Regulating Smartphones? Jonathan Haidt vs. Libertarians

Today’s guest is Jonathan Haidt, whose new book is The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental IllnessThe New York University psychologist and Heterodox Academy cofounder argues that what he calls a play-based childhood has been replaced with a phone-based one over the past 50 years, leading to skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide among younger Americans. He says parents, schools, and society must keep young kids away from smartphones and social media if we want them to thrive.

Haidt is coauthor of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (2018) and he’s also cofounder of Let Grow, a nonprofit that lobbies for policies, laws, and pedagogy that will increase children’s resiliency and independence. “The Fragile Generation,” the 2017 Reason article he coauthored with Lenore Skenazy, is among the most-read stories on this website. Reason‘s Nick Gillespie asks Haidt about what is driving Gen Z and younger kids to distraction and whether it’s possible–or wise–to childproof the internet. This interview was taped in front of a live audience in New York City as part of the Reason Speakeasy series. For more information on live events, go here.

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This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.

Nick Gillespie: Our guest tonight is Jonathan Haidt, a New York University psychology professor whose new book is The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness. Jonathan Haidt, thanks for talking to Reason.

Jonathan Haidt: My pleasure, Nick.

Gillespie: This book is currently at the top of The New York Times bestseller list. Is that correct? Okay, what’s the elevator pitch for the book?

Haidt: Actually, before I do that, I want to just make a very brief opening statement, which is when I walked in or we were all milling around before and Matt Welch said, “Welcome to the lion’s den,” because there’s an interesting thing going on with this issue, which is that there’s not really a left-right divide. Left and right are actually pretty much together. The main debate is actually between left and right and libertarians. And here’s the great thing about libertarians, when they disagree with you, if they hate what you’re doing, you know what they do? They make arguments, and they give evidence, and they have fun doing it. There’s humor and there’s excitement, things like this. As Matt acknowledged, it was a joke like, “You guys are very nice lions.” You’re not all libertarians, but you’re all nice lions.

Then the other thing I just wanted to say is when my wife Jan and I, when we moved to New York in 2011, we were welcomed by Gerry Ohrstrom, and you and Matt and many others. So the extended Reason network in New York City has been really the most exciting intellectual community. Anyway, I wanted to thank you for all of that.

Now, elevator pitch for the book. Something really, really changed for Americans born in 1996 and later. They were very different from those who were born just a few years before. And we first saw this with The Coddling [of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure]. Greg [Lukianoff] was the first to spot it. The students coming in 2014 were just very different from those who’d come in even as late as 2012. We didn’t know it then, but it was the Gen Z, millennial divide. Their mental health is much, much worse. And it turns out that’s happening in all the English-speaking countries and in Northern Europe as well. It’s very widespread.

So we have this giant global mystery: Why did mental health collapse in so many countries at the same time in the same way, hitting girls harder than boys? In The Coddling, Greg and I addressed a major cause which [is] coddling, like overprotection. That’s what we focused on. We didn’t know that. We speculated, “Well, maybe social media could be something. The timing is right, but we don’t know.” We wrote that in 2017. Since then, a lot new has come in, a lot of new evidence. People have seen it with their own eyes. Something is just going wrong when kids are raised on a screen rather than playing.

So the book is about how the play-based childhood got replaced by the screen-based childhood. And that disrupts almost everything about human development. The book explores much more than you can do in an article, it explores 15 different causal pathways and many interactions. So that’s what the book is about. Then it goes into solutions, which are some norms that I think will change this.

Gillespie: In the book, you talk about how there are two main contributing factors to the current mental illness problems with Gen Z. First, before we get into that, can you just quickly sketch, what are the problems that we’re seeing now that are so different?

Haidt: The ones for which we have the most evidence are the mental health studies, because that’s tracked very carefully. America and Britain have very good longitudinal surveys. My lead researcher and research partner, Zach Rausch is here somewhere. Zach, where are you? Stand up. Okay, back there. I hope everyone here will follow That’s our Substack. Zach is the editor, and we put all our work up there.

What you see over and over and over again are hockey sticks. Mental health was pretty stable. Millennials were actually a little healthier than Gen Z, than Gen X before them. And then all of a sudden, right around 2012, plus or minus a year or two, the numbers go way, way up for anxiety, depression, self-harm; well, suicide starts a bit earlier, but that also goes way up. And it’s not just us. It’s the same in many countries. That’s the obvious thing. That’s where the debate has been. Almost all the scientific argument is, is social media causing mental illness?

Gillespie: There does not seem to be a debate about whether or not these indicators have changed. I mean, there’s some, but-

Haidt: Well, no, actually, there is. There is. And we’ll hear from Aaron [Brown], my colleague at NYU. There are some people who think maybe there’s not even any real rise, it’s just changes in diagnostic criteria. So that’s a separate argument, is there a mental health crisis? But I think most people now and almost all health authorities internationally are saying something’s going wrong for young people.

Gillespie: There are two major contributing factors, and it’s kind of like different types of insulin, of a fast-acting in a slow-acting one. One is the disappearance of what you call a play-based childhood. This really started decades ago. Can you talk about what was a play-based childhood, and what happened to it?

Haidt: The play-based childhood is Mother Nature’s plan for mammals. When mammals evolve, they quickly develop larger brains, especially the social mammals like dogs and cats and primates.

Gillespie: Dolphins.

Haidt: Dolphins. Yeah, that’s right. They play, that’s right. If you’re an intensely social species, you have a big brain for the sociality. And how do you wire it up? Because the genes don’t tell the neurons where to grow. They just start the ball rolling. You wire it up in play. That’s the most important thing. And that was the case from about 200 million B.C. till about 1980-something. All kids went out and played. It didn’t matter if it was raining. 

Gillespie: It was Beavis and Butthead, right, that ended play-based childhood or something.

Haidt: They did. Yeah, I guess that was kind of the fall of a civilization. But play is just absolutely essential for human development. The most nutritious play is a group, mixed-age, outdoors. We evolved outdoors. We’re attracted to outdoor things. We want to run. That’s the healthiest kind of play, with no adult supervision. And here, I’m drawing on Lenore Skenazy, who wrote the book Free Range Kids: How Parents and Teachers Can Let Go and Grow, and helped me to write this book. She had a huge contribution to the sections at the end on what parents can do. Lenore, if you can stand up. This is Lenore Skenazy and she also writes at Reason.

Play-based childhood is what we evolved to do to wire up our brains. We develop our social skills, empathy, ability to read faces, turn-taking, all the skills of democratic engagement, all the skills that Alexis de Tocqueville praised about Americans that, “Oh, if there’s a problem, they get together and they figured out a way to solve it, whereas in France, we wait for the king to do it.” All those skills kids were developing until the 1980s. Then we started freaking out about child abduction. We stopped trusting each other with our kids. We also had fewer kids. So for a variety of reasons, the play-based childhood faded out.

Gillespie: Is it partly because women started entering the workforce on equal terms as men? So what do you do with kids, right? Because we’re both the same age. We’re 60. We grew up in a period … I mean, both of my parents worked. In the neighborhood you grew up, if you were in the baby boom or Gen X, to some degree, there were always parents in the neighborhood, mothers in the neighborhood. That kind of disappeared. That was part of you put the kids in institutional settings.

Haidt: That’s correct. That’s a big part of it. There was what was called Eyes on the Street. Jane Jacobs wrote about the sidewalk ballet. Kids were out playing. They were playing even if the weather was bad. Even if there was a crime wave, whatever, the kids were out playing, and in part, because there were adults around that you could trust. But as women begin to work and for related and unrelated reasons, family size begins to shrink, there just aren’t a lot of kids. Around Gen X, they were known as the latchkey kids, because part of the solution to mothers working was, “Well, sweetheart, here’s the key. You come home alone, let yourself in after school,” when you’re seven or eight, which you can do. Kids can do. So there was a brief period, but then we kind of said like, “No, let’s stop doing that. Let’s make sure there’s always an adult supervising. And if that means I have to put them in adult supervised activities every day, then so be it.” But in the process, kids lost.

Gillespie: Part of it is we professionalized childhood, right? It’s boomer parents who wanted their kids to have ballet lessons, music lessons, and be good at sports. We became richer, fewer kids.

Can you talk a little bit about how the end of play gave rise to what you wrote about with Greg Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind?

Haidt: As I was founding Heterodox Academy … And John Tomasi is here somewhere, the president of Heterodox Academy. John, can you stand up? Where are you? All right.

Gillespie: This is like a Dean Martin celebrity roast. I mean, it’s just like everybody’s here tonight.

Haidt: It’s like the intellectual royalty of New York City.

Gillespie: That’s right.

Haidt: It’s good. Moral dependency is this really great term that I learned from two sociologists who wrote the first major paper on microaggressions. Manning and Campbell were their last names. They pointed out that all this stuff of microaggressions, it was coming up not in the places where you’d expect there to be the most prejudice or the most reason for it, but in the places that were the most equal, in the places that were most egalitarian, in places where there aren’t big distinctions, but there is also an authority that you can call in if you need help.

They point out how in a culture of honor, a man cannot stand a microaggression. A man cannot stand a stain upon his honor. He must take vengeance himself. He can’t call the police, he has to do it himself. So there’s a culture of honor. Then that changed to a culture of dignity, where sticks and stones will break my bones. We let the law take care of it. What they observed was on elite college campuses among young people…and this is the beginning of Gen Z. They wrote this around, I forget when, 2015, 2014, something like that. On college campuses was emerging a culture which is kind of like an honor culture, in that if any little thing is said, it must be dealt with by the authorities.

Young people became expert at, “How do I make my case to the authority? I’m not going to argue with you. I’m going to convince him to punish you.” This is what really ruined things in universities, because we have to be able to challenge each other. We have to be able to study all sorts of things. We need open inquiry. But if someone is offended and they can call in a drone strike on you, it really kind of chills speech.

Gillespie: I don’t know how much this is mythic or not, but some of us, at least boys, although I think this was true of girls too, you would get into a fight, come home and complain to your parents. And they would say, “Go out and figure it out. We’re not stepping in.” That is over. Now it’s you come back to your parents, they call the other parent…

Haidt: Yeah, that’s right, or they report them or whatever. Yeah, that’s right. That’s moral dependency, where you don’t handle disputes yourself. Everyone needs to learn to handle disputes themselves and know when to escalate. There are times, but it shouldn’t be every day.

Gillespie: So that gives way, the play-based childhood has given way to the phone-based childhood. Talk about that.

Haidt: The play-based childhood is declining from the ’80s all the way down to 2010. Kids are spending less time alone, less time outside. It’s gradual. But mental health isn’t actually declining. As I said, the millennials, actually, they’re a little healthier than Gen X.

Gillespie: But that’s because Gen X is just a garbage generation, right?

Haidt: No, no. No, that is terrible. It’s because of leaded gas. They have brain damage from leaded gas. I’m actually mostly serious about that.

Gillespie: Yeah, it’s true.

Haidt: Oh yes, so that’s the puzzle, is that this is very important, but it seems to sort of weaken them, but it doesn’t make them anxious and depressed. The millennials, they still [have] this amazing spirit. My wife has lots of millennial friends. And you talk to them like, “Yeah, so I decided to go surfing in this place. And then I sold my car and I went here.” Like, “Wow, you really have a spirit of that exploration.” That seems to be almost entirely missing in Gen Z. They’re just a much more anxious generation.

Gillespie: What’s the age range in Gen Z?

Haidt: I say 1996 and later. Gene Twankey said ’95 originally. Pew now says ’97. Whatever. So I say ’96 is about the birth year it begins. So what happens, so it’s important to understand the chronology. So in 2010, there’s no sign of a problem. The mental health stats, they’re bouncing along. There’s no trend up. [In] 2010, very few young people have an iPhone. The iPhone comes out in 2007. Very few young people have one. It’s expensive. Less than 20 percent. Most don’t have high-speed internet. No one has a front-facing camera. No one has Instagram. So that’s the situation for teens in 2010. They use their flip phones to text each other to meet up, like, “I’ll meet you at the mall, or let’s go someplace after school.” Mental health is fine.

Five years later, everything is different about their daily life, because now 75 percent or 80 percent have a smartphone. These smartphones got front-facing cameras in 2010. Instagram was founded in 2010, but only becomes a real thing in 2012 when Facebook buys it. They’ve got high-speed data, unlimited texting. But it becomes possible to be online all the time. Half of Gen Z now says … How much of your day do you spend online? 45 percent in a Pew survey a couple of years ago said, “Pretty much all the time.” Even if they’re in school, they’re actually tracking what’s going on in their virtual world. They just hold the phone at their desk. Even if they’re talking to you at the dinner table, they’re actually thinking about it, and they’re checking whenever they can. They have the phone out.

It’s a complete transformation of consciousness, behavior. Imagine, take childhood in 2010, let’s take away a lot of outdoor time, a lot of sleep. Read fewer books. No hobbies, no time for hobbies. You don’t see friends very much. You basically go home. If you’re a boy, you have to go home in order to play with your friends, because you have to go to have your controller and your headset. You can’t go over to a friend’s house to play video games anymore, because now everything’s multiplayer. For all these reasons, these technological changes, they came in very, very fast. That’s why I say 2010 to 2015 is the great rewiring of childhood.

Just to finish up from a point before that I forgot to put the second half on, the mental health stats is what we’re fighting about. But there’s like 20 other outcomes. This is what I hear from employers. I always ask, I work in a business school, I talk to a lot of business people, “How’s it going with your young employees?” I never hear, “Oh, great. They’re so creative, they’re amazing.” It’s always, “They’re so anxious, and they need encouragement about everything. And they often won’t do things because they say they have an anxiety reason. They’ve been accommodated so much.” There’s just problems making the transition. None of this is their fault. We never let them have independence.

Gillespie: Where do we see that in terms of depression? How many kids are disabled by depression in 2010, 2015, 2020?

Haidt: In general, based on the self-report studies, the numbers go up, it depends on which study you’re looking at, generally between 50 and 150 percent. These are not small increases. Whenever you zoom in on… So girls, the percentage increase is usually larger, though not always. Young girls, 10 to 14, that is always the largest and it’s often gigantic. The increase there in, I forget the exact numbers for depression and anxiety, but there you often get numbers 150 to 200 percent. Self-harm is up I think 190 percent. That’s hospital visits for self-harm.

Gillespie: Do we know the absolute numbers, though? Because this is, if it’s from zero to one, that’s a massive increase. But it’s not like, okay, this is the new normal that kids are killing themselves. Kids are disabled by depression.

Haidt: Yeah. Obviously, it’s not the new normal that kids are killing themselves. But it is the new normal that if you’re a girl in an English-speaking country, you’re a little less than half, I mean one in three, let’s say, has anxiety or depression at a relative level of severity. This is on the order of 50 to 100 percent more than what it was in 2010. These are big increases. Because we see the same degree of increase in self-harm and suicide, some critics have said, “Oh, this is just changes in self-report criteria, or diagnostic criteria by psychiatrists. It’s not a real thing. The kids are okay.” But because, again, we see the same thing. If you look at the number of kids who were taken for psychiatric emergency visits in Australia or New Zealand, we see the same patterns and around the same magnitude. I don’t think this is just Gen Z is comfortable reporting.

Gillespie: One of the things you point out in The Anxious Generation is that Gen Z was the first generation to go through puberty with smartphones. Why does that matter?

Haidt: Puberty is an incredibly important time neurologically, for identity. The human brain grows very quickly. It reaches almost full size by the age of six. Then the rest of development is not about getting bigger. It’s about actually pulling stuff out, and leaving just what matters. Then you myelinate those. You put a fatty sheath along them to make the circuits better. This is happening during childhood, but it really speeds up at puberty. Puberty is not just a body growth spurt. It also is the signal, “Okay. Now we convert over from the caterpillar to the butterfly. Now we convert over from the child form of the brain to the adult form of the brain.” That process is guided by experience. It’s not guided by genes. The genes don’t tell the neurons where to grow. It’s guided by incoming experience.

In most cultures, traditionally, as soon as they have their first signs of puberty, that’s when the adults say, “Okay. Now we will separate you from your childhood life, and you will have a guide, and it won’t be your parents.” It’s never the parents. It’s always, “Other adults of your sex will help you and guide you into how you become an adult in our culture.” What we’ve done instead is we’ve said, “You know what? We’re too busy for that. Forget that. Here. Here you go. Here’s an iPhone. Now you can basically do this all during puberty, and that will guide your neural development. And you’ll be basically socialized and inculturated by random weirdos on the internet, who are selected by an algorithm.”

This I think has lasting effects, possibly permanent, although it can be undone to some extent. But that’s why early puberty is so, so important. This, I believe, is why the millennials are okay in their mental health, because they didn’t get their first smartphone or Instagram account until they were at least 15 or 16. They were well into high school or college. 

It’s doing a number on all of us. We all feel fragmented and frazzled. I get very anxious if I’m on social media. But our brains, we made it through puberty, so our brains aren’t being changed as much.

Gillespie: Is there a decline in participation of say after-school sports or things like that? That would also show that Gen Z or younger kids are withdrawn from social life. There’s a lot of studies that show younger people reporting fewer close friends and things like that. But are kids doing fewer sports? Are they doing fewer music lessons? Are they doing things like that?

Haidt: Yeah. Adult-organized activities, I don’t know that those are dropping. I don’t see any reason why adults are suddenly going to say, “Oh, rather than having piano and math and all these other after-school activities, we’re going to reduce that because you need more time on TikTok.” As far as I know, they have roughly the same number of activities. It’s just that now that they’re spending a couple hours a day on TikTok, and a couple hours on other platforms, it all adds up to the average is about nine hours a day that they’re spending on their devices.

That’s not including school or homework. Most of the time is now doing this. What that means is that they just don’t have much time. They have less time for homework. They’re not getting more homework, but they’re more pressured because they don’t have time for it anymore. They don’t have time to see friends. They don’t go to religious services. They don’t read books. Imagine giving up nine hours a day every day. There’s not a lot of time left. Everything else is getting squeezed out.

Gillespie: Is there a reason to believe that we won’t adjust to this, or that we’re not already adjusting to a new technology?

I’m looking at 16 to 19-year-old labor force participation rates. In 2002, it was 47 percent. It dropped to 34 percent in 2012. It was back up to 37 percent in 2022. Suggesting that teenagers are actually going back into the workforce a little bit. There are other indicators like that, where according to Pew Research, between 2022 and 2023, the amount that 13 to 17-year-olds said they used YouTube declined, TikTok declined, and Instagram declined. Why wouldn’t we kind of adjust after this shock of a new powerful technology that we really dig?

Haidt: I think adults are trying to learn how to live with this. We’re trying to adapt to it. From what I hear, we’re not doing a very good job. It’s hard. We rely on these things for work. We get hooked on them for pleasure. I have very little interest in limiting what adults can do, but children are a very, very different story. I don’t think that in 100 years, children will have adapted to nine hours of TikTok a day so that it no longer harms their brains.

Gillespie: You don’t think that, they won’t be on nine hours of TikTok or social media?

Haidt: No. I think the way we adapt to it is precisely by saying, “You know what? This is really messing up our kids. How about we say, ‘No smartphone till 14. No social media till 16. Phone-free schools and more independence and free play’?” That’s what my book is about. So yeah, I think we will adapt. I think we’re going to roll back the phone-based childhood, because it’s just incredibly toxic for developing kids and their brains.

Gillespie: Let’s run through some of the critiques of the book, and I’ll give you a chance to respond. Then when we start the question and answer period, actually, Jon mentioned that Aaron Brown is here. He’s a statistician and an academic. He’s also written and done videos for Reason, including a critique of Jon. So we’re going to do a mini debate about Aaron’s critique of Jon, which has to do with some of the social science work that Jon relies on. 

Eric Levitz at Vox wrote a piece critiquing your book. He points out that a university psychologist, Christopher Ferguson, notes that the recent increase in suicide rates in America is not simply for younger people. It’s across age ranges, and actually higher age ranges have higher rates. That suggests that whatever is driving up suicide rates, which is a hard number, it’s a harder number than diagnoses of mental illness, it’s something different than cell phones. Right?

Haidt: Well, hold on a sec. Suicide has many causes. I don’t know the percentage of people who kill themselves who are depressed, but one thing, and Zach has just been digging into this data recently. Because the other critique that I’m sure you’ll get to, Candace Odgers, suggests that the global financial crisis is the cause. 

Gillespie: That actually is why I want to kill other people. No.

Haidt: Jean Twenge and Zach and I have all looked into this. What we find is, when the economy tanks, there is one group that really is more likely to kill themselves. It’s adult men. When men suddenly go bankrupt, they’re supporting their family, they do sometimes turn to suicide. Here in New York, all the South Asian men who bought taxi licenses, as those medallions dropped to very low value, a lot of them killed themselves. They couldn’t make a living. There’s not a hint, a shred, anything suggesting that economic factors affect teenagers. The suicide rate is not affected by this. Depression rates are not affected by this.

Gillespie: Are you suggesting then that the suicide rate for older people might be going up for one reason, and then for younger people for different reasons?

Haidt: That’s right. Suicide, Chris is right that suicide is the hardest metric. The stats are very accurate from many countries. Yes, it’s a good thing to look at, but it is not a direct readout of depression and anxiety. There are many causes. Émile Durkheim wrote an incredible book on suicide, and all the different factors of social integration that go into suicide. What we’ve done at After Babel, Zach has developed an interesting way of graphing out the suicide rate of each generation, at each age. Then he stacks them, so you can see how suicidal was Gen X compared to other generations when they were all 18 years old, or whatever.

What he finds is that Gen X was the most suicidal generation, for the boys, overwhelmingly. Gen X boys had the highest suicide rates ever. But when we look at girls, it’s not Gen X, it’s Gen Z. Gen Z girls in all five Anglo countries, he’s done those, it’s the exact same pattern. It’s the highest ever. It all goes up in the early 2010s. There is a signal here. This is not random noise. Suicide, there are many reasons for adults committing suicide. I don’t think adults are committing suicide because they have TikTok and Instagram.

But I think teenage girls often are, because when they get a mob against them, when you are canceled. In the ancient world, either we’re going to kill you. If you commit crimes, we’re going to kill you or banish you. You’re socially dead either way. For teenagers, social death is a living hell, whereas death is over quickly. I think that part of the big increase in preteen girls suicide is because a small number of them get massively shamed in ways that could not have happened before 2010.

Gillespie: How many preteen girls commit suicide, though?

Haidt: It’s not a large number.

Gillespie: Is that indicative of a larger problem, or is that just an outlying statistic?

Haidt: Well, no. Chris Ferguson and others are right to say, “If we really want to save lives, we’d be looking especially at older people. The suicide rate is much higher in older people, and it’s lowest in the preteen boys and girls, especially the girls.” But what Zach and I are trying to figure out is a detective story. What happened? Why did this change so quickly in so many countries at the same time? We don’t see that for the adult data. You don’t see that suddenly middle-aged men are killing themselves more at a certain point, other than the global financial crisis. If you’re trying to solve a mystery, then you’re interested more in percentage change than in absolute levels.

Gillespie: Can you talk about why this stuff hits girls, particularly young girls, harder than any other subset of the population?

Haidt: Sure. I’ll come back to the boys in a moment. Because it’s not that the boys are okay, the boys have a different set of problems. But the evidence connecting social media to girls is much more consistent and much stronger. The correlations are larger, the experimental effects are larger. There is a special relationship between social media and girls. As we say in the book, the reason seems to be, when boys get together, if you just let them get together with no adult supervision, they’re likely to organize themselves into groups to compete. It’s just something that boys really enjoy doing more than girls.

When everyone goes on devices and the internet is everywhere, boys are going to go to multiplayer video games. They’re amazing. They’re fun. Girls are much more interested in talking about relationships. Who is on the outs with whom? Who’s dating who? Girls are just much more, they have a more developmental map of the social space. Boys are a little more clueless, and literally on the spectrum, according to Simon Baron-Cohen. That is the male-female difference, that boys are shifted over towards autism a little bit. So because girls are just more interested in social relationships, and also their aggression is different.

Boys’ aggression is ultimately backed up by the threat of physical domination, and punching or pain. Girls aren’t like that. Girls’ aggression is equal in magnitude, but it’s aimed at relationships and reputation. It’s called relational aggression. Video games, if anything, prevent boys from getting in fights. Because you can’t have a fight in a video game. There’s nothing to argue over. The platform does all the, settles all the, everything. But girls’ relational aggression is amplified. The worst year of bullying is seventh grade. I’m really focused on middle school.

Gillespie: Middle schools, there’s a popular series, Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life. Right?

Haidt: But if you think about all the things that were terrible about middle school, and then you give everybody Instagram, and you get things like…we have an example in the book of a story. They organized an Instagram group, everyone but Mary. Like, “We’re all going to get to talk about her.” I mean, how painful is that when you’re a 12-year-old girl? For so many reasons, social media really targets girls’ insecurities and social needs. It doesn’t satisfy them. As soon as girls go on social media, it’s not like they’re now super connected and happy. They get much lonelier.

Gillespie: In some parts of the book and in some interviews I’ve seen you do, you kind of wave away the benefits of social media. Okay, Mary is ostracized within a certain setting. But a lot of people talk about how social media, and before that, just the rise of the internet allowed people who were already isolated to connect to other people. How does that kind of balance factor into this?

Haidt: Yeah, but the key is what you just said, and before the internet. I think there are a couple of mistakes that people make when they talk about the benefits of social media. Obviously for adults, we use it for many purposes. Businesses need it. It’s a functional tool. I’m not saying that. But let’s focus on middle school. Let’s focus on seventh, eighth graders. They’re 11, 12, 13 years old. Let’s focus on them. It said, “Oh, you know. It helps them find people, and especially if they’re from a marginalized community or LGBTQ.” Well, you know, the internet did that before.

Marginalized community or LGBTQ. Well, the internet did that before Instagram. You don’t need a newsfeed, an algorithm amplification, which pushes everyone to go for, you don’t need that. If you have the whole internet and blogs and videos, you have all this stuff, you’re not isolated anymore. That’s the first thing is don’t confuse social media with the internet. I’m not talking about keeping kids off of the internet.

Gillespie: What counts as social media and what doesn’t?

Haidt: So it’s prototypically defined. That is the prototype would be Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. It’s where users have accounts, they post stuff on their accounts, they connect to other people’s accounts, and it’s all about user-generated content. Those are the prototypes. Now, technically YouTube is social media because you can have an account you can post, but for the most part, YouTube is used as the world’s video library. YouTube, if we’re going to do a cost-benefit analysis, YouTube is incredibly valuable. A lot of bad stuff happens, a lot of radicalization.

Gillespie: It’s also by far the most popular. I mean, pretty much across all age groups too.

Haidt: Yeah, I don’t remember whether it’s, I think it is even more than TikTok now. I think so. 

Gillespie: Why is TikTok really, really bad?

Haidt: I didn’t write about this much in the book, but I’m coming to see short-form video as really, really horrible, especially for young people, for children. The reason is this, actually, I’ll do an experiment with you right now. How many of you, I don’t know if this will work on radio or whatever, we’ll see. How many of you in this audience raise your hand if you watch Netflix at least once a week? Raise your hand high. Okay, about half. Okay, now just those who raised their hand, how many of you wish that Netflix was never invented? The world would be better if Netflix wasn’t here. Raise your hand if you, okay, one or two. So Netflix is stories. Stories are human. Humans love stories. We’ve always told stories. We’ve always lived in stories. We’ve always raised our kids in stories. And when you and I were young, we were immersed in stories that were really, really stupid like I Dream of Jeannie and Gilligan’s Island, but they were stories. So the stories are better now on Netflix and things like that.

All right, next question. How many of you spend at least an hour or two a week on TikTok? Raise your hand high. Okay, not enough to do the demonstration. I’ll have to tell you, it’s only about five hands. Of the five of you, how many think the world would be better if TikTok was never invented? Raise your hands. All of you. Okay. Even more than the five who raised their hand before. 

Gillespie: Wow. That’s powerful. Wow.

Haidt: I do this with my students at NYU and the results are the same on Instagram, but on TikTok, almost everybody raises their hand that they use it. How many of you wish it was never invented? Almost everyone raises their hand.

Gillespie: Why do they do that?

Haidt: Because it’s a collective action trap. I say why, and some of the students are spending five hours a day on TikTok, five hours a day just on TikTok and on their other platforms, and part of that is addiction. It’s the most addictive form. Netflix isn’t rewarding you like B.F Skinner with a little treat every hour when you press the repeat button. In fact, you don’t even have to press it. They have autoplay, which is bad. Whereas TikTok, it’s stimulus response, stimulus response. So TikTok has a power of behaviorist conditioning more than any other platform. And it’s not stories, it’s little bits of garbage. It’s people doing degrading things. It’s people getting hit by cars. It’s all kinds of horrible things.

Gillespie: That does not really comport with the content analysis.

Haidt: It depends. Look at teenage boys. Obviously it’s lovely for many people because of course it gets to know you, but for a lot of teenage boys, what they’re being fed, what they’re choosing ends up being really horrible stuff. I think when we look at the social benefit brought by a platform, economists have this thing they do where they say willingness to pay. How much would you pay to avoid oranges being eliminated from the world? I don’t want a world without oranges. I’ll put in a thousand dollars to save oranges, okay? And when they ask them about social media and people say, “Oh, you’d have to pay me a certain amount of money to get off of Instagram,” the economists say, “Oh, see, multiply this out by 3 billion people. That’s a lot of value created.” But actually it’s a trap because people are on it because everyone else is. And the young people say, “I would be off TikTok if everyone else was. But since everyone’s on it and they’re talking about, I have to know what are the TikTok trends.”

Gillespie: Abigail Shrier, who has a book out that’s also somewhere on The New York Times bestseller list called Bad Therapy: Why Kids Aren’t Growing Up. She argues that social media—she’s not a big fan of it—but she says that the bigger problem is the context in which it emerges, which is a therapeutic culture that has infused every aspect of childhood in particular. She has written that all of the bad trends showed up before social media kicked in. We have social media, which is bad. Then we have all these other things like a constant valorization of being emotionally traumatized teaching you that you need to check in with an adult or a mental health expert before you take any risks whatsoever. Is she right or is she wrong to devalue the contribution of social media to the lassitude and mental problems of Gen Z?

Haidt: She’s right. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve heard interviews and I get the basic story. Her basic story is right, that therapy, well therapy for adults, overall is positive. Therapy for teenagers and children is not nearly as positive, has many more risks, many more backfire effects. She’s right about that. She’s right that we’re doing too much therapy, we’re valorizing.

Her basic argument is right, but for her to say, so it’s not social media, it’s bad therapy, I would say, now, wait a second. Since the seventies we’ve been becoming a therapeutic culture, the triumph of the therapeutic. This is a very long-running trend. Everything gets psychologized. So if you wanted to say that some long-running decline was because of our long-running increase in psychologization, I would say, okay, that’s a sensible argument. But I would ask her, I hope, I will imagine I’ll get a chance. Okay, why does suddenly everything go haywire in 2013? Is that because suddenly everyone was getting therapy? Or is that because suddenly the girls were on Instagram sharing emotions, they were on TikTok and well, not TikTok, they’re in YouTube groups for various mental illnesses with no psychiatrists anywhere near just young people competing for likes by being more and more extreme. I would say her argument of bad therapy isn’t contradicting my story about social media. It actually is an illustration of it.

Gillespie: We’ll get into this a little bit later, but what do you do with studies that show, and there’s a 2022 Stanford medicine or study done by some people at Stanford Medicine Medical School that was led by Xiaoran Sun that found a study of 250 tweens over about a five-year period that found that the presence or lack of presence of phones or high-speed internet just was not a predictor of whether or not these people did well. Is that just too small a study or is it-

Haidt: Yeah, I mean, 250 people is not, I mean, I don’t know that study. So I mean, if we’re looking at correlational studies, there’s a lot of them. And even my critics, even some of the skeptics that I am debating with. So Amy Orben for one at Cambridge, she did a review of what’s the size of the correlation between social media and mental health problems. And she concluded that the correlation is in the domain of 0.1 to 0.15. It’s not 0.03, which is the size of eating potatoes in our arcane debate. So even she finds that it is not zero, it is more substantial, and that’s for all kids. It’s actually larger for girls. And even she finds that the evidence of harm is greatest for 11 to 13-year-old girls. That’s where the correlation is even bigger.

Gillespie: Should we be more focused on them rather than all kids?

Haidt: Oh, you mean just on middle school girls?

Gillespie: Yeah. If they’re the largest kind of victims of this technology or the shift, because are the things that will help them necessarily the things that will help other people.

Haidt: So, imagine a complicated space with 12 different things, part of the technological environment. And over here you’ve got 15 different bad outcomes and one of them is watching, spending a lot of time on social media and then depression, anxiety. That link is definitely strongest for the girls. And so if that was all it was, it was just everyone’s fine except that more girls are depressed and it seems to be social media, maybe we can let the boys on social media, but the girls, let’s keep the, not that we would do that regulatory, but if that’s all it was, I would say, well, maybe, maybe. But that’s not all it is.

So the boys aren’t watching, checking social media and getting depressed and having eating disorders. That’s not them. But they are getting drawn into these insane challenges where they risk their lives and some of them die and they commit vandalism and they get sextorted and they buy drugs with fentanyl. So there’s so many different harms. So I would not say, oh, let’s just keep the 11 to 13-year-old girls off of social media, let them on when they’re 14, 15.

Gillespie: I don’t mean to be a dick about it, but I guess I’m going to be, are you catastrophizing to use a word that you use in cuddling? How many kids actually die from TikTok challenges, from milk crate challenge? I mean, these are vanishingly small numbers that are similar to the number of kids who go missing because they’re kidnapped or something.

Haidt: Yeah, I don’t know the number and I don’t think it’s tens of thousands. But it’s also, look, if it was 10 or 20 a year, I would say that’s life. But imagine, I don’t quite remember what the Furby was, but there was a toy craze called the Furby, okay? Now, so imagine if the Furby-

Gillespie: You’ve triggered me, actually but thank you.

Haidt: So imagine if the Furby caused every year it caused a few hundred boys to die doing stupid things and it caused a few hundred girls to commit suicide. Now, as a percentage of the public, that’s like 0.00. I mean, come on, that’s not a big deal. But that thing would be gone in an instant.

The growth of these companies, these are the most important companies in the world by many metrics. They’re certainly the most important companies in our children’s lives. They largely govern our children’s lives. They may have more influence over our children than we do. They are completely unregulated. Congress, not only did Congress say, “How about you don’t have to age gate, how about you don’t have to check ages, you’re not responsible unless you know that they’re under 13, you’re not.” So Congress passed a law saying you don’t have to age gate. COPPA. It says as long as people say they’re 13, that’s enough. And then Congress says, “Oh, and also you can’t be sued. How about you can’t be sued?” Now imagine if the maker of the Furby was killing just a few hundred a year, only a few hundred kids a year and they can’t be sued. That’s where we are.

Gillespie: I’d buy Furby stock because that’s how you make money, right? By killing your customers. 

Haidt: They’re not customers. They’re not the customers.

Gillespie: But it’s a good pivot into policy prescriptions. And to go back to what you were saying before about the adjustment period, I think your book is certainly part of the adjustment. It’s calling attention to the impacts of this technology. What are your main policy proposals? And this is, if not in the room, going out on a reasoned channel. It’s largely a libertarian audience and you’re very thoughtful about wanting to stress. What are the different types of policies that you’re calling for here?

Haidt: Yeah, thank you for that. So I’m a social psychologist and at the center of the analysis in the book is that social media has social effects that are unlike anything else, unlike cigarettes or heroin or gambling or anything else. With cigarettes at the peak of smoking, only a third of high school kids were smoking, two-thirds were not smoking. But if we look at eighth graders, ninth graders, it’s the great majority are on. They have to be because everyone else is so it’s a trap.

And so what I’m after at the end of the book is how do we liberate ourselves from the trap? And the first move is if you’re the only parent of a sixth grader who says, “You’re not getting a smartphone, I don’t care that you’re the only one. I don’t care that you’ll be cut off. You’re not getting a smartphone.”

Gillespie:You are going to stick with the Furby.

Haidt: You get a Furby. Yes.

Gillespie: It’s like you’re just taking the Furby to college.

Haidt: That’s right. So you’re now costing your kid a lot and you’re going to have a lot of struggle. So if you’re the only one, it’s very costly. And most parents look and decide, you know what? This is the way things are. I’m just going to give my kid a phone. And that’s how you get caught in a collective action trap.

So what I did in the book was I wanted to find norms that were realistic that we could actually do and coalesce around. And I wrote the book, assuming that we will never get any help from our legislators. Congress created the problem in the nineties with two bills, and I’m assuming that we will never get help from Congress. Now I actually think we-

Gillespie: And by that you mean because the minimum age federally where a website can’t collect data without parental consent of a minor, it’s set at 13. Okay.

Haidt: 13. Unless you say you’re 13, in which case you can be two. Yeah. So I wrote the book, assuming that we’re not going to get any help from legislation. Now in Britain, they are. Britain, they have a functioning legislature. We don’t, but they have a functioning legislature, which has mandated phone free schools. Now that’s obviously state level here in the US. So let’s assume-

Gillespie: Phone free, taking phones out of schools is one of the proposals.

Haidt: That’s right so let’s go through them. So the first one is no smartphone before high school. Just give a flip phone or a phone watch. This is a parent, this is a thing that people can do if they coordinate with other parents at their kid’s school. As long as you and the families of your kid’s friends do it, it is actually not just painless. It actually is fun if you also give those kids fun things to do together, and this is where Let Grow comes in. Go to You find all kinds of ideas.

Gillespie: Your work in the territory. What does that mean though? What would you do if you say, okay, we’re creating a, and I realize I’m running into trouble here, but like a kid version of a polycule and we’re saying, no smartphone, okay? We’re just using flip phones. What are some of the other things that the kids would do to fill the time?

Haidt: Okay, so first, okay, so let me just jump temporarily to the third rule, the third norm, which is phone-free schools. Now, some schools are going phone-free. I’ve learned that religious schools, that those that are Orthodox Jewish or various Christian denominations, they think about the whole community. And Orthodox Jewish schools say not only can you not have a smartphone in school, you can’t come to this school if you have a smartphone. Parents have to agree, I don’t know if this is all schools, but some Orthodox. Parents have to agree that they will not give their kid a smartphone. There’s what’s called a kosher phone that has very few functions. So religious communities have already organized to do not just phone-free schools, but to delay smartphones till 18.

Okay, so let’s look at secular schools. What’s happening now, which is so exciting, is now, and in part from reading my book and other things that we’ve done a lot, and I had a big article in the Atlantic a year ago on phone-free schools. So a lot of schools are going phone-free, which means you lock up the phone in the morning, you need the phone to get to school perhaps, but you put in a phone locker or a yonder pouch, you get it out at the end of the day. So schools are doing that, but they’re not just doing it, they’re now actually communicating with the parents. Not public schools, but some private schools are doing this. Not public schools, but some private schools are doing this, they communicate with their parents to explain their concern. So I just gave a talk at JP Morgan. There were 15 heads of schools in New York City. They all see the problem. They hate the phones generally. They’re now beginning to communicate to the parents, “Look, we all have to do this together.” So once you have everyone agreeing, not just phone-free schools, but let’s at least keep it out of middle school, no smartphones in middle school. Oh, and if we’re taking away so much screen time, we have to actually give them the independence, the freedom, the responsibility to do things in the real world. So now it’s not just deprivation, it’s, kids, how about you have a fun childhood the way all of us did?

Gillespie: So this is kind of blending free-range… In the book you talk about we over-regulated the real world and under-regulated the virtual world. You’re kind of flipping that script.

Haidt: Well, that’s right. I’m flipping the script, but they’re really two halves of the same coin. Because if you send your kids out to play and they have a smartphone and they’re eight, nine, 10 years old, they’re going to sit and be on the phone. Maybe they’ll be doing it together, but often they’re just sitting next to each other on separate things. So you can’t really give the independence if they’re just going to be hooked on the phone all the time.

Gillespie: I don’t know anybody who would be particularly upset by that, of saying parents obviously have a large amount of dominion over their children, and you decide what the technology is and you’re giving them a kind of scheme where you can get more people to get along with that. And with schools in America, at the national level and at the state level, there are certain requirements, but generally speaking, it’s a pretty dispersed and decentralized system.

Haidt: State level decision making, yeah. And with some states, we are getting laws like Florida and Utah that are mandating schools go phone free. A bunch of states are doing that. In other states, they’re leaving it up to the districts. So in all of this, my views are not in a conflict with libertarians on these.

Gillespie: Yeah, we’ll get to that in a second. One of the things that’s fascinating though is that at the state level, when places like Florida have said, “Okay, we’re going to ban certain types of social media practices,” that does get in the way of a libertarian idea. It’s like, my kids and I should be able to raise them the way that I want. One of the big proposals that you have is age gating, is changing the minimum age, raising it under which kids can’t have access to social media. Talk about that, and is that just, okay, this is a difference with libertarian ideas?

Haidt: So this is the one place where I think I do have conflict with libertarians, and I want to talk about it because I’m best friends with Greg Lukianoff. I have a lot of libertarian sympathies.

Gillespie: You’re the co-author with Greg of The Coddling of the American Mind, who on his Substack wrote a critique or his first amendment concerns with some of your policy proposals. 

And he’s saying that government bans are one size fits all, he writes. That means those kids who benefit from social media, and there are plenty of them, would be out of luck. Parents know their kids better than anyone. Let them, not the government, make the decisions about what media they consume. How do you respond to that?

Haidt: Let’s talk about age gating. First I would ask you or him or anyone else, so let’s start with pornography, strip clubs and casinos. Let’s talk about things that either involve sex or addiction. Let’s also bring in alcohol, nicotine. Let’s focus on sex or addiction. In the real world, we’ve largely said, “You know what? Adults want to do these things. They’re really harmful for kids who are not ready to make these decisions and their brains are developing.” So in the real world, we’ve worked out all kinds of ways where adults can do what they want, and sometimes there’s a little inconvenience. When I was in high school, we could buy cigarettes from vending machines. But then they realize, “You know what? We have to stop that.” And now people who want to smoke, they have to actually pull out their driver’s license and show it, and then they get their cigarettes. That’s an inconvenience, I understand that. But in the real world, we’ve found ways to do that. We’re only 10 or 25 years in, however you want to count it, into the internet age. I really consider the early 2010s is when the current internet age really began. So this is all very new for us. And so far we’ve done nothing. There’s no protections of any kind.

Gillespie: Parents either know or they don’t know what their kids are doing, right? Because there are controls on all of the social media platforms, on all of the devices. Parents either say they can’t use them or they don’t use them, which is similar to in the ’90s when cable TV was being attacked and we created TVs with chips and ways of banning certain channels and parents didn’t use them.

Haidt: Okay. That’s right. So even when it was simple on one device, parents often didn’t use them. And then there would also be differences of education and marriage. There are going to be all kinds of couples that are going to be trying to do it. So I would put it to you like this: I certainly want parents to have control, but here’s the thing, most parents feel they don’t have control. Most parents don’t want their kids on these things early, but they feel like they can’t stop it. So if you value parental control and consent, you should be very upset with the way things are now, and you should ask for a change that would allow you to have the kind of policies that you want. Because right now, very few parents are able to do that. So think about it this way: suppose a hundred years ago when they began to regulate passing laws on alcohol and drugs and all sorts of things, suppose they said for alcohol, “Okay, the age is 18, but we can’t expect bars and casinos to enforce that. It’s up to the parents. Parents, if you don’t want your kids being in bars and casinos and strip clubs and other things, you keep them out.” Well, that would mean you have to lock your kid up, you cannot let your kid out, otherwise you can’t stop them. The digital world is like that.

Gillespie: But it’s also, if I want to go to a bar, because the age-gating laws means that everybody has to enter confidential information on a website in order to… Well, how else do you do it? And it’s not if I want to go to a bar, I don’t have to share my credentials that then get put into a database which is going to be hacked, et cetera.

Haidt: Okay. Thank you for that. Yeah. So I think many people think, first of all, there’s a misconception that Haidt wants the government to control everything and wants the government to tell you how to raise your kids. Again, I wrote the book assuming that nothing is going to happen on the government level, that we can do this all ourselves with collective action. The one place where it’d be really, really helpful would be if Congress would raise the age from 13 to 16 and require the platforms to actually share in the policing of it. Now, people assume then that I’m saying you have to show your driver’s license, your government ID in order to open an account. Because we’re not talking about logging onto your accounts, only to open an account, that’s all. What I’m suggesting is that Congress undo the mistake it made when it said companies don’t have to check age, the age is 13 at which you can give away your data and sign a contract with a company, but the companies don’t have to check anything. I want Congress to fix that and not say, as a couple of state bills do, that they have to require a driver’s license. I don’t want that. I want them to say, and the platform shall offer a menu or a range of options for doing age verification. There are many, many things already there. So Clear, the company Clear, many of us have Clear to go to airports, you can use that to buy a beer at a stadium. You don’t even have to show an ID. I don’t know whether in that case it’s biometrics. But Clear is one way, if you have a Clear account, and my kids have Clear accounts, so Clear already is doing it.

Gillespie: What’s the liability that you would hold companies responsible for if parents sue Instagram and say, “My daughter killed herself and she shouldn’t have been able to have an account”?

Haidt: Well, under current practice, I think that the parents should be able to sue. And the companies have done everything they can, especially Meta, they’ve done everything they can to get the youngest kids they can. They want to do Instagram for kids. They talked about how do we get five and six-year-olds involved. So Meta, I think, should be held responsible for what it has done to kids. Now, what I’m suggesting is, especially for the underage, what I’m suggesting is, what if Congress were to actually undo the mistake, make it 16, require age verification, but not a hundred percent. We don’t expect like, “Oh, this kid got on, therefore you can sue Meta.” But if Meta is doing a reasonably good job of putting in an obstacle, making it harder, then they wouldn’t be sued for that.

Gillespie: What do you do to the parent who lets their kid on at 13 rather than 16? Do the kids get taken away? What’s their liability? Because if your kid was having sex below the age of consent, child protective services would come in and be like, “What the fuck’s going on here?”

Haidt: No, no, no. What I’m really focused on here is not banning an experience, it’s what are the laws around signing a contract at which you can give away your family’s information and data without your parents knowing or consenting? What did you think that should be? Do you think that any seven or eight-year-old should be able to just sign a contract with a company and tell them all about what you have in your house without you knowing? How can this be the reality that we live in? So I’m not focused on banning an experience. I’m saying, at what age do we treat children as adults? And what Senator Markey did when he was in the house and he introduced COPPA, he said 16. “We’ve got teenagers dealing with all these new tech companies in the ’90s, 16 should be the age.” But various libraries, they pushed it down to 13, they gutted enforcement, so now it’s essentially nothing. That was a mistake. Let me ask you, what age do you think your kids should have been able to make contracts with companies without you knowing?

Gillespie: I have a Gen Z child as well as a millennial, and they got social media, or they got unfettered access to the internet at… my younger son was probably 10 or 11. And we monitored it though as much as we could.

Haidt: But unless you keep them away from browsers, if he’s at someone else’s house and they have a browser, he can open accounts on everything.

Gillespie: Totally. Yeah.

Haidt: But I’m asking you personally, at what age?

Gillespie: No, and the way that we dealt with it was, it was not seven or eight, but you talk about it and you check things and you check in with other parents. I’m not disputing, I think you’re absolutely right. And this is one of the real insights of Abigail Shrier’s book, which is that, and we forget this, kids are different than adults and they should be treated differently.

Haidt: Thank you, yes.

Gillespie: And things that are fine for adults to do are not good for kids to do and all of that. But once you start getting into the nitty-gritty of saying, “How do you police this and how do you regulate it?”, it comes back to this question more of social norms and of individual familial or parental enforcement mechanisms more than I think overarching legal ones.

Haidt: But that’s not the way we dealt with drinking and gambling.

Gillespie: No, no. But what I’m saying is, that’s also up to businesses to do what they want, but if you are with your kids in Ohio, if you’re with your family, if you’re with your parent or guardian, you can drink at the age of 15 in a restaurant. So there’s a sliding scale and things like that. And to give discretion away from families to a government, that is a big deal. And I’m not saying one is right and wrong, but it is a real difference.

Haidt: Okay. I appreciate that as a libertarian you’re willing to say that kids are different from adults. And while we both have very libertarian ideas for adults, but we recognize that kids are different. I assume you think it’s legitimate… Actually, do you think it’s legitimate for states to say there’s a minimum age to gamble in a casino?

Gillespie: Yeah, I guess so.

Haidt: Or do you think that should be entirely up to the parents?

Gillespie: No, I think it’s mostly up to the parents, but yeah, I don’t lose a lot of sleep over that. I don’t lose sleep over age of consent laws and things like that, although there are always exceptions.

Haidt: Okay, good. So the two exceptions that we’ve already talked about are sex and addiction, so we agree with it. And things that involve sex or addiction, there might be a role for a government to set a minimum age. I want to add a third category, which is those that by your very action as an individual put pressure on everyone else. That’s what we’re dealing with. Social media is unlike anything else we’ve ever dealt with.

Gillespie: I’m not convinced of that, or to say that having access to Instagram at 14 would lead to a collective action problem or a particular outcome for a kid that I would say, “No, nobody can consider that.”

Haidt: Okay. Now why did you say 14?

Gillespie: Just saying it’s below 16 because that’s what you want to make it now.

Haidt: So let’s talk about the Florida bill, because I think that’s actually a very good one. So my second norm is no social media before 16. I think that should just be the norm. It should be supported by age verification. So that’s what I’m proposing. Now, the Florida bill that DeSantis just signed a couple of weeks ago says, originally it was that it was that in Florida you can’t open an account. It’s not banning experience. It’s saying you can’t have this commercial relationship with the company until you’re 16. And then there was pushback. And so they added on, now if you’re 14 or 15 and you have your parents’ consent, then you can do it.

Gillespie: So it’s like a Romeo and Juliet law for age of consent, actually.

Haidt: Yeah. Okay, that’s fine. So actually I’m okay with that. And the reason why I’m okay with it is because that would force the companies to do something they could easily have done long ago, but they really don’t want to do, which is establish a way to get parental consent. Right now, you really can’t stop your kid from doing things unless you lock them away and they can’t get to the internet. But if they could develop ways by which, if you have an Instagram account or you’re willing to do something and you can verify that you are the parent, then you can give permission to your fourteen-year-old, not your thirteen-year-old, because we have to get it out of middle school. It’s a collective action problem. We have to get middle schools free of social media entirely.

Gillespie: Let me put it this way, and we might agree on this, we need to get rid of middle school. And I don’t say that lightly, or junior high, because it used to be seven, eight, nine, now it’s six, seven, eight. Middle school is a terrible institution. 

Haidt: So what do you propose we do about that.

Gillespie: Maybe it’s one through eight or you put them in a medically induced coma for a couple years.

Haidt: That’s basically what TikTok is.