Can one truly live a virtual life? In theory, yes. Today’s virtual world seeks to satisfy fundamental human desires—community, learning, work, play, and even sex—all from the comfort of home and a strong internet connection. Yet anyone who lived through the COVID pandemic knows that a world gone virtual is not a real world shared with other human beings at all, but one we hardly recognize (or like much, for that matter). It is impersonal, fragmented, and isolating, ultimately lacking in what human beings have always understood and experienced as reality.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explores this idea in his most recent book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness (2024). The premise of his book is quite simple: The “Anxious Generation” (those in Gen Z or born after 1995) experienced a spike in extremely serious mental health issues between 2010 and 2015 that continues to rise. What happened during that time period? The dawn of smart phone usage and social media.

Haidt explains that this specific generation is marked by having a primarily “phone-based childhood” over a “play-based childhood” that has directly affected their social development—what he calls the “Great Rewiring.” The majority of the book is dedicated to showing data supporting this theory and practical steps we should take to help bring children back into the real world after launching them into a largely unregulated, unsupervised, and dangerous virtual world. In a sneak peek of our full interview with Haidt above, he discusses his four proposed reforms to safeguard children while offering them a more nurturing, healthy, and human development.

 

The Real World vs. Virtual World

 

By now, I’d like to hope that most parents and adults have come to realize that excessive social media, pornography, and phone usage by children is… to put it lightly… not good. But Haidt does an excellent job of going beyond the step of a whistle blower and pointing out the “why” behind the bad from psychological, social, and moral standpoints. One way he does this is by explaining the important differences between a virtual and real world:

“When I talk about the ‘real world,’ I am referring to relationships and social interactions characterized by four features that have been typical for millions of years:

 

  1. They are embodied, meaning that we use our bodies to communicate, we are conscious of the bodies of others, and we respond to the bodies of those both consciously and unconsciously.
  2. They are synchronous, which means they are happening at the same time, with subtle cues about timing and turn taking.
  3. They involve primarily one-to-one or one-to-several communication, with only one interaction happening at a given moment.
  4. They take place within communities that have a high bar for entry and exit, so people are strongly motivated to invest in relationships and repair rifts when they happen.

In contrast, when I talk about the ‘virtual world,’ I am referring to relationships and interactions characterized by four features that have been typical for just a few decades:

 

  1. They are disembodied, meaning that no body is needed, just language. Partners could be (and already are) artificial intelligences (AIs).
  2. They are heavily asynchronous, happening via text-based posts and comments. (A video call is different; it is synchronous.)
  3. They involve a substantial number of one-to-many communications, broadcasting to a potentially vast audience. Multiple interactions can be happening in parallel.
  4. They take place within communities that have a low bar for entry and exit, so people can block others or just quit when they are not pleased. Communities tend to be short-lived, and relationships are often disposable” (pages 9-10).

In short, when we grow up and live virtually, we are quite literally sacrificing the way that human beings have always communicated and built relationships with each other. The “Great Rewiring” is not just getting kids addicted to phones; it’s fundamentally changing the way they develop in an altered reality. It might even be changing their minds and being physically.

 

Spiritual Elevation and Degradation

 

While Haidt’s book is focused mostly on the harms of a phone-based life for children and adolescents, he includes a very interesting chapter in which he looks at the bigger picture—how is technology changing everyone? He writes, “I think I can best convey what is happening to us by using a word rarely used in social sciences: spirituality. The phone-based life produces spiritual degradation, not just in adolescents, but in all of us” (page 199).

Don’t get Haidt wrong—as a Darwinian naturalist, he’s hardly calling people back to a particular religion. Instead, “This is how I’m using the word ‘spiritual.’ It means that one endeavors to live more of one’s life well above zero on the z axis” (page 200). The axis he is referring to is first found in his book The Happiness Hypothesis (2006), which includes a graph (see image below) explaining the three perceived dimensions of social space: hierarchy, divinity, and closeness. The higher something is up on the divinity z axis, the more sacred and deserving of reverence it is.

 

 

He writes,

“So now I want to ask: Does the phone-based life generally pull us upward or downward on this vertical dimension? If it is downward, then there is a cost even for those who are not anxious or depressed. If it is downward, then there is spiritual harm, for adults as well as for adolescents, even for those who think that their mental health is fine. There would also be harm to society if more people are spending more time below zero on the z axis. We would perceive a general society-wide degradation that would be hard to put into words” (page 201).

He then goes on to explain how a phone-based life does degrade us spiritually by blocking six key practices: 1) shared sacredness; 2) embodiment; 3) stillness, silence, and focus; 4) self-transcendence; 5) being slow to anger, quick to forgive; and 6) finding awe in nature (page 202). Note here how Haidt says a phone-based life. Technology and social media can certainly be used for good in its proper time and place—no one can deny that. But a life centered around the virtual world? Haidt explains the results using the “God-shaped hole” analogy:

“Many of my religious friends disagree about the origin of our God-shaped hole; they believe that the hole is there because we are God’s creations and we long for a creator. But although we disagree about its origins, we agree about its implications: There is a hole, an emptiness in us all, that we strive to fill. If it doesn’t get filled with something noble and elevated, modern society will quickly pump it full of garbage. That has been true since the beginning of the age of mass media, but the garbage pump got 100 times more powerful in the 2010s” (pages 215-216).

Once again, coming from a naturalist (an a-theist), this is quite interesting language to use. This shows that both believer and non-believer can agree on an important point: technology and social media can never fill the void within the human heart. It’s designed to deceive us into thinking so, but for those of us who have unwittingly fallen victim to the various software and algorithms, we have experienced the deep sense that there is something better to life than hours of “doom-scrolling.”

 

The Opportunity Cost

 

I speak for myself as someone on the older end of Gen Z who was fortunate enough to have lived a mostly “play-based” childhood, yet undoubtedly experienced a shift in brain chemistry when I received my first smartphone as a teenager. Even with all the guardrails set by my parents and their constant surveillance, my world grew unnecessarily larger (I could now see what everyone in and outside my circle of influence were doing constantly), my actions became social media driven (let’s go here with this person for the sole purpose of getting a good picture), and my mind quickly became addicted to likes and scrolling in my free time (long gone were the days of sitting in quiet or experiencing a healthy dose of boredom). While I didn’t become depressed, anxious, or suicidal like many girls do today, even the relatively benign results of a phone-based life are not devoid of harm. In fact, according to Haidt’s argument, if it is not elevating us to pursue higher things, then it is by default causing us personal harm. He calls us to consider the steep “opportunity cost” of spending time online and what greater things we could be doing with the precious and limited time we are given.

The Anxious Generation is our Book of the Month for two reasons: First, few people today analyze the state of humanity like Jonathan Haidt, and this book is no exception. As we discussed in last month’s review of Bad Therapy by Abigail Shrier, there is certainly something concerning happening to Gen Z. While Shrier focuses primarily on problematic therapy techniques, Haidt focuses on the specifics of social media, and although I’m sure they disagree on some points, I believe their books are two sides of the same coin.

As an aside, I think over time we will come to realize that the mental health issue facing teens today is much more nuanced and multi-faceted than a single issue, which both books could take criticism for. But each serve the helpful purpose of diving deep into a few of those facets.

Second, we wanted to feature Haidt’s newest book before the release of his Praxis Circle interview. He talks about The Anxious Generation at length in our discussion together, which you can see more of in a preview of here:

 

 

Keep an eye out for his exclusive interview which will be available on our website. Until then, we sincerely hope you will take the time to read Haidt’s illuminating Anxious Generation. We truly believe it will become one of the most important books of the decade—and perhaps for decades to come—as our society continues to research the impacts of technology and necessary reforms. Haidt has masterfully highlighted the issues while still giving us hopeful steps forward, his deeper message ringing clear: We are meant to live a life grounded in meaning, purpose, and reality. In our modern age, may we always strive for this.

 

Addendum

 

Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU Stern and a Founder of Heterodox Academy.

We should note that Praxis Circle conducted this interview earlier this year on Wednesday, February 7—just before The Anxious Generation‘s publication—at the Morehead House in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Afterward, on that same day at the University of North Carolina, Haidt managed separate meetings with Heterodox Academy faculty and Student Free Speech Alliance members, spoke to a large, sold-out auditorium sponsored by the UNC Alumni Free Speech Alliance and Heterodox Heels (see his speech at UNC-C.H. linked here), and then, if that wasn’t enough, attended a faculty-sponsored reception and book signing at the NC University System President’s home.

His message addressed closely related issues: the unprecedented crises that faculty and students are facing in universities across the nation due to DEI-based cancel culture, seriously restricting free speech and academic freedom, and that Gen Z’s are facing issues as described in The Anxious Generation, primarily due to smart phone technology (fueling other new, harmful, social practices).

His thoughtful and arresting message was well-received and his performance was extraordinary, being delivered flawlessly with a temporary voice challenge you might notice in the video clips above. Haidt then somehow managed similarly packed days to end the week at the University of Virginia and Washington and Lee University. Many university faculty across the nation are truly amazing!