Haidt's After Babel: A Preview of Main Concerns
Here are the major problems with Haidt's argument that social media use is the primary cause of the recent declines in adolescent mental health.
When I started this series of articles related to Haidt's After Babel, I hoped that by now I would have covered all my criticism. Alas, I was unable to devote any time to this effort the last two months.
In order to allow Haidt at least an overview of my main concerns regarding his theories, I will now provide an outline of my criticism, to be expanded in detail later as time and circumstances allow.
First let me note where I agree with Haidt.
We agree that rates of adolescent depression and suicide have roughly doubled and that these phenomena are part of a robust decline in the mental health of youth — thus, for example, anxiety among college students has also increased greatly.
We agree this constitutes a crisis.
We agree that the proliferation of smartphones is a plausible explanation of substantial increases in adolescent depression and anxiety.
These are the seven main points of my criticism:
No compelling evidence of substantial causal effects on depression.
No population impact model to explain the doubling of adolescent depression.
No explanation of suicide trends.
Neglect of boys despite doubled depression and suicide.
No compelling evidence to justify focus on social media.
Failure to note major flaws in the social media impact theory.
Failure to truly consider alternative explanations.
I plan to address the causality issue next, so for now I’ll just note that I do not demand conclusive evidence — my criticism is that Haidt failed to present even a compelling case for substantial causation.
Haidt never presented a plausible model demonstrating that changes in smartphones proliferation could explain anything close to the doubling of depression among teens. Even if smartphones have had a substantial impact, their contribution to the doubling may have been relatively minor (e.g. 15% to 25%).
Haidt never presented evidence that social media is much more harmful than the other major uses of smartphones by kids for entertainment, such as watching videos and playing games. In fact the evidence I’ve seen so far indicates similar associations with harm.
Haidt failed to address the following major problems with his focus on social media as the primary culprit:
Social media use skyrocketed from zero in 2003 to daily use by the majority of teens in 2008 — and yet depression rates remained stable until 2012. How is that plausible if social media was (supposedly) the primary cause of the mental health declines among girls?
Rates of online bullying victimization stagnated during the last decade, just the opposite of expectations if activities unique to social networking were supposedly rising so rapidly among teens that they were causing huge increases in depression. Bullying trends therefore suggest that after 2010 the increases of time spent on social media were mainly due to watching videos and video chatting, etc.
As I pointed out in Senators on Social Media: The Screen Time Fallacy, most of the time spent online by teens is indeed dedicated to viewing videos and playing games while activities unique to social networking seem to constitute only a small portion of screen time.
As I explained in The Trouble with Suicide, not only did adolescent suicide increase greatly before depression started to rise, but it also, after 2017, stagnated while depression continued to increase sharply. Haidt fails to address disparities in depression and suicide trends and offers no plausible explanation of the youth suicide rise.
Although depression and suicide rates more than doubled among adolescent boys, Haidt offers no plausible explanation and outright excludes boys from his crucial discussion of causation (see Social Media is a Major Cause of the Mental Illness Epidemic in Teen Girls).
Haidt neglects factors like the prescriptions drug epidemic and social discord, and Haidt also fails to consider the role of Generation X, by far the most troubled generation alive. Furthermore, Haidt ignores my explanation of the youth suicide rise by the increases in childhood exposure to suicide trauma (see Childhood Trauma and Youth Suicide Rates).
I see no valid reasons for calls by Haidt and others for drastic and potentially dangerous measures, such as age verification, to restrict the ability of minors to interact on social media — the very activity not credibly linked with the doubling of depression during the last decade.
I will try to provide, as soon as possible, further details on the critical issues listed above and I will be happy to hear any replies from Haidt.
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