related. Who makes for better parents, left wingers or right wingers?

HAIDT: Right wingers. There’s a lot of data on this. There’s long been a slight gap where conservatives are a little happier than liberals, and it’s not clear why. Is that parenting? Who knows? But what I found in doing the research for the book is that the gap between left and right became a chasm after 2012. We’ll get to the reasons why that is, but the bottom line is, when kids are rooted in communities, they don’t get washed out to sea by the phone-based childhood, by living by the virtual world.

Over and over again, whether we look at left-right or whether we look at religion, what we find is that it’s the secular kids and the liberal kids who got washed out to sea, got really depressed after 2012, and much less effect on the conservative and religious kids because, I think, they’re more rooted.

COWEN: Now, if parenting is the most important thing, which you seem at many times to believe, why aren’t you just a right winger? Because right wingers, according to you, get that right. It would be your community, right? You’re talking about community. Embrace that community.

HAIDT: Well, no, because my community is the academic community, where almost everyone’s on the left. I know some conservatives; they’re mostly not professors. I do belong to a synagogue although I’m an atheist. So, I have one toe in each of these worlds, but it’s not that simple. You don’t just say, “Well, my research shows that this produces better outcomes. Therefore, I will change my values and goals to be . . .” No, it doesn’t work that way.

COWEN: Your own family aside, who is the wisest person you’ve interacted with? And why is that the wisest person?

HAIDT: Oh, my goodness, there’re so many. I’ll just list a few that I’ve thought of. Barry Schwartz was a professor at Swarthmore for many years. He’s retired at Berkeley. He wrote a book on wisdom. I thought of him as one of the wisest people I knew long before. Part of the point of Barry’s book is that wisdom comes from practice, from deep experience and learning. Anyway, as an academic, Barry Schwartz would be one of them.

I have a friend, Bill Budinger. He’s over 80 years old now, and just tremendous life experience. He works behind the scenes to improve democracy, to improve the functioning of institutions. I’m just always so impressed by his ability to understand a complex world and intervene to change it quietly, not calling attention to himself. I’m finding there are a lot of people, all older than me, that I find role models for wisdom.

On moral foundations theory as applied to COVID

COWEN: Given our experience with COVID, where the people on the left seem to be obsessed with masks and with social distancing, do you still think of right wingers as the purity party, as some of your earlier work suggested?

HAIDT: Right. Let’s look at this. What I found empirically in my work on moral foundations theory is that one of the foundations of morality is purity or sanctity. People on the right — and here we mean the social right. This is very important. Libertarians are not conservatives. They shouldn’t be put on the right, although they are allies. When we look at social conservatives, who tend to be more religious, they tend to see more nonmaterial properties in things. They see the flag is not just a piece of cloth. The cross is not just a piece of wood. The Bible is not just a book.

Whereas secular folk tend to question everything, not treat things as sacred. Everything’s open to question, and that’s part of the reason why academics tend to be on the left. That’s the big picture about the psych difference. Now, on the far left, there has always been an extreme purity contingent, like the yoga people who believe in Chi and all these substances moving around your body and toxins. You always have people on the left that have this sort of spiritual thinking that’s related to purity.

What happened with COVID was that it wasn’t about germs. I think it was about government control versus not. At least that’s the way the right saw it. The right saw it because the right already didn’t trust the medical establishment, the authorities. The authorities, to the extent that a lot of them are academic or medical — they are almost all on the left. They really made a point over and over, saying, “We’re on the blue team. We’re part of the blue team.” They said that implicitly.

I think it just quickly became, are you going to follow the orders to do these things and shut down your business, or are you going to resist? That was one where you might expect that people who are more germ phobic or were more afraid of contagion would be on the right, but there are many other factors going on that cause the polarized reaction.

COWEN: I’m still a little confused as to how this fits in with your other views. I think we know people on the left were keener to close the schools or keep the schools closed. That was a bad thing. They seem to have such bad values by your standards, but you identify with the values of the left. Why is it you think they have better values, and then these bad values when it comes to parenting?

HAIDT: No, I don’t identify with the values of the left. I was always on the left when I was younger, and I was always a Democrat. But once I wrote The Righteous Mind, when I finished chapter 8 . . . It was so upsetting to me that George W. Bush won two elections that I thought he shouldn’t win because I thought that the Democratic candidates couldn’t speak about morality.

So, I was going to do this writing to explain to the left what they’re missing. Like a lot of books — George Lakoff — there are many people who’ve been writing books for the left, to shake them and say, “Look at what you’re missing. Stop talking this way.”

By the time I wrote chapter 7 and 8 of The Righteous Mind and really committed to understanding conservatives and libertarians, I realized, wow, there’s a lot of wisdom from all three perspectives: liberal, conservative, and libertarian.

Since then, I’ve been a centrist, and then, since 2015, since we had essentially a cultural revolution on campus — very similar psychologically to the Chinese Cultural Revolution — since we had this incredible liberalism coming from the left on campus, and we had this incredible illiberalism coming from the right, which brought Donald Trump to office, which brought the Unite the Right rally to Charlottesville. We’re now in a time where the potential pathologies of the left have been supercharged by social media. I hope we’ll get to that. The potential pathologies of the right have been supercharged by social media and other things.

My community is those who are center left to center right and libertarians. These are the people who, I think, are still sane and are still noticeably aligned with the idea of a liberal democracy.

COWEN: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from reading the Bible?

HAIDT: The most important thing I’ve learned from reading the Bible? Well, my first reading of it, I was horrified when I was in college. I took it very literally, and that was wrong. So, I didn’t learn much from my first reading long ago, and then I never read it again, but I have gone back to it periodically for stories. I really need to read the New Testament. I’ve read parts of it, but I really need to read the whole thing.

What I would say is that every culture needs a set of stories and moral values, moral principles and metaphors so that they can speak to each other, and they can quickly refer to things that have a lot of meanings for the listener. When you read anything from the ancient world, from ancient Greece or Rome, they have this common vocabulary of Homer and of the myths, and they can talk to each other; they can refer to all of that.

Western civilization has always had the Bible as that in the last thousand years. I think as a set of stories and metaphors — some of which I draw on — are very evocative. The Babel story. The Job story is very confusing and difficult. I don’t take much from that, but the Babel story really affected me when I reread it, and it’s become a basis of a lot of my current writing.

On psychological traits as a source of identitarianism

COWEN: Now, in general, you’ve been critical of identitarianism, people identifying too much with a racial or ethnic group. If you think of young people using concepts from psychology as identity labels — like I’m ADHD, I’m autistic, I’m neurodivergent — what do you think of that trend?

HAIDT: Well, to be clear, I’m not against identity. I have no problem with people identifying strongly with a group, with their race, with a disability. When I use the word identitarianism, I don’t mean just people having an identity. That’s fine. What I mean is two things.

It means a theoretical commitment to putting identity first analytically. In the academic world, what it means is, whatever we’re talking about, whether it’s Shakespeare or inequality or chemistry, even, “We’re going to put identity — especially racial identity — first. That’s the proper lens.” I’m really opposed to teaching young people to do that. It’s fine if there are some classes here and there at the university, but to the extent that DEI procedures have imported that into like, “Here’s how we’re going to orient you. When you come to campus, we’re going to orient you around identitarianism.”

More worrying than just the analytical lens — which causes what I’ve called monomania, an obsessive focus on one thing — is that identitarianism, at least on campus, is not morally neutral. That is, the groups are not morally equal. The old white supremacists used to rank White people as the best race and Black people as the worst race, Asians in the middle. The new identitarianism reverses that because it’s all about power and oppression. The oppressors are the bad people, morally bad. The oppressed are the good people. They’re morally good.

The idea of teaching young people to see if you look at someone, you can see their race, you know whether they’re good or bad to some extent — that’s horrible. That was contrary to what I thought the whole last half of the 20th century was about. So, yes, I’m opposed to identitarianism.

COWEN: Do you think we do that with the disability concept today? We even call it disability, but people, say, with Tourette Syndrome — it’s not clear they have lesser outcomes than other individuals. Do we need some kind of identitarian movement to invert the fact that a whole set of different kinds of people seem to be called inferior right now? Both the left and the right just go along with this. Should we be outraged by that, and we need a new identitarian movement?

HAIDT: So there are two empirical questions here. One is a question about political activism and social change. Obviously, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement — these were identitarian movements that were addressing injustice and that were successful. If they’d not gotten together, change might have come eventually, but they certainly speeded things up. I have no problem with identitarian movements organizing for political purposes. I just think they don’t belong in the university, in classrooms.

Now, as for mental conditions — you might say disabilities — that brings us to the second empirical question, which is, does turning up identity, does turning up your sense that I am ADHD or I’m on the spectrum, whatever — does that actually help young people to achieve better outcomes? There, I don’t know. I’m not an expert in that, but part of the point of my book with Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind, was that the ancient idea from the Stoics and the Buddhists — it’s not things that upset us, it’s interpretation of them.

If you identify as a person with a disability — let’s take anxiety. Young people talk about “my anxiety.” Here I am with my anxiety, practically like a friend. I suspect that identifying with anxiety and depression as part of your identity is probably bad for you. It changes the way you think. It makes you process in a more biased way. I could well be wrong about this, but overall, I think probably we’re doing it too much in terms of what’s good for young people.

On whether AI can solve the screen time problem

COWEN: Let’s turn to your book, which again, everyone, is called The Anxious Generation. You’re worried about screen time. Why isn’t it the case that AI quite soon is simply going to solve this problem? That is, you’ll have your AI agent read the internet for you, or your messages or whatever, and if you want it to talk to you or give you images or digest it all, isn’t it going to cut down on screen time immensely?

HAIDT: No, no, because the point — it’s not just like, “Oh, kids are looking to screen. That’s bad.” No. The reason why I’m so concerned about screen time is, first and foremost, the opportunity cost. This is an odd thing about my book. People might expect it to be about social media is bad and screens are bad, but half of it is about childhood. What is childhood? How does it work? And how important play is.

Human children play a lot. All mammal children do. They have to play to wire up their brains. They have to do that a lot, and we all did that. Everyone over 40 did that. We did that during a crime wave, when there were flashers and perverts and drunk drivers. We didn’t use to lock them up. Now we do. It’s gotten much safer since the ’90s. We went out when life had some danger in it. We played and played and played. We loved TV. We probably watched two or three hours a day of that, but we had a lot of time unsupervised to play.

The problem with screens is that they’re so attractive. They came in, the whole virtual world opened up just as we were freaking out about child abduction in the ’80s and ’90s. The main argument in the book is that we have taken the healthy, normal, play-based childhood that all mammals need, and we swapped it out and gave them a phone-based childhood, once we gave them an iPhone.

The issue isn’t like, “Oh, you have a screen. Let’s have AI get rid of the screen.” No. The issue is, you are on this thing, which we can call an experience blocker. A phone is an experience blocker. That means you spend a lot less time talking to other people, in the presence of other people. You’re not with your friends. You are sleeping less. You’re out in nature less. You have less of almost everything. You don’t read books. You have no time for anything else.

AI is not going to suddenly return kids to a play-based childhood. It’s just going to be a new evolution of the phone-based or virtual childhood.

COWEN: Screen time seems super inefficient. You spend all this time — why not just deal with the digest? Maybe in two, three years, AI cuts your screen time by 2X or 3X. Why is that so implausible?

HAIDT: Well, Tyler, you’re talking as an intellectual who has probably the highest reading throughput rate of any human being I’ve ever heard of. For you, you’re looking at this like, “All this information coming in from screens, we could make it better.” I’m sure you’re right about that.

I’m thinking about children, children who desperately need to spend hours and hours each day with other kids, unsupervised, planning games, enforcing rules, getting in fights, getting out. That’s what you need to do.

Instead, what’s coming — it’s already the case for boys especially, that they can’t go over to each other’s houses after school because then they can’t play video games. When you and I were young, video games were coming in, and you’d go over to someone’s house, and you’d sit next to each other, and you’d play Pong or whatever. You’d play a game, and you’d joke with each other, and you’d eat food, and then you’d do something else.

Video games used to be fairly healthy, but once they became multiplayer, you wear your headphones, you’ve got your controller, they’re incredibly immersive. Now, you have to be alone in your room in order to play them. Now, you bring in virtual AI girlfriends and boyfriends. Already, Gen Z — those born after 1995 — are completely starved of the kinds of social experiences that they need to grow up.

In theory, I’m sure you’re going to say, “Well, why can’t we just train an AI friend to be like a real friend and get in fights with you sometimes?” Maybe in theory that’s possible, but that’s not what it’s going to be. It’s going to be market-driven. It’s going to be friends and lovers who are incredibly great for you. You never have to adjust to them. You never have to learn how to deal with difficult people, and it’s going to be a complete disaster for human development.

COWEN: Complete disaster strikes me as too strong a term for something that hasn’t happened yet. I think you’re much too confident about that.

HAIDT: What do you mean it hasn’t happened yet?

COWEN: If screen time is making kids so miserable, why won’t they seek out methods to make their screen time more efficient? You seem to suggest they won’t. It’ll just be more and more screen time. AI will help them do this. You get a digest, convert anything to spoken word? You just do everything through earbuds if you want to.

HAIDT: Wait, I’m sorry, what is your question?

COWEN: If screen time is making kids so miserable, why won’t they use new AI innovations —

HAIDT: Oh, oh.

COWEN: — to lessen their screen time? If they don’t want to stare at the screen, turn messages into voice through earbuds, turn it into images, whatever makes them happier. Why are they so failing to maximize?

HAIDT: Because — and this is one of the key ideas in the book — what I think makes it different is that I’m a social psychologist with a lot of interest in sociology. I like to think systemically. Over and over again, what you see when you look at this problem is collective action problems.

I teach a class at NYU, and my students spend enormous amounts of time on TikTok and Instagram. Many of them spend four, five, even six hours a day consuming content from just these two or three sites. Why don’t you just quit? Because they say it blocks out everything else. They don’t have time to do their homework. Well, why don’t you just quit? They all say the same thing. “Well, I can’t because everyone else is on it, because then I’ll be left out. I won’t know what people are talking about.”

Over and over again, we see these collective action problems. There was recently a paper published by Leonardo Bursztyn. I think it was at the University of Chicago. He and his colleagues took — these were college students, I believe, and they found out how much we would have to pay you to stop using TikTok or Instagram. The answer, $50 or something. It was some number.

You might say, oh, well, clearly this is the value of TikTok and Instagram. Multiply this out by 240 million people. What an amazing contribution to public value these platforms are. But it turns out that the only reason people would pay is because if everyone else is on it, they have to be on it, even though they don’t want to be.

When they changed the questions and they said, “Okay, now, actually, we’re going to try to get everyone at your school to get off. If we can get most of them off, how much would we have to pay you? From ‘you pay us’ to ‘you pay us a lot,’ how much do we have to pay you for that outcome, where everybody’s off?” The answer is, “Oh, I’d pay you for that.” Most of them would pay to be liberated from TikTok or Instagram.

When asked, “Would you prefer that this was never invented?” the majority said yes. Over and over, kids are in a trap, and AI is not going to liberate from the trap. It’s just going to make the trap more enticing.

On school closures and well-being

COWEN: Now, you stress the importance of play, face-to-face interaction. You also note that in your data, COVID lockdowns hardly dent the well-being of young people. Isn’t that evidence that face-to-face interaction isn’t that important, and we’re just depressed for some other set of reasons?

HAIDT: No. No, because when you look at the amount of time that young people have been spending with each other, they were socially distanced by 2019. It’s one of the most stunning graphs in the book. There are all these American Time Use Surveys. So, you plot out, how much time do you spend each day, how many minutes a day talking with friends or being with friends?

Not surprisingly, young people used to spend a lot of time, more than two hours a day with their friends. Whereas people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s — they’re spending 20 or 30 minutes a day, on average, with their friends because they’re married, they’ve got work. They’re not hanging out with friends very much. There’s a huge gap between the 15- to 24-year-olds and everybody else until 2012. That’s the turning point.

Once kids get a phone now, it’s an experience blocker, it’s relationship blocker, it’s a time-together blocker. The graph for minutes per day goes plummeting. An astonishing fact about that graph — you can find it in, I forget what chapter in the book — is that it’s going down really steeply from 2018 to 2019, and it’s getting real close to the older people. Then, 2019 to 2020 is the COVID year. There’s no bend in the curve; it’s just going down. From 2019 to COVID lockdown was a drop exactly the same rate as the previous year, and they’re very close to adults.

COWEN: That can’t be true. Schools are closing, right? There are six to eight hours a day taken away from being with your friends once the schools shut down.

HAIDT: Maybe yes. You’re right. First of all — wait.

COWEN: Well-being doesn’t go down much for young people.

HAIDT: What do you mean it doesn’t go down much for young people? What did?

COWEN: Well, in your data, say, depression, well-being problems for young people — they don’t really go down [Cowen meant to say up] when the schools close.

HAIDT: A couple of things there. First, I believe the Time Use studies don’t count school time as time with friends because what they’re trying to do is like, how much time you’re in school, how much time you’re sleeping, how much time you’re eating, how much time you’re playing with friends. I’m pretty sure the hours — what we plot in the graph — it has to be the case. Otherwise, the COVID numbers would plummet even more. We’re talking time out of school, that’s the first thing.

The second thing is, time in school used to be mostly with friends. You’re either interacting with your friends or with your teachers. Not anymore. Once everyone has a phone in school, if some kids are texting, then you have to check your text. Most kids check their texts during class. My kids go to New York City public schools. The rule is, you’re not supposed to take out your phone, but everyone does, and the teachers give up.

Jean Twenge and I — we analyzed PISA data, the big international education survey, and they have six items there about loneliness at school. “Often, I feel lonely at school” and unrelated items. Those were very steady around the world until 2012. Between 2012 and 2016, all around the world except East Asia, but in Europe, North America, Latin America — all those areas, loneliness in school goes up after 2012. Also, after 2012, academic achievement goes down.

My argument is, when you give a kid a phone — a flip phone was fine; flip phones were not damaging, but a smartphone is a portal to the entire internet. It’s a way for companies to get to you. Once kids got smartphones around 2012, they spend less time, like at lunch, they’re not playing with each other as much; they’re on their phones. In between classes, they’re not talking in the hallway; they’re on their phones.

The phone has been devastating to time with friends in school, time with friends out of school, and time listening to teachers in school because all the time, all the attention goes to the phone — most of the attention.

COWEN: You’re saying the COVID school shutdowns were not a good natural experiment for kids having less face time with each other? I would say it is. It would be hard to design a better natural experiment. It’s truly exogenous.

HAIDT: Well, yes, but you’re changing so many other things. Also, a part of the story here is that American schools, in particular, are depressogenic. That is, when you look at the suicide rate, there’s a big increase. My colleague Peter Gray, a play researcher, has pointed this out over and over again. The suicide rate goes down substantially in the summer. I’m not sure about Christmas vacation, but the point is, it’s very clear: Every year, as soon as kids go back to school, the suicide rate goes up.

It’s not as though school is making kids happy because we do school really badly. Yes, they’re freed from school, but so much changes. For some kids, once they were out of school, they actually could see their friends more — some kids. Other kids were more isolated. I think we’d want to look at what happened to the kids who are stuck in their room alone. I bet those kids went down. And what happened to the kids who are out of school, and they have siblings, they have friends in the neighborhood, and they saw them more. So, it’s not a clean experiment.

On other big historical shifts in mood

COWEN: Let me step back a bit and ask you a very long-run historical question. It seems to me that European culture and society, maybe starting around 1900 — it becomes more neurotic, more depressive, more negative, more hostile. Why did that happen?

HAIDT: These are some of the biggest questions in sociology about the transition from what Ferdinand Tönnies called Gemeinschaft societies to Gesellschaft societies, those that are based on direct personal connections, interactions, versus those that are market-based. A lot of stuff happened to get more individualism. So, I don’t doubt you get more neuroticism, but you also get the happiest countries that have ever been.

When you look at the World Happiness Report — I forget when it starts, early 2010s or late 2000s — what you find repeatedly is that the Scandinavian countries — the Nordic countries, I should say — and the Anglo countries dominate the list of the top 10 or 15. The US and UK are down at the bottom of that. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia — those are the happiest countries, and the kids were the happiest, too, until 2012. Then what happens is, the adults don’t change much, but the kids plummet in all of these countries.

COWEN: I ask you also, why does English thought and society seem to become so much weirder in the 17th century? The general point I want to make is, there are all these long-term historical mood shifts, which very often are reversed — like the 1950s maybe are much cheerier — and they’re essentially a mystery to us.

But we see, because of contagion effects, you can have very small impetuses, and then big, big shifts in mood that a century later, we still can’t explain. Why isn’t 2012 just another one of those? You’re pinning it on smartphones, but these big shifts in mood that we can’t explain — that’s the norm in history.

HAIDT: Well, first of all, can you point to any other shift that we can’t explain that happened in a single year? Usually, you’re talking things that take 5 or 10 years, or 20 years, right?

COWEN: There were turning points: 17th-century British history — all of a sudden people go crazy. They kill the king.

HAIDT: Which year is that?

COWEN: The French Revolution.

HAIDT: Okay. All right, fine — revolutions, of course. Yes, things change, but what I want to look at . . . There are two ways to explain it. One is, you can look at it like what events happened that had sequelae. Killing the king, and putting the Committee of Public Safety in charge of chopping people’s heads off — that’s going to have a pretty big effect on people’s moods. But what I’m interested in here, as a social scientist, is when you change a parameter.

Take a bunch of societies, and now, let’s take some of them, and let’s ramp up diversity. Let’s have a lot of immigration from around the world. What effect is that going to have? I think it’ll have a mix of good and bad effects. That’s really interesting as a social scientist.

Take a bunch of societies — half of them, we superconnect them, give everybody telephones 100 years ago, and others don’t get it. What effect is that going to have? Connecting societies usually is a good thing. It certainly makes them more productive.

But my argument is that we’ve been connected for a very, very long time now. What changed around 2012 was that we became connected, not by direct connections to each other, but by social media platforms that were now superviral. They weren’t that way in 2004 through ’08, but you get the like button, the retweet button. You get threaded comments — that’s 2014. Now, the way we’re connected is a way that especially encourages rage and conflict.

COWEN: There are two pieces of evidence — when I look at them, they don’t seem to support your story out of sample.

HAIDT: Okay, great. Let’s have it.

COWEN: First, across countries, it’s mostly the Anglosphere and the Nordic countries, which are more or less part of the Anglosphere. Most of the world is immune to this, and smartphones for them seem fine. Why isn’t it just that a negative mood came upon the Anglosphere for reasons we mostly don’t understand, and it didn’t come upon most of the rest of the world? If we’re differentiating my hypothesis from yours, doesn’t that favor my view?

HAIDT: Well, once you look into the connections and the timing, I would say no. I think I see what you’re saying now, but I think your view would say, “Just for some reason we don’t know, things changed around 2012.” Whereas I’m going to say, “Okay, things changed around 2012 in all these countries. We see it in the mental illness rates, especially of the girls.” I’m going to say it’s not just some mood thing. It’s like (a), why is it especially the girls? (b) —

COWEN: They’re more mimetic, right?

HAIDT: Yes, that’s true.

COWEN: Girls are more mimetic in general.

HAIDT: That’s right. That’s part of it. You’re right, that’s part of it. They’re just much more open to connection. They’re more influenced. They’re more subject to contagion. That is a big part of it, you’re right. What Zach Rausch and I have found — he’s my lead researcher at the After Babel Substack. I hope people will sign up. It’s free. We’ve been putting out tons of research. Zach has really tracked down what happened internationally, and I can lay it out.

Now I know the answer. I didn’t know it two months ago. The answer is, within countries, as I said, it’s the people who are conservative and religious who are protected, and the others, the kids get washed out to sea. Psychologically, they feel their life has no meaning. They get more depressed. Zach has looked across countries, and what you find in Europe is that, overall, the kids are getting a little worse off psychologically.

But that hides the fact that in Eastern Europe, which is getting more religious, the kids are actually healthier now than they were 10 years ago, 15 years ago. Whereas in Catholic Europe, they’re a little worse, and in Protestant Europe, they’re much worse.

It doesn’t seem to me like, oh, New Zealand and Iceland were talking to each other, and the kids were sharing memes. It’s rather, everyone in the developed world, even in Eastern Europe, everyone — their kids are on phones, but the penetration, the intensity, was faster in the richest countries, the Anglos and the Scandinavians. That’s where people had the most independence and individualism, which was pretty conducive to happiness before the smartphone. But it now meant that these are the kids who get washed away when you get that rapid conversion to the phone-based childhood around 2012. What’s wrong with that explanation?

COWEN: Old Americans also seem grumpier to me. Maybe that’s cable TV, but it’s not that they’re on their phones all the time. And you know all these studies. If you try to assess what percentage of the variation in happiness of young people is caused by smartphone usage — Sabine Hossenfelder had a recent video on this — those numbers are very, very, very small. That’s another measurement that seems to discriminate in favor of my theory, exogenous mood shifts, rather than your theory. Why not?

HAIDT: First of all, we have to talk about correlation coefficients here. I’ve been involved in the debate. Jean Twenge and I are on one side. There are a few researchers — Andrew Przybylski, Amy Orben, Candice Odgers, there are a few others — on the other side. It’s been a very productive debate. It’s all conducted within bounds. There are three different kinds of studies: the correlational studies, the longitudinal studies, and then there are the true experiments. There are three different kinds.

Zach and I and Jean have put them all — we have a Google doc. If you go to, we have all these Google docs. You can see abstracts to all the studies. Most of the discussion has been over the correlational studies. Some studies have said, oh, the correlation between time on screens, or time even on social media and time on screens, and some measure of bad mental health is like 0.04.

Now, if that was true, I would say, wow, that’s pretty much nothing, but here’s the thing. Every time I dig into the data — whatever study is published to try to debunk this claim, you dig into the data — what do you find? If they’re looking at screen time overall, then the correlation is low, but whenever you can zoom in on social media, it’s bigger. Whenever you can zoom in on girls, it’s bigger, and an amazing thing has happened.

The skeptics and me and Jean — we’ve all reached the same conclusion about the size of the correlation. They say the size of the correlation is between R is 0.1 and 0.15, which is small, but it’s about the same size as many other public health effects. But that’s always for boys and girls combined. What Jean and I have found is that when you look at the girls, now you’re in the realm of 0.15 to 0.2.

Because girls are more affected by it, we actually all agree the correlation coefficient is around 0.17. That is not trivial. You would never let your kid do something four hours a day that was correlated 0.17 with depression, anxiety, and self-harm. So, the effect is actually much bigger than many people realize in the scientific community because you have to zoom in on girls and social media.

On the benefits of social media

COWEN: Why no talk in your book about the benefits of social media? They seem to me extremely large. I know many talented —

HAIDT: Tell me about it for kids. No, tell me about the benefits of social media for middle school students, 11 to 13 years old.

COWEN: At Emergent Ventures, we support many teenagers, young women. Many of them not 13 years old, but very often 16 to 19 years old. They’re doing science. They’re remarkably smart. They get in touch with their collaborations and with each other using social media. They exchange information. They’re doing phenomenally well. They’re an incredible generation, smarter, more dynamic, probably more productive than any other scientific generation ever, and that’s because of social media. Now, you might think the costs outweigh that, but there’s no mention in your book of the benefits that I can see.

HAIDT: Oh, no, no, no. Well, I do have a section on the benefits. It’s short. Here’s what I say. First, the discussions of benefits are always for older teens. The benefits of being able to collaborate with people far away when you’re 16 or 18 — I totally see that. For middle school students, they don’t need that. They need to develop basic social skills and be with each other. I’ve never heard anyone make a good case that 11-, 12-, and 13-year-olds benefit from social media.

Second, whenever I hear this argument, it usually seems to conflate the internet with social media. During COVID, a lot of people said, “Oh, thank God for social media. What would the kids do if they didn’t have social media?” To which I say, “Yes, can you imagine if the only way they could connect was by calling them up on the phone or texting them, or Skype or Zoom or FaceTime, or multiplayer video games or many, many other ways that the internet allows you to connect.”

Social media is very different from everything else. Social media is a distorting mirror. It’s not a connection device. Well, it is that, but it’s a weird connection device. That would be my first response: Don’t confuse social media and the internet. We need the internet. The internet is amazing. Remember what it was like in the ’90s when we all discovered it? It was one of the greatest things we’ve ever seen. It didn’t harm mental health. It was good for democracy.

That’s not true anymore in our modern . . . These purported benefits of social media — I’m just not seeing the evidence for it. There are hardly any studies —

COWEN: Which is Twitter? Is Twitter internet or social media?

HAIDT: Social media.

COWEN: That’s how they all meet, these kids. That’s how they get in touch with each other. They see what they’re working on. It seems to me just an enormous benefit. It could be the case, maybe only 5 percent of teenagers benefit from this Twitter function, but that could, by far, outweigh the costs, right?

HAIDT: Hold on a second. Let’s suppose it’s 5 percent benefit, if you’ll grant me that probably the costs outweigh the benefits for middle school students because that’s where the girls seem to really go off track. Will you grant me that, that the cost-benefit ratio is probably negative when you’re 11 and 12 for being on Instagram and TikTok?

COWEN: I think it is likely that girls aged 12 to 14 are worse off because of Instagram. I would agree with that.

HAIDT: Okay, fine. Good. If we agree on that, now, at least, let’s focus where it’s harder for me, which is, what do we do about 15- and 16-year-olds? We all agree 18-year-olds can be on, but let’s take 14, 15 because I favor raising the age to 16. I think social media is not appropriate for children. The internet, of course, has so many amazing things. I’m not saying keep them away from the internet. I’m saying social media, having an account where you’re fed material, you’re fed content by algorithms — that is not appropriate for children. The age should be 16. Let’s, you and I, talk about 14- and 15-year-olds.

COWEN: These kids start connecting with each other when they’re 13. Maybe I only meet them when they’re 17, 18, but they get going on science and learning definitely at age 13.

HAIDT: Boy, can you imagine if they didn’t have Twitter? There’s no way they could find each other, is there?

COWEN: It would be much harder. I find a lot of people —

HAIDT: It would be a little harder. No, no. It’d be a little harder. Come on.

COWEN: There’d be something like social media. It may not be Twitter.

HAIDT: There are so many websites. There are blogs. There are podcasts. They would find each other. You don’t have to have an algorithmically driven platform to find other kids who share your interest, so I disagree with that premise.

COWEN: I can switch my Twitter to no algorithm with one click, and they do, too.

HAIDT: Well, okay. That’s fair enough.

COWEN: They choose. They all make this decision.

HAIDT: Wait, wait, Tyler, wait. You know what? I want to turn the tables here, and I want to ask you some things because there’s something that I am really puzzled by, and I want to know your opinion of it.

It seems to me, in talking to my students, members of Gen-Z have to spend so much time servicing their network connections — many hours a day. It’s the first thing they do when they open their eyes in the morning. It’s the last thing they do before they close them at night, is check their notifications, messages. And in between, it’s a lot of what they do. They don’t have much attention left over to do anything.

Now, there was a conversation between Patrick Collison and Sam Altman last May, I think it was. Patrick pointed out to Sam, he said, “This is the first time since the ’70s that there has not been a major person in software under 30. It was Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. They got started when they were very young, in their teens and twenties. They founded companies in their twenties. The millennials — the ’90s and 2000s — the millennials were amazing. But Gen Z isn’t starting companies. Gen Z isn’t doing things.”

My question for you is, you said that this is the most productive, inventive, creative generation. It seems to me you could make the case that it seems to be possibly the least. What I’d like to know from you is, can you name members of Gen Z who really have come out big and really had a big impact on the world? Can you name anyone? There are only two names that come up. What are yours?

COWEN: Let me first say that in any area where we can truly measure performance, like take chess — young people, including young women, they’re just doing better and better than ever before.

HAIDT: Oh, yes. The Flynn Effect has actually stopped.

COWEN: Social networks — they’re not ruining the young women chess players. They’re just improving all the time. That’s telling you something about the smart people in society. I think that you can’t just be a programmer alone, that the nature of companies now is not that you do it in your dorm room at Harvard, but it requires synthetic abilities. Sam Altman at OpenAI in his late 30s is the new paradigm, but it’s because of the nature of production that’s changed.

HAIDT: Fair enough. Even still, can you tell me . . . My concern is Gen Z — they’re working hard, but so much of their effort is within the black hole of the prestige economy within social media. We can point to MrBeast as a well-known Gen Z person, but that proves the rule that it’s all about doing things to be recognized within this prestige economy, to get likes and followers. That’s to get prestige, and nothing comes out of that world to influence the world that the rest of us live in. Please tell me I’m wrong.

COWEN: I visited Anthropic and OpenAI. A lot of the people there were extremely young; I don’t know exact birth dates. They’re doing amazing things. None of them are famous, but their research teams are quite small. Those individuals are decisive.

Again, with Emergent Ventures, I’m interviewing young people from ages 16, often through 25, through 30, five to eight times a week, every week of my life. They’re just awesome. They’re way better than kids were in my time. They’re smarter, they’re more productive, they’re more attentive, they’re more disciplined. I see there are problems at the median, but they’re just better in every way, and I don’t see how that fits into your account.

HAIDT: First of all, I will grant that the internet, in general, makes it much easier for you to find the very top people. Let’s suppose that I was right, that because Gen Z now has to devote 5 to 10 hours a day, literally 5 to 10 hours a day, to servicing their network connections plus consuming content. They have to keep up with Netflix. They do YouTube Shorts. If we take 5 to 10 hours a day out of most of their lives, most of them will not be very productive.

But there always are going to be geniuses. There always are going to be amazing young people, and you’re able to find them. Your anecdotal experience that you’re finding all these amazing young people doesn’t convince me that the average is getting better.

On the ease of adjusting to smartphones and social media

COWEN: Whatever problems there are, why not just think we’ll adjust to them? Now, I’ve read your page 81 where you discussed this, but I don’t think you have any actual facts. You just say you don’t think people can adjust, but we adjusted to moving from a hunter-gatherer society to agriculture. We adjusted to having fire. We adjusted to urbanization. We adjusted to many truly major trends that overall have been great, but in the early stages were far from easy. You have this weird distinction between internet and social media, which I don’t really buy —

HAIDT: What?

COWEN: — but what’s happening now? Just another example of that. There are some problems. We’re going to adjust. Medium-term benefits will be enormous. Let’s get on with the adjustment.

HAIDT: You could be right about that. That is definitely within the realm of possibility. It could just be, this is the early days, and I am overreacting. You could be right, but let’s think of another class of events. Suppose we change our diet so that there’s just no vitamin C in it, and our kids start getting scurvy. Would you say, “Well, they’ll adapt to that. They’ll adapt to scurvy. We’ll figure out how to live with scurvy.” Is that going to be something we’ll adapt to?

COWEN: That’s what the Aztecs did. They put nixtamal in their tortillas, and they don’t get scurvy for that reason. They didn’t eat oranges. They did adapt to it.

HAIDT: Ah, I see. What I’m trying to argue here is that humans, as mammals, have certain requirements in childhood, and those are for a lot of play, face-to-face interaction, eye contact, synchrony, a lot of those things. My argument is that the virtual life, the phone-based life is blocking that, so it’s not like they’re going to be able to grow up without that stuff.

I think your argument is that AI will play the role of whatever the Aztecs did. AI will allow kids to basically just sit in a room for 18 years and still get face-to-face contact virtually, synchrony, humor, social skills. They could, in theory, sit in their room alone for 18 years and just be fed food and social experiences. Do you think we could do that?

COWEN: That’s one scenario, but the more optimistic scenario is, you talk about this 5- to 10-hour flow of messages you need to manage. AI will do that for you, and you’ll have a lot more time again, and you’ll spend it meeting up with your friends. Like it is fun, right? The fact that it’s fun means it’s not just a public good. Kids will find ways of doing this.

HAIDT: Oh, meeting up. Kids have a great time when they’re together, but being on social media is not necessarily very fun. It’s work. It takes a huge amount of time, especially for the girls. They’re very anxious about it.

COWEN: AI would do that work for us if we want it to.

HAIDT: Fine, okay. If you’re suggesting that we could outsource all of that bad stuff to AI so that kids don’t actually have to know what’s going on in their friend’s life — they don’t have to keep up with who said what to whom because they’re never going to actually meet their friend in person — then I would say, maybe that could work because we’re all just alone in a room. But if you’re saying that they will actually meet up in person, and then they each don’t know what’s going on in each other’s lives because their AI took care of it? What are you saying?

COWEN: No, they read a digest or they hear a digest. Manage the flow. We’re a year away from this working. Google Gemini is working on it already. It’s almost there.

HAIDT: Again, in theory, you could be right, and looking at the long history of humanity, and I know your . . . I’m very sympathetic to Matt Ridley’s book, Rational Optimist, Steve Pinker’s points about The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Robert Wright’s book, Nonzero. You may be right.

I think I’m right that we’re going into a dip. It’s gigantic in terms of mental health impact, suicide rates, self-harm, hospitalizations, missed potential. But you might be right that this is early days, and in 30 to 50 years, the next generation or two generations from now could be so optimized that they’re like superhuman. Do we agree on that?

COWEN: I don’t know what superhuman means, but I think these things are going to go well. Let’s put it that way.

HAIDT: Okay. You think they’re going to go well because that’s been the trajectory over the last couple of centuries?

COWEN: People can adjust to an amazing variety of circumstances, and they take tools and figure out how to use them for better rather than worse. More and more kids will secede from the bad parts of social media. They’ll just say, “I’m going to form like a little polycule but without sex, and my polycule will be based around not doing so much social media.” Like my friends and I in high school — we didn’t go to parties. We seceded from that. We were out of many loops, but we had a blast, and I think —

HAIDT: Right, because you were together.

COWEN: Yes. People can still do that. I agree there’s too much homework, by the way.

HAIDT: No, that’s right. Especially in the early grades, there’s no reason for it in first, second, third, fourth grade.

I think we are reaching some agreement here, which is that the technology is currently hooking kids into a collective action problem. Most of them say they’re only on it, or on it this much, because they have to be. They don’t want to be. They wish things could be different, so they’re kind of trapped now. I think we agree that if we could liberate the kids from that so that they could really spend a lot more time hanging out together unsupervised, they would be better off. They would be happier, and then they could have many of the benefits of the technologies. I agree with you on that.

That’s actually what I’m trying to do in my book. In the book, after I go through the analysis of collective action problems, I say, “Here are four norms that will solve for the biggest collective action problems.” And if we can do this, then we would liberate kids to do just what you were saying.

The four norms are no smartphone before high school. Kids can have flip phones to communicate. Flip phones were not harmful. You can use them to communicate, to say, “I’ll see you at 4:00. Let’s meet at the mall.” But you’re not going to type out long things about what someone said and how you feel. You’re going to wait till you see each other in person. No smartphones before high school, and the kids can still have laptops. They can have other things, but it’s the constant connection in your pocket. That’s what has really done them in. That’s what brought about the phone-based childhood. So that’s number one.

Second norm, no social media till 16. You have most of the rest of the internet. You can connect in all kinds of ways, but to open an account . . . I’m not saying they can’t see a YouTube video, of course, or a TikTok video. I’m saying they cannot sign a contract with a company to give away their data, to be exposed, to have an account, to have a name, to get sucked into the whole performance game. Let’s just delay that till 16.

The evidence shows — and actually, this is from an Orben and Przybylski study a couple of years ago — that the maximum damage is done to girls around 11 to 13 and boys around 14 to 15, so let’s just delay it till 16. That’s the second.

Third is phone-free schools. No one’s ever pointed out a benefit to letting kids have their phones with them during class. Now, in high school, maybe they use them for some lesson plans. I’m not saying there’s zero benefits, but the distraction effect is so gigantic that as long as you can text, you will text. So just put the phone in a phone locker or in a Yondr pouch when you arrive, and you get them when you go home. That’s the third one, phone-free schools. That would give them seven hours a day where they could talk to each other and to their teachers.

Then the fourth one is far more childhood independence and free play. This is all the Lenore Skenazy work, Free-Range Kids. She and I and Peter Gray founded an organization called Let Grow. If there are any parents listening, if you have kids under 12, please go to We have all kinds of ideas and advice and ways that you can give your kid a healthier, more play-based childhood, which fosters development, happiness, competence.

Those four norms — if we could do it, then I think we would roll back a lot of the mental illness. We’d free kids up for a lot more time to play with each other and hang out together, and then I’d be much less worried.

COWEN: Now, for instance —

HAIDT: Do you agree with me on those norms?

COWEN: It depends what you mean by them. “No social media before 16.” Is that enforced by the government or by parents?

HAIDT: First of all, the parents can’t really enforce this stuff. It’s like saying, “You can’t drink alcohol before 21, but it’s up to the parents to enforce that. Bars never have to check ID. The parents should stop their kids from going into bars.” Well, how do you do that unless you lock them up at home?

So, it’s unrealistic to think that parents could actually do this. You’ve got families with two married parents with graduate degrees who are really concerned about this. They can’t stop their kids from getting on these platforms because there are always ways around it. The platforms have to do something. They have to do something to help us. They do nothing, nothing. They know when a kid is 11. The minimum age is currently 13; they don’t enforce it. They know when a kid is 11; they won’t do anything to kick these kids off. That has to change.

On age-gating social media

COWEN: I’m a parent; say I have a 15-year-old, and I want the kid on Twitter. Is the government going to stop me?

HAIDT: There are a couple of options here. What I would prefer —

COWEN: No, tell me your number-one option. What’s your view? You’re talking around it a bit.

HAIDT: Okay. My number-one option is that the age be raised from 13 to 16 and enforced.

COWEN: So, the government will stop me from raising my 15-year-old the way I want to. I’m totally against that.

HAIDT: Well, hold on a second. The current way it’s written — this goes back, this is COPPA, the Child Online Privacy Protection Act. It was done in 1998, I think it was, or 1997. It says that these big — like AOL or Time Warner or whatever — it went in the early internet. At what age are you allowed to take data from a child without that child’s parent’s permission or knowledge or assent? At what age?

COWEN: Thirteen.

HAIDT: Well, you’d think it should be 18 because you’re signing a contract. The terms of service is a contract. You’d think it’d be 18, but they said, “Well, that’s not realistic. Let’s make it lower.” Ed Markey was in the House then. He said 16, he thought was the best age, but lobbyists got it pushed down to 13. He said he knew it was the wrong age at the time, but it was the best he could do, so it’s 13. That’s the age at which you’re allowed to sign a contract without your parent’s knowledge.

Now, if we just push that up to 16, then the law would be, with your parent’s permission, you can do it. In some versions of this legislation, you would say the age is 16 without parents’ permission, but if you have your parent’s permission, then it could be as low as 14 or 13. What’s wrong with that? Are you saying, if parents can give permission, you still would object?

COWEN: No, I’m fine with it being up to the parents. But your view is also, it should be up to the parents, and the government doesn’t step into this? There are parental controls on Instagram, as you know much better than I do, and not that many parents do it, right? So, if it’s parents, it’s okay. I don’t see why your stuff is such a big change, at least on that issue.

HAIDT: Look, Tyler, very few people are able to use parental controls well. Again, people who are very well educated who are trying — they’re complicated; there are ways around it.

COWEN: I agree.

HAIDT: Tyler, let’s take pornography. Do you think it’s okay for 11-year-olds to be on Pornhub? There’s no risk. They don’t even have to say they’re 18. They just go on. Do you think that’s okay?

COWEN: Look, you’re shifting something back to me. There’s a dual issue that either it’s up to the parents, in which case your recommendation won’t matter much, or the government steps in, which you won’t say you’re for, but at least in your ExcelinEd talk, you at least raised the possibility. I’m asking you, are you for the government stopping me from having my 15-year-old on Twitter? Yes or no?


COWEN: So, it’s up to the parents.


COWEN: Then it’s up to . . .

HAIDT: I’m in favor of helping parents to raise their kids the way they want. Right now, the number one concern of parents all across America is not their kid getting pregnant or abducted or in a car accident. It’s social media and the internet. That’s what parents are mostly afraid of. It’s the number one concern by far, even for parents of six- and seven-year-olds. Okay? Something’s going terribly wrong here.

The government set up the internet such that there are zero guardrails by age. Nothing. If you’re nine, you just say . . . The government set it up that way. They gave blanket immunity to these industries. They said, “And not only are there no age guards, but you have complete protection from lawsuits. No one can sue you.”

What we have is a complete goddamn — I want to curse here — disaster. It was set up by the government to run this way. It’s not like any other industry, and it is destroying a generation. The mental health catastrophe is bigger than anything we’ve ever seen, and what I’m saying is not the government should decide. What I’m saying is, we parents are stuck in these horrible collective action problems. We cannot get out. We cannot get out.

COWEN: But you haven’t told us how to get out.

HAIDT: Yes, I have.

COWEN: Now you’re raising the possibility — so parents can sue, say, Meta/Facebook if the kid gets on and the parent didn’t actually approve it. Given how many customers there are, isn’t that just destroying the company?

HAIDT: No, no, no. Hold on. This is slightly off topic, but it’s very relevant here. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gave them protection from liability for what other people post. That makes sense, but it’s been interpreted so broadly by some lower courts that if parents want to sue Meta or TikTok because it addicted their kids, because they built design features like the constant refresh, the eternal feed. They designed it to be as addictive as possible, but they can’t be sued for their design choice. That’s insane.

The government has taken a hands-off approach so far, and it’s been a complete disaster. What I’m saying is, we need to have these companies held liable for their decisions. Not for some jerk posting some false thing — I understand that principle. The government has to return liability to the industries. We saw that in those hearings a couple of weeks ago on Section 230. So that’s the first thing.

The second is, the government has to tell the platforms that they have some responsibility, some, for age-gating. Right now, they have none. Nothing, and that is completely untenable.

What I would like to see is, take the law that you passed — 13 with no enforcement — make it 16 with enforcement, and then we can talk about whether we want to have a parental permission feature. That would be okay with me, where you have to be 16 to sign a contract and give away your data, but if your parents want you to have an account on TikTok at 13 and give away your data to the Chinese government, they can choose to do that, and let’s see if TikTok and Meta can figure out a way to do parental permission. I’m betting they can.

COWEN: Well, Facebook has billions of users, or you could call them customers. Let’s say they have —

HAIDT: No, they’re users, they’re not customers. They don’t give them money.

COWEN: Well, they’re both.

HAIDT: No, but how are they customers?

COWEN: They’re customers. You want to please your customers. But the point is, let’s say Meta has a 1 percent failure rate in trying to do this, which would be an amazingly good performance. Very hard to pull off.

HAIDT: That’s fine. Oh, that’d be incredible. They should get a bonus.

COWEN: They’re sued out of existence in that scenario because they have billions of users and 1 percent —

HAIDT: No, no, no.

COWEN: Yes. How much are these lawsuits good for?

HAIDT: 1 percent what? Wait, are you saying 1 percent are harmed? Or are you saying 1 percent are on underage?

COWEN: Let’s say 99 out of 100 times when the parent doesn’t want the kid on, the kid isn’t on, but there’s a failure rate of 1 percent and then the parents can sue.

HAIDT: That’d be incredible. Oh my god, I would be so —

COWEN: The company would disappear. There’d be lawsuits.

HAIDT: No. If any company achieved 95 percent, let’s say, then they would have some protection from liability because clearly, they are doing a lot to age-gate. But right now, you go to most middle schools, everyone has an Instagram account, so they’re doing nothing now. Whereas, if they could get to 95 percent, I would say, “Wow, thank you, Mark Zuckerberg. You really are doing what you said. You really are trying to keep underage users off.” But right now there’s nothing. There’s no obstacle to signing up.

COWEN: In two years, won’t AI make most age-gating just flat-out impossible for everything?

HAIDT: No. There are all kinds of ways that you could do age-gating, either by building something into the hardware, building something into the software. There are so many different ways of age verification now that they have their own trade industry. There’s the Age Verification Providers Association. There are a lot of different methods.

What I would like to see is, governments could mandate just as they mandate that bars and casinos have to check age. I assume there’s some law that puts the responsibility on the casino or the strip club or whatever, that these places the government said, “You have to enforce the age limit.” Right?

COWEN: Sure, but fakes are very easy. Even in my day, fakes were easy.

HAIDT: Fine. The point is, it’s not effortless to walk in. You could get caught. I’m not saying we have to get 100 percent. If we can get to 90 percent to 95 percent, I would be thrilled. Right now, we’re at zero. There’s just no obstacle. That’s what I’m saying. If the government were to mandate that Facebook and all these platforms — they have to do age verification but not mandate the way.

In Louisiana, they said for porn, you have to show your driver’s license. I don’t agree with that. It shouldn’t be. The government says you have to show a government ID to use — I don’t want that. But they could say to Pornhub, “You have to provide age-gating. We leave it up to you how, but it has to be 90 percent or something reliable.” What I’m imagining is Pornhub and Meta would offer, “Here are five different ways that you could establish your age. Pick one.” What do you think about that?

COWEN: I don’t think it’s going to matter much. I think a lot of —

HAIDT: Because of AI?

COWEN: Not only because of AI. There’s a long history, as you know, of trying to stop what your kids do, even before social media. Things matter a bit. The effects of those interventions, they strike me as pretty small.

HAIDT: What percentage of kids shoplift regularly, would you say? Most kids are shoplifting every day, would you say?

COWEN: No, not at all. It’s a physical thing.

HAIDT: Right. The point is that with shoplifting, you can do it but it’s risky. There’s some possible cost. Whereas if we said, “You know what? Total honor system, no enforcement, no cameras, no punishment,” I think shoplifting will go way, way up. If kids could just walk into the store and take whatever they want, shoplifting would go up.

COWEN: Napster shoplifting was huge, right? That was the online version.

HAIDT: Exactly. That’s right. When there is zero cost for taking something, people take things. In the same way here, when there is absolute zero cost, you can lie as much as you want about your age, and nothing will ever happen to you.

What I’d like to see is, let’s say Meta took this seriously, and they had a policy of, “If we find out that you are under 13, then your account will be closed, and you won’t be able to come back on until you’re 13½ or 14.” There’ll be some penalty. There will be some penalty for lying about your age. That would really change the incentives of the kids.

COWEN: An excellent episode. Thank you, Jon. Repeating to everyone, here is Jon’s book: The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.

HAIDT: Thanks so much, Tyler. I hope listeners will sign up for the After Babel Substack. It’s free. I hope they’ll enjoy the book, and I know they enjoy hearing the way you question people. It’s different from everyone else’s. I almost never get worked up. Somehow, Tyler, you got me worked up. It was great fun.

COWEN: I am flattered by that. Thank you very much, Jon, for coming on.

Photo Credit: Jayne Riew