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The Digitization Of Childhood Play

Jonathan Haidt’s new book “The Anxious Generation” is generating many conversations about youth and social media, and the impact of growing up in a digital world. His work aligns with the mission of other important activists in this field.

Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids has been around since 2008. Fifteen years ago, Skenazy wrote a controversial column on her decision to let her then-nine-year-old son take the New York City subway home alone, which became a national story and prompted massive media attention, including stories calling her “America’s Worst Mom.” In response, Skenazy wrote the book “Free-Range Kids” and ran a blog of the same name.

Skenazy is also known for advocating “free-range parenting,” a philosophy that encourages parents to allow their children more independence and freedom with the intention of fostering self-reliance and problem-solving skills. Skenazy’s core belief centers around the idea that children are more competent and capable than modern society often gives them credit for, and that overprotective parenting can hinder their development. This approach contrasts with more cautious parenting styles that prioritize close supervision and risk-avoidance. In 2018, she co-founded the group Let Grow, with Jonathan Haidt and others.

In chapter two of his book, Haidt talks about the science of childhood learning, writing; “Play is the work of childhood…wire up your brain by playing vigorously and often.” He argues that childhood play, particularly the kind that occurs without direct adult supervision, is crucial for the development of social skills, resilience, and independence. This kind of play also allows children to take risks in a relatively safe environment, which can contribute to emotional development and the ability to handle stress and failure.

Thinking back to my childhood, I remember having copious amounts of unstructured time and freedom, and some danger. Haidt makes the argument that danger teaches resilience, a position that Skenazy supports. “The Anxious Generation” suggests that the growth of overly protective parents goes back to the late 20th century. Haidt points to several societal shifts that contributed to this change, including increased media coverage of child abductions and other dangers, which amplified parents’ fears, despite statistical evidence that such risks were not necessarily increasing.

Former New York Times journalist Julie Scelfo founded Mothers Against Media Addiction in 2024. MAMA is a grassroots movement of parents fighting back against media addiction and creating a world in which real-life experiences and interactions remain at the heart of a healthy childhood. Think Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but with a focus on social media.

Both Let Grow and MAMA share Haidt’s concern for the loss of childhood play. All agree that the arrival of social media has shifted children from a play-based childhood to a phone-based childhood.

I’d question whether the impact on children comes from the device, or the software. There’s no doubt that the social networks are working hard to make their platforms addictive. as insiders at Facebook said on a live Zoom call. “It is pretty clear right now that all of these social media services are facilitating, enabling and amplifying preventable harm to minors,” said Arturo Bejar, former Facebook Integrity and Care. “I don’t think Instagram is safe for kids. I don’t think it’s safe for me. I don’t think it’s safe for humans necessarily to be on Instagram so much,” said Elise Liu, former Facebook product manager, “It is possible to design these things so they’re safe for people, but it’s probably not possible to design them so that they’re safe for people as an afterthought,” Liu concluded.

“The Anxious Generation” is an ambitious book, and an important one. Haidt clearly cares about children, and as both a public figure and respected academic, he brings to the forefront a conversation that’s important we have, about what children lose when their worlds are increasingly digital.

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