Book sparks controversy by suggesting a catastrophic epidemic among young people, writes Hamilton Carvalho

“How do we make the most of your time and attention? This means we need to give you a little dopamine hit every now and then because someone likes or comments on a photo or other content of yours. This will make you contribute more content, which will generate more likes and comments. It’s a vicious circle of social validation, exactly what a hacker like me would do, because a vulnerability in human psychology is being exploited.”.

This statement was given by Sean Parker, 1st president of Facebook (read here) and is well known as the model Hooked (“Hooked”), described in a good book of 2014.

But it is another work that I want to talk about today, which cites the same statement. In one of the academic networks that I follow, the behavioral one, the controversy sparked by the researcher has caught fire. Jonathan Haidt about the effect of smartphones on the mental health of teenagers, especially girls.

In the recently released The Anxious Generation (“The Anxious Generation” in Portuguese), Haidt goes beyond discussing business models that have become predators of the human mind. He proposes a theory to explain the rise in problems such as anxiety, depression and suicide among young people in different countries.

A contrast is presented between 2 types of childhood: the old one, based on games, with a lot of interaction and learning between peers, versus the one ushered in by the era of smart cell phones, starting in 2010, which hit the so-called generation Z (born from 1995 to 2010).

Haidt rightly argues that children and adolescents have critical periods of development that require the establishment of certain skills at the right times, such as self-control and frustration tolerance. It’s like a house, which can’t have a roof without first having a foundation and walls.

However, in the fundamental range of 9 to 15 years old, little people began to be bombarded with unrealistic models of behavior and approval, which also kept them away from games and traditional social relationships. The biggest losers would be the girls, carrying around an incessant social comparison machine with them 24 hours a day.

To the addiction created by the applications were added trends that had been around since the turn of the century, such as parental overprotection. Furthermore, we created a collective trap, as anyone who refuses to participate in Instagrams and TikToks becomes excluded from the tribe. Imagine being the only one disconnected from the class.

The result? For the author, a generation of fragile individuals, with fragmented attention, psychiatric problems and without adequate skills for the adult world.


The phenomenon has been observed in more countries than the always complicated USA and the body of evidence suggests that the proposition has some basis.

But it is difficult to establish causality in problems like this and many qualified people are not convinced that the evidence presented is enough to put the hammer down. There are good doubts about the size and scope of the effect.

For example, how indicated by the writer Eric Levitz in the magazine Voxin a well-balanced criticism of the positions of both sides, there was no increase in suicides, the most dramatic marker of mental health, among young Europeans (globally considered) in this new digital era.

On the other hand, it is still worrying that there is an increase in several countries (including European ones) of self-harm (such as cutting) among girls aged 10 to 14, as gotten up for the Economist.

The case becomes even more complicated because there has also been better social acceptance and more accurate diagnoses of mental illnesses (profitable for the pharmaceutical industry, I add).

Finally, unlike the world of absolute certainties of antivaxxersin science, particularly social science, there are many shades of gray and nuances.

In any case, I agree with the assessment that there is a bit of exaggeration on both sides. Haidt never fails to express the typical North American hysteria, which we have seen in other incarnations, such as in nutrition.

But if you can’t say that smartphones “destroyed” an entire generation, on the other hand you can say that there is a serious problem that could be affecting very vulnerable segments of the world’s population. Cell phones are addictive, period.

Digital cocaine not only hooks children, but also exposes them to toxic content, such as pro-anorexia content. Among adults, addiction causes everything from job loss to traffic accidents.

Haidt proposes a series of measures for parents, schools and societies, most of which are sensible, such as, for example, banning cell phones in educational units. And he uses a very strong argument, which is the cost of 2 types of error.

What’s worse? Restrict access and regulate better, when the problem may not be so serious? Or general release, as it is today, believing that everything is fine, even though the negative consequences may be irreversible?

The precautionary principle pushes me towards the first option.


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