haidt headshot

Jon Haidt Says Don’t Just Take Away Kids’ Phones, Give Them Independence!

In his blockbuster Atlantic piece out today, “The Terrible Costs of a Phone-Based Childhood,” my Let Grow Co-founder Jonathan Haidt says our culture gets it all wrong when it comes to kids: We “underprotect” them in the virtual world, and over-protect them in the real one.

That’s the worst of both worlds, if we want to raise healthy, happy kids.

The piece focuses heavily on how smartphones, introduced about 15 years ago, have “re-wired” childhood. They did this in part by throwing kids (and the rest of us) into a maelstrom of “likes,” comparisons, and misinformation. But phones also warped childhood by siphoning off the time kids would otherwise spend in the real-world, running around, playing, flirting, exploring, and even sleeping. These are things kids NEED but aren’t getting enough of.

Ancient wisdom about modern childhood

Haidt quotes Henry David Thoreau who memorably said about cell phones — well, about time, attention, money, love, and action — that , “The cost of a thing is the amount of … life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” Whether it’s on a smartphone, OR in an extracurricular where adults run the show, OR in an SUV on the way to that orchestrated event, with no time for free play and autonomy, kids are paying for their childhood with passivity.

Result? A generation of young people ever more depressed, anxious, and harming themselves, Haidt says. And he’s got lots of graphs to prove it.

But Haidt doesn’t just despair. He proposes four solutions.  Three are about phones: Get them out of schools, from arrival till dismissal. Don’t let kids have a smartphone till age 14. And keep everyone off social media till age 16.

The best advice of all

His fourth and final plea? Give kids back some independence and free play. To do that, he says, schools and parents should look to the organizations working to promote a more play-filled, independence-building childhood. Specifically:

One that I co-founded, at LetGrow.org, suggests a variety of simple [free] programs for parents or schools, such as play club (schools keep the playground open at least one day a week before or after school, and kids sign up for phone-free, mixed-age, unstructured play as a regular weekly activity) and the Let Grow Experience (a series of homework assignments in which students––with their parents’ consent––choose something to do on their own that they’ve never done before, such as walk the dog, climb a tree, walk to a store, or cook dinner).

Let Grow’s ideas work for individuals as well as schools. Our Let Grow Independence Kit is an “at-home” version of The Let Grow Experience. For a steadier drip of inspiration, we’ve got our Pledge of Independence. Take it and we’ll send you one independence-building activity a week for 10 weeks. All our materials for schools and parents are free.

Don’t only focus on phones and social media

Phones and social media can present a can of worms the size of Wichita. No one denies it. But kids were drooping even before the first iPhone as they spent less and less tie having adventures, helping their parents, playing with friends and roaming the real world. To raise a less Anxious Generation, writes Haidt:

It would be a mistake to overlook this fourth norm. If parents don’t replace screen time with real-world experiences involving friends and independent activity, then banning devices will feel like deprivation, not the opening up of a world of opportunities.

To open the world, just open the door. Tell the kids to be home by supper.

3 Responses to Jon Haidt Says Don’t Just Take Away Kids’ Phones, Give Them Independence!

  1. Steve Nations March 15, 2024 at 2:21 pm #

    I read the article already in The Atlantic. It was great! Very informative and persuasive.

    As a former coach of my kids’ baseball and soccer teams, I think that another avenue to pursue here is kids’ sports teams. Coaches should be encouraged to just shut up and let the kids play. Especially in a sport like soccer, where at a young age there’s not really a whole lot of strategy going on anyway. I mean, I tried to teach the kids about where to be on the field and why, and how to be working at bringing the ball up the field. But they just run around anyway. I didn’t talk much from the sidelines, but if I had it to do over I would very frequently tell them directly that I’m not going to say anything this quarter from the sideline — it’s all up to you.

    That still is a far cry from “free play”, but it’s something. And at least they’re not on their phones while playing sports.

  2. Michael Gentle March 16, 2024 at 10:04 am #

    The loss of unsupervised outdoor play is a key theme in my book, Life Before the Internet. I summarize it in this article, “From street-smart to screen-smart”. https://bit.ly/3saNjti

  3. Steve Nations March 17, 2024 at 12:29 pm #

    This isn’t directly tied to the Atlantic article (which I want to reiterate was great), but I just finished reading a story in today’s New York Times Magazine about a guy who takes his dog to some very upscale dog hotels and actually stays there with his dog. All of these hotels are supposed to be for dogs only, but he’s doing research, so he convinces the owners to let him stay over in a sleeping bag.

    The whole point of the article is about how we’ve gone a little crazy with our dogs, and how we pamper them — maybe excessively.

    The penultimate paragraph goes like this: “Over the course of my time living in the lap of canine luxury, I became more convinced than ever that a world with more dog love is a better world — yet I also met quite a few human beings in the bespoke pet-care industry who, having observed all parties up close, expressed their anxieties about the extent of our devotion. When humans include animals in everything they do, the “dog doesn’t know how to be a dog,” Hughes had told me.

    I think this goes for our kids, too. When adults include themselves in everything kids so, the kids don’t know how to be kids. When the social media apps that adults create are ever-present in kids’ lives then the kids just don’t know how to be kids.