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"Anxious for Nothing" by Kate Watson

An Axis Course On The "Everything Smartphone" Guided Toolkit

 

To end the phone-based childhood, we must address our own anxieties.

By Kate Watson

This summer, a family of robins made their nest in the eaves under my deck.

My daughter and I would visit them every morning and late afternoon. She’s not quite three, so I would put her on my shoulders and lift her up so that she could see. First it was just their mother, sitting on four eggs. Then there were the babies, wet and impossibly small, with their thin cries and open beaks, begging for worms. Only a few days later they grew speckled and downy, puffing up their chests at us from their spot in the nest.

And one day, we looked up, and they were gone. The nest was empty.

For a second, anyway.

Then we looked down, and they were on the ground. One juvenile hopped out from a stray piece of plywood. Another peeked from behind a gardening shovel. My daughter was so excited, she charged in their direction, her hands spread wide. And before I could blink, both robins jumped to a low-hanging shrub, flapped their wings, and flew away.

I was slack-jawed at how fast they were, and how determined. Less than ten days ago, they were pecking through their delicate baby blue eggshells. And now, a little spook from a toddler had sent them soaring.

I reached for my phone. It wasn’t in my back pocket. And strangely, its absence felt like a mercy. I moved on with my gardening and smiled at my girl. The moment would be our secret for now.

~

You’ve probably noticed the tsunami of research and expert commentary that has emerged on the subject of teens and smartphones. Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Anxious Generation, seems to have arrived at the crest of the wave. People are talking about this book in podcasts, an excerpt ran in the Atlantic, and profiles of Haidt splashed across the pages of New York Magazine and The New York Times.

But the book has also become a sort of ideological litmus test for parents to discuss with one another when in private. “Have you heard about The Anxious Generation?” one parent might ask another, somewhat sheepishly, and feign disinterest as they wait on the answer.

What they really mean to ask is, “Are you as worried about giving your kids a phone as I am?”

Some pundits have suggested that reports of the teen mental health crisis are greatly exaggerated. The Anxious Generation makes a compelling case that they aren’t. Through a compilation of data, charts, anecdotes, and reviews of the medical literature, Haidt does a pretty good job of explaining that smartphones are designed to steal our attention and invite unhealthy comparisons to others—and why things designed for that purpose are especially terrible for young people.

Throughout the book, Haidt compares growing up online to growing up on Mars. Sure, it might be possible for people to survive in a hostile environment, but why would we choose kids to be the ones to test that theory out on? He points out the dangers of “safety-ism,” a sociological phenomenon that leads us to be overprotective of our kids in the real world—and shows how when combined with the sweeping, swift adoption of brand new technologies, safety-ism may have led us to be under-protective of kids in the digital world.

Starting in the 1990s, our loss of shared societal values has led to a culture of suspicion towards strangers. This declining trust in other people has led us to parent from a place of panic, scheduling our children down to the minute and redefining supervision so that it looks more like surveillance.

But this level of suspicion has come at a cost. By alienating others in our communities, we’ve ended up in a place where parents are often under-supported in their efforts to raise capable, self-reliant, morally sound adults. According to the Pew Research Center, only 54% of Americans say that they feel close to other people in their communities. Parents don’t want to make the iPad or television into the de facto babysitter for their children. But without an actual babysitter for their children, they may feel like they have no choice.

Unfortunately, spending time with a touchscreen is a sickly, unsettling substitute for a group of other adults who would presumably have a child’s best interests at heart.

In our anxiety over neighbors lurking too close to the playground, we let strangers have full reign of the digital playground where our kids spend arguably more time.

The result is teens who are doing poorly. It’s hard for them to regulate their emotions. They face difficulty with routine tasks and expectations. They don’t seem suited at all for the world they are inheriting—in fact, nobody does. It is an unknown technological frontier that seems more hostile to humans by the day.

Haidt says that smartphones are the unequivocal culprit and his suggestions (which basically boil down to banning phones from academic environments, encouraging free range play experiences, and enforcing age restrictions on social media accounts) offer a practical solution. Haidt suggests sane solutions that communities can implement.

But if “safetyism” is fundamentally adult overprotection motivated by anxiety, enacting these solutions won’t necessarily heal the underlying root of that.

Sometimes we worry so much about parenting “rightly” that we no longer worry about how our children will learn how to do what is right.

For some parents, our biggest concern has become raising a child who will turn out to be someone who sins—an outcome that is not only out of our control, but is actually guaranteed to come true.

This isn’t just bad for them; it’s bad for us. It robs parenting of all its joy. We could be introducing our teens to the raucous tumult of God’s world and the people, flawed and fantastic, who inhabit it with us. When we parent from a place of fear and dread, it turns us into rigid chaperones who insist on keeping life at a predictable, comfortable level—a place where it’s hard to hear the Spirit whispering His wild beckoning to become the full expression of who God created us to be.

Some parents worry that they aren’t spending enough time with their children. But as Haidt points out, parents actually spend more time with their children now than at any time in recent human history. We may spend that time distracted by our own devices. We may be working from home or driving to hockey games. We may be preoccupied with stresses our grandparents would have a hard time conceptualizing. But we still have the opportunity of a lifetime—the chance to be there.

To have conversations with our children as we walk down a dusty road. To share wisdom with them that they can choose to embrace or reject. To offer them what we have, and to love them hard. And to give them opportunities to know the God who somehow loves them more than we ever could.

The Anxious Generation gives us a good baseline for figuring out what handheld technologies have done to our teens’ attention spans, self-esteem, and mental health. Taking all the suggestions it outlines might leave a better world for the next generation.

But it doesn’t solve the problem of an anxious generation of parents—parents whose human hearts have been led astray by the idea that safety is preferable to courage, that following the letter of the law is preferable to truly living, and that only a fool would forsake the cozy nest for a short flight to the shrub next door.

It’s the kind of lesson we need to internalize as we try to set the standard for the adults we’re trying to raise.

Because a juvenile may watch you from its perch, puffed and preening. They may jump out onto the ground below and leave you worried for a time. But without that terrifying first free-fall, they never can learn how to fly.

Kate Watson is a writer, editor, and mother of three living in New York’s Hudson Valley. She writes about culture, community, and parenthood for outlets like Christianity Today, Relevant, Insider, and Vox. Kate is the managing editor at Axis.