Why Academics Are Irritated By Jonathan Haidt

by Jeroen van Baar

Jonathan Haidt knows how to be a contrarian. In 2015, the NYU Stern social psychology professor founded Heterodox Academy, an organization that aims to bring viewpoint diversity to college campuses. He wrote an Atlantic article and book entitled The coddling of the American mind, in which he claimed that trigger warnings and safe spaces at colleges are making liberal students weaker rather than preparing them for the real world. With this work he gave words, authority, and attention to commonsense intuitions about oversensitive leftist youth that appeared to be widespread in the population. This was not his original expertise (he rose to fame studying moral psychology) but he skillfully took up the mantle.

When I was a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University, often considered the wokest Ivy, Haidt was kind enough to drop by and tell us what we were doing wrong. He gave a talk (to a full house, of course) about how universities had to choose between Truth and Social Justice as their ultimate goal. In Haidt’s view, universities cannot do both, as the two goals fundamentally contradict each other. And he was very happy to push the point that universities like Brown were, in fact, claiming to do both. (When I joined Haidt’s lunch group after the event, I found him amiable and brilliant, if aloof; a professor to look up to.)

All this made many in the academy very uncomfortable. Haidt publicly denounced the world he came from—he’s been a professor since the early 1990s—and scrutinized universities at a time when Truth and Expert Knowledge were already under attack. What’s more, Haidt actively exposed weaknesses that academics did not want to think about just yet. Haidt is like the friend who tells you you’re overreacting before you’re ready to hear it. And he fulfils that role with the glee of the kid who always wins in debate class.

This year, Haidt is back with a new tale, one of teenage mental health and the technological transformation of society. And again, though gaining widespread support in the public eye, he is eliciting criticism and annoyed glances from academics. I, too, felt an itch toward his new book The Anxious Generation even before reading it. Having studied population mental health in the Netherlands for the past three years, I was well aware of the uptick in psychiatric symptoms among teenagers, but I also knew how complicated the story was. So why would a social psychologist who works on moral psychology at a business school be the best person to understand and buck the trend?

Before I answer this question, let me briefly summarize Haidt’s point. The book argues that the last few decades have seen a shift from ‘play-based childhood’ to ‘phone-based childhood’. Generation Z (born after 1995) has experienced parental overprotection in the real world and a deluge of harmful information and connectivity online. This has led to phone addiction, loneliness, and a generally fearful demeanor that feeds anxiety and depression. And look, Haidt says, in 2012, just when smartphones with front-facing cameras became a thing, the lines of mental illness in teenagers started bending upwards! Moreover, in experiments where kids disable their social media apps for a few weeks, they end up feeling better. Ergo, social media have caused mental illness and need to be forbidden under 16 years of age.

This line of argumentation has raised fair criticism from experts. University of California, Irvine professor Candice Odgers, a developmental psychologist, wrote a stern review for the journal Nature. She argued that the evidence for mental health impacts of social media is mixed and blurry, for instance because distressed youth have distinct usage patterns on these sites. NYU statistics lecturer Aaron Brown wrote a piece for Reason.com in which he argues that most of the studies in Haidt’s lengthy reference list are unreliable. Of course, Haidt has struck back on his popular Substack blog After Babel, arguing that his evidence is, in fact, sound. There are other points of contention about the book, such as flaws in mental health measurement and the lumping together of video games with social media. There are, in fact, endless points for argument, as the entire scientific of developmental psychology is still chewing on the question why teens feel so bad these days. As I will show below, though, all this academic chatter is largely irrelevant for the impact this book has in the public eye.

Another issue with the book is that it is not, in fact, entirely written by Haidt. The early chapters on mental health are based on literature reviews coordinated by research assistant Zach Rausch, who describes himself as ‘Lead Researcher for The Anxious Generation’. The part on childrearing was co-written with Leonore Skenazy, author of the 2009 book Free-range kids. As Haidt admits in chapter 9, ‘some of the sections on rolling back overprotection and increasing play are in a voice different from [his]’. Throughout the book, Haidt draws on publications by him and his allies on After Babel, where he also logs his progress toward his next book, Life after Babel. This continues the trend he started with The coddling, which he co-wrote with lawyer and activist Greg Lukianoff.

To his credit, Haidt is very transparent about the origins of his texts. I like the idea of writing books collectively and testing out ideas online before publishing them. But it does change how the book appears to the reader. The cover just says ‘Jonathan Haidt’ and lists him as a professor, so people trust him. But while the public perceives this book as a tome from an expert professor ‘backed by heaps and heaps of research’ (as one Amazon reviewer wrote), it is actually written by a mix of people with various backgrounds, none of whom are field experts, and who do not always follow the principles of rigorous epidemiological research.

Putting together these puzzle pieces of criticism and mild misleading, it dawned on me. This book is not a careful study of psychiatric epidemiology, and we should not evaluate it as such. Instead, it is a social critique that emanates from a school of thought best described as Haidtism. Looking at it like this, I actually found a lot to like about the book.

According to Haidtism, society is suffering from a loss of structure. We are atomized individuals whose lack of connection and meaning leaves us living at a lower spiritual plane (see chapter 8, the best part of The anxious generation and likely a clue to Life after Babel). It’s a refrain that many writers have had great success with in recent years, from enfant terrible of French fiction Michel Houellebecq to conservative commentator David Brooks. Right-wing politicians like the Dutch electoral victor Geert Wilders are turning precisely this feeling of atomization into rage against newcomers, immigrants, who have unjustly come to symbolize the loss of connection. In truth, a lack of common purpose and shared destiny are tearing apart the fabric of society, even in the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world (e.g. Japan).

When viewed in this light, social media simply happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. As Haidt explains well, social contact online is characterized by being one-to-many and asynchronous, as opposed to the intimate and immediate interactions of the physical world. In this way, social media symbolize and effectuate, but did not cause, the loss of societal structure and connectedness. Haidt even invokes atomization by pulling from Emile Durkheim, the legendary sociologist who claimed that the loss of social integration led to rising suicide rates in early-twentieth-century France. (In an elegant mirroring of today’s debate, this claim was later undermined by findings that properly integrated Catholics were less likely to report suicide, which they considered a sin.)

So should we blame social media for the mental health crisis, or are they but a symptom of an underlying trend of atomization that may also cause mental health problems? We don’t know, but it also doesn’t really matter. Because since Haidt’s new argument hits home with so many commonsense intuitions about what’s wrong with society—it is hard to look at a train car full of phone-mesmerized zombies and not feel sad—you can’t help but agree with him. Do many teenagers suffer from psychiatric symptoms? Yes. Do social media make our lives worse, all told? Yes. The fact that the former does not necessarily follow from the latter is irrelevant: we are outraged at the phones and want things to change.

The strongest signal that Haidt’s data don’t matter that much is that there is one massive oversight in the book. At the end of the prologue, Haidt claims that ‘adults in Gen X and prior generations have not experienced much of a rise in clinical depression or anxiety disorders since 2010’. This notion—vaguely stated but central to the book’s argument about teenage-specific issues—is simply false. The Netherlands Institute of Mental Health, my former employer, runs a gold-standard representative survey of psychiatric disorders in the Dutch population every 12 years. Between 2007-2009 and 2019-2022, the share of adults over 35 years of age who had a psychiatric disorder in the twelve months before measurement rose by a whopping 34%. The fact that Haidt missed this was a big clue to my understanding of The anxious generation. This is not a humble study of mental illness; it is a social critique that harnesses an explosive cocktail of a badly understood health problem, concerns about ‘kids these days’, and widespread disappointment with the way our society functions.

With that, let’s return to our original question. Why is Haidt the right person to tell this tale? The answer is that what Haidt lacks in field expertise, he makes up in his ability to convince and unite people around shared goals. Academics often fail to act for fear of overstepping, and Haidt does not fall into that trap. But his bravado comes at a cost. Being a social critique that poses as an academic tome, the book manages to zigzag through lines of scrutiny. Critique it on its implications, and people will point to the scores of academic citations in the back. Critique it on its academic merit, and Haidt will say we should act anyway because it’s better to be safe than sorry.

For what it’s worth, I agree with some of the tenets of Haidtism. I believe society would be much better off if people hung out together and trusted each other more. I believe capitalism pushes us to see our neighbors as competitors and direct our energy toward work and consumption rather than communal connection. However, I do not believe that banning social media will make much of a dent. At the base of it, social integration requires a mutual need and the relinquishing of a modicum of freedom to the collective. As long as we are unwilling to do that, we will keep sliding into loneliness and depression for a little while longer. Perhaps Life after Babel, due for release in 2025, will present some solutions.

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