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  • 19 de June de 2024
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  • 12 minutes read

The Major Question Concerning Minors and Mobile Phones

The Major Question Concerning Minors and Mobile Phones

The major question concerning minors and mobile phones

The entire chain meant to protect minors has failed

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Licencia Creative Commons


Enrique Benítez Palma


Jonathan Haidt asserts that there is a direct correlation between the excessive time minors spend on their mobile phones and the rise in adolescent mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and suicides. This perspective warrants a broader examination.

Haidt’s thesis is simple: there is a direct link between the (excessive) screen time of minors and youth and the decline in mental health of an entire generation, as evidenced by the constant increase in episodes of anxiety, depression, and even suicides. His solutions are simple: delay children’s access to smartphones and remove these devices from the education system as much as possible, among other measures. However, a complex problem requires more than an apparently simplistic response. We should also consider how to safely introduce young people to the omnipresent digital world, given that upon reaching adulthood, they will need to handle some electronic certification and engage with their real world (purchasing event tickets, administrative procedures, opening bank accounts, seeking reliable information) through screens.

Before delving into the academic critiques of Haidt’s book, it might be appropriate to pause for reflection. The full responsibility for the situation can never rest with the weakest and most vulnerable (children and adolescents). Iit must be placed on those who educate them (families), those who train them (schools), those who protect them (governments), and those who ethically conduct business with them (companies). From here, a pyramid of responsibilities could be established, including bad corporate practices at the top, regulatory delays next, and the disengagement of families and educational actors last. The entire chain meant to protect minors has failed.

A pertinent question relates to mobile phones and loneliness: Are mobile phones the cause of loneliness or the remedy? The trend of spending more time alone has stabilized after the pandemic but began much earlier due to reasons we can speculate but which need much more detailed investigation.

Thus, a quick and intuitive reflection on Haidt’s thesis would lead us to question the causes driving minors to overuse their screen time, not just to pay attention to the consequences of this phenomenon. A concern about the consequences has focused and limited the approach of the British Parliament Committee, which has just analysed the effects of excessive screen time on the health and well-being of minors.

Moving on to academic critiques, we could highlight the following in chronological order:

  1. Candice Odgers, a professor of psychology, argues in the scientific journal Nature that there is no evidence that the use of these platforms is rewiring children’s brains (great rewiring) or driving an epidemic of mental illnesses. She also maintains that while she agrees that considerable reforms are needed for these platforms given the time young people spend on them and that many of Haidt’s solutions for parents, teenagers, educators, and large tech companies are reasonable (such as establishing stricter content moderation policies and requiring companies to consider users’ age when designing platforms and algorithms), other proposals like age-based restrictions and mobile device bans are unlikely to be effective in practice or, worse, could be counterproductive given what we know about adolescent behaviour.
  2. Cristopher Ferguson, a clinical psychologist, is much more critical than Candice Odgers. In an article published by the American Psichological Association, he firmly states that “current experimental studies should not be used to support the conclusion that social media use is associated with mental health. (…). Put very bluntly, this undermines the causal claims of some scholars (e.g., Haidt 2020; Twenge 2020) that reducing social media time would improve adolescent mental health. (…). There are reasons to suspect that the methodology of most of these studies is simply not up to the mark”.
  3. Sonia Livingstone, a social psychologist from the London School of Economics with a long research career in this field, offers another significant critique. A solid interview in the Financial Times provides more insights into her views. Livingstone’s research has led her to focus on two points: one is attempting to limit tech companies whose “business model drives competitive attention-seeking in ways that disempower parents or teachers or anyone else”. Her other focus is on finding ways to empower young people and parents. This paragraph from the interview is important: “Haidt labels those born after 1996 as “the anxious generation”. But anxiety undoubtedly began with generations of parents who refused to let their children play outside. In the 1990s, Livingstone highlighted the rise of children having TVs in their bedrooms. The children said they would have preferred to be outside but were not allowed”. I can’t resist sharing the final lines from another fantastic piece by Sonia Livingstone (“Reflections on the meaning of “digital” in research on adolescents’ digital lives”), which is very enlightening: “Digital technology continues to change at a breakneck pace. At the end of the 20th century, television was described as a ‘push’ technology (a ‘lean-back’ technology, according to marketing experts), while the ‘internet’ was a ‘pull’ technology (or ‘lean-forward’), celebrated for giving its new active users the ability to choose where they wanted to go today (paraphrasing the then-famous Microsoft advertisement). Today, the situation is reversed, as television viewers face a bewildering array of streaming services, while internet users are provided with content ‘fed’ by personalised algorithms, carefully tailored to hold their undivided and endless attention. Understanding the dynamic between technological design, business innovation, regulatory evolution, and user creativity (including makeshift solutions and resistance practices) demands an interdisciplinary perspective that encompasses the three approaches to the digital: as tools or devices, as space or environment, and as social infrastructure. The challenge for researchers into adolescents’ digital lives is both daunting and exciting.”
  4. Without being a direct criticism to Haidt, Amy Orben from the University of Cambridge led a multidisciplinary team to publish a formidable academic article in Nature titled “Mechanisms linking social media use to adolescent mental health vulnerability”. Their final paragraph is brilliant: “if social media is a factor contributing to the current decline in adolescent mental health as is often assumed, then it is important to identify and investigate mechanisms that are specifically adapted to the adolescent age group and argue why they are important. Without a thorough examination of these mechanisms and a policy analysis indicating whether they should be prioritized, there is insufficient evidence to support the hypothesis that social media is the main driving force – or even just an influential and important driving force – of mental health deterioration. Researchers must stop studying social media as something monolithic and uniform and instead study its characteristics, possibilities, and outcomes using a range of methods including experiments, surveys, qualitative research, and industry data. Ultimately, this comprehensive approach will enhance researchers’ ability to address the potential challenges the digital age poses to adolescent mental health”.
  5. Much more forceful is the response from another multidisciplinary team, this time from the London School of Economics, led by researcher Michaela Lebedíková, which identifies ten problems in Jonathan Haidt’s book: his research is selective (disregarding what does not interest him); he draws causal conclusions from (mostly) correlational data; dismisses alternative explanations; generalizes beyond the data; assumes social media effects are the same for everyone; exaggerates the magnitude of adolescent internet addiction; assumes adolescents lack a sense of responsibility; downplays the benefits of technology; proposes reforms without considering repercussions; and values a good story over responsible science. A scathing analysis.
  6. Finally, in line with some ideas from the previous point, two researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute (Andrew Przybylski y Matti Vuorre) defend in a must-read study that internet access positively influences individuals’ well-being. “The debate about the effects of internet platforms and technologies on individuals’ psychological well-being remains a central topic due to its potentially global consequences. Although previous results on this topic have been diverse, the vast majority of studies have examined convenience samples from the global north, thus ignoring the fact that internet penetration has been and remains a global phenomenon. In this study, we examine the associations between internet use and access and a wide range of well-being indicators in a representative sample of 2,414,294 individuals from 168 countries within an age range spanning from late adolescence to older adults. We found that on average across all countries and demographic groups, individuals who had internet access, mobile internet access, or actively used the internet reported higher levels of life satisfaction, positive experiences, purpose experiences, and physical, community, and social well-being, and lower levels of negative experiences”.

Reviewing the first and the second parts of this series, and with all these reflections and arguments, reading Jonathan Haidt’s book (The Anxious Generation) will be much more rigorous and stimulating.  The author has defended himself against some of these critiques on his blog. Having placed this issue at the centre of public debate is good news that should serve to analyse his conclusions and proposals with the utmost attention but also with the critical spirit that a book so definitive and perhaps polarising deserves. However, the major question concerning adults’ responsibility in all this remains unanswered. Modifying our passive comfort may be the first step in correcting what we know is happening.


See: Minors, Mobile Phones, and Mental Health: Correlation is Not Causality

See: The Anxious Generation

Source: educational EVIDENCE

Rights: Creative Commons

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