by Kerry McDonald

Humans have a complicated relationship with new technologies. We generally appreciate the ways in which they improve our lives in the long run but tend to be wary of them in the near-term. In my Unschooled book, I describe an example of a new technology that many people thought would be the downfall of society. One journalist warned: “We shall soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other.”

What was that new technology that caused such worry?

The telephone.

Today, the new technology that often elicits similar worries is social media. There is particular concern that social media may be harmful to children and adolescents and may be contributing to their increasing rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendencies. In last week’s Wall Street Journal, NYU psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, went so far as to call for banning social media for youths under 16. “I’d raise the age of Internet adulthood to 16–and enforce it,’ said Haidt, explaining that children frequently lie about their age to access social media platforms.

Haidt’s most recent book, The Coddling of the American Mind, is excellent and demonstrates the ways in which today’s “fearful parenting” tendencies and desire to remove all childhood obstacles are making young people more fragile and less resilient. So it is surprising that Haidt would join the campaign to ban youth social media: a movement that is rooted in fear and cultural coddling.

We should certainly all be concerned about rising rates of youth anxiety, depression, and suicide, but blaming new technologies for declining mental health is a convenient scapegoat.

Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray explained in my podcast episode with him last spring that research doesn’t corroborate the claim that social media is harming children’s mental health, and that targeting social media use is yet another example of a moral panic over a new technology.

Moreover, banning social media until the later teen years—if enforceable at all—could create worse outcomes. As psychologist Jordan Shapiro explains in his book, The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World, guiding children through the promise and pitfalls of smartphones and related technologies when they are young and more likely to listen to their parents can help them to become more adept at managing these technologies later on.

If we really want to identify what may be contributing to the youth mental health crisis we should look to the harms of forced K-12 schooling—not social media. I wrote a FEE article last week about a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research showing a striking correlation between youth suicides and schooling that echoes earlier findings out of Vanderbilt University showing a similar link.

The problem is that the lives of children and teens today are too tightly controlled. They spend ever more of their time in school and school-like activities where they are micromanaged and coerced and are denied personal agency. Banning social media use for young people would only add more layers of coercion and surveillance and reduce youth autonomy even further.

Granting young people more freedom and greater ability to direct their own lives and learning will make them happier, more resilient, and more successful in whatever paths they choose. Fortunately, there are now so many more self-directed learning settings that enable this to occur, including the one I featured in Tuesday’s podcast episode with Cassidy Younghans. Cassidy worked for five years as a 7th grade English teacher in a public school before discovering self-directed education and launching her own grassroots co-learning community in Dallas, Texas.

Rather than placing even more limits on today’s young people, let’s instead offer them more freedom, including the freedom to use the new technologies that shape our world. Perhaps we will become “nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other,” but I’m betting against it. Humans thrive with freedom and the innovation that freedom spawns.

I am grateful for the telephone that the 19th-century journalist decried, and even more grateful for today’s smartphones and all the apps at our fingertips. Blaming new technologies for today’s social ills may be simple, but it distracts us from looking more seriously at the true sources of these ills, as well as meaningful solutions rooted in freedom and human flourishing.

Until next week,


Kerry McDonald

Senior Education Fellow, Foundation for Economic Education

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