More Social Media Regulation

Jonathan Haidt
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If we want to reverse these trends, we need to change the way we think about social media.
By Jonathan Haidt
Social media inflames tribalism and makes democracy more difficult and unstable in many ways. To name just a few: It accelerates the movement of citizens into informational bubbles and then poisons those bubbles with inflammatory stories and videos; it undermines trust in institutions and in fellow citizens; it allows violent ideologies to ferment and recruit; it opens a door for easy manipulation by America’s foreign enemies.

But there’s another route by which social media may soon begin imposing a heavy new cost on American democracy: It appears to have contributed to the rapid rise in depression and anxiety among Gen Z (born in 1996 and later). The rise began around 2012, not just in the United States but also in the UK and Canada. With Jean Twenge, the author of iGen, I have been collecting and categorizing the available evidence on this question, and a clear pattern has emerged: Heavy use (but not light to moderate use) of social media (as opposed to “screen time” more generally) is consistently associated with depression, anxiety and self-harm, particularly for girls. The evidence is not just correlational; five experiments have randomly assigned people to cut back on social media use; all found at least some beneficial outcomes.

This rapid increase in mood disorders is a tragedy in and of itself, but it has implications for democracy, too. Anxious and depressed people see more threats in ambiguous situations; they are more likely to interpret things in the most negative light and to be inflexible in their thinking. They may therefore be less likely to develop skills in the “art of association” that Alexis de Tocqueville thought was an essential feature of America’s dynamic democracy. Gen Z bears no blame for our political tragedy, nor for its own rising levels of anxiety. But as Gen Z members become a larger share of the electorate in the 2020s, and of the leadership class in the 2030s, they might find compromise and cross-partisan cooperation even more difficult than older generations do today.

Read the full Politico article.

Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership.