Jonathan Haidt’s New York Times bestselling book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness, explores the correlation between the rise in children’s mental health needs and the transition from a play-based to a phone-based childhood. MPY speaker, Dr. Alex Hirshberg examines the implications of Dr. Haidt’s book on school mental health initiatives.

Examining The Anxious Generation by Jonathan Haidt:  Implications for School Mental Health Initiatives
by Alex Hirshberg, Psy.D., Hirshberg Behavioral Services, LLC

Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has garnered significant notoriety with the release of his new book, The Anxious Generation (2024). His main thesis is that the documented rise in anxiety and depression amongst adolescents (Twenge, 2017) is driven by the shift from the play-based childhood to the phone-based childhood. The play-based childhood is characterized by free, unstructured play outside of parental supervision. In this environment, Haidt contends that children develop the ability to manage conflict, work together in groups, take appropriate risks, and manage emotional discomfort. The phone-based childhood, on the other hand, is typified by social isolation, negative social comparison, screen addiction, and disrupted sleep. This childhood experience limits social skills practice, damages self-esteem, hinders personal growth, and therefore increases vulnerability to mental health challenges. While this elegant argument likely misses out on other variables contributing to the current mental health crisis, the book is an essential read for educational leaders who are examining ways to address student social-emotional needs.

The decline of the play-based childhood has great ramifications for the way that schools plan for and support the recess period. My conversations with elementary school teachers find that students get into conflicts during recess that they bring back with them in the classroom, impacting learning for the rest of the school day. The response to this issue has been to either a) have more adults present at recess or b) increase recess structure. I would argue that it would be better to systematically teach students how to have unstructured play. This would include explicit lessons and role play for how to navigate conflict on the playground, verbal reminders of the lessons prior to recess, and utilizing classroom time to debrief after recess to discuss how the strategies were used to manage conflict. As the year continues, the goal would be to fade these reminders and decrease adult presence during recess. 

Schools must address the rise of the phone-based childhood by directly engaging and collaborating with students, many of whom are already addicted to their smartphone. The first step is a classroom discussion about smartphone access. Any rule that is developed should also apply to teachers, who may have their own difficulty restricting their own phone use! The second step is to provide fun social opportunities in school where phones are not allowed.  It is essential for students to find pleasure in direct social interaction that is not interrupted by phone use. Finally, schools must reach out and engage families in discussions about the challenges of supervising their child’s phone use as well as a review of best practices for limiting the impact of smartphone usage on essential life functions such as sleep. 

Haidt, J. (2004). The Anxious Generation, Penguin.
Twenge, J. (2017). Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? Atlantic Magazine.

Alex Hirshberg, Psy.D., is the founder and executive director of Hirshberg Behavioral Health Services, LLC in Hadley, Massachusetts. Dr. Hirshberg is a clinical psychologist who provides behavioral consultation, professional development, and psychological assessment services to schools across Massachusetts. He also has a small outpatient therapy practice focused on using Cognitive Behavior Therapy for individuals with anxiety and mood disorders. His interest areas include Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) in schools, trauma informed practices, and developing in-district social-emotional programs.

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