There is an innate conservatism about the Torah world that helps us fight the lure of the new
American adolescents are experiencing a mental health crisis, with teen girls the worst hit. Since 2012, there has been a dramatic rise in depression, suicidal ideation, and self-harm, primarily among teenage girls. Thirty percent of American teenage girls reported contemplating suicide in 2021, a more than 50% increase since 2000.
Jean Twenge, a professor of social psychology and chronicler of generational changes in emotional well-being, was among the first to attribute those trends to smartphones, in a seminal 2017 Atlantic article, "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?"
Beginning in 2012, she began to notice abrupt changes in teen behaviors and emotional states, unlike anything she had previously encountered in 25 years of charting generational change. In 2015, three times as many adolescent girls and twice as many boys took their lives as in 2007.
What happened in 2012? For one thing, Facebook acquired Instagram, a visual messaging platform. Second, smartphone cameras became front-facing, which made it possible to take and post the now ubiquitous selfies. In short order, smartphone use exploded and the age of first use plummeted.
Soon Twenge was joined in sounding the alarm on smartphones by Jonathan Haidt, one of America's preeminent social psychologists, and the latter's research assistant Zach Rausch. Haidt has an entire Substack, After Babel, devoted to his and others' scholarly articles, replete with lots of graphs and charts, on the impact of smartphones and social media.
United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has now joined the campaign against heavy social media use. Addressing the teenage mental health crisis recently, Dr. Murthy declared that social media use has a "profound effect on the mental health of children and adolescents."
In a recent response to a Washington Post editorial suggesting that she had at most demonstrated correlation and not causation, Twenge shot down one-by-one the arguments against her, Haidt, and the surgeon general.
Perhaps, the Post suggested, some other cause could explain the prevalence of anxiety disorders among teenagers — economic anxieties, the opioid crisis, school shootings. Twenge pointed out that the trend lines of increased anxiety began in 2012, when America was in rapid recovery from the 2007-2009 recession. Moreover, the trends were most evident among the age 10-14 cohort, the group most shielded from economic pressures: While self-harm doubled among older teens; it quadrupled among the younger group.
The opioid crisis has primarily struck at an older population. And while school shootings are far more frequent in America than in other Western countries, Haidt points out that the same trends of increased mental health problems being associated with greater smartphone use are present around the world, and particularly in the Anglosphere.
Finally, the Post raised the possibility that teens were always depressed; what has changed is a loss of stigma speaking about it. But Twenge noted, we are not just dealing with self-reported states of being but with a host of concrete actions that have skyrocketed — e.g., incidents of self-harm, emergency room admissions.
Nor are depression and anxiety disorders the only adverse effects of smartphone use. One that should be of concern to all parents is the loss of the ability to sustain prolonged mental effort. The mere presence of a smartphone in one's pocket has a distracting impact. Nor do the devices stay there. Sixty percent of high school students report spending at least ten percent of their time in class on their smartphones. That is time spent not paying attention.
Haidt bans laptops from his undergraduate classes and those at NYU's Stern School of Business. It is not hard to see why. About a decade ago, I watched a law school professor friend give a class in an amphitheater-shaped room. I stood above and behind the students, a very high percentage of whom were playing solitaire or the like on their computers, and wondered how anyone could teach such a distracted group of students.
By age 12, 70 percent of American teenagers own smartphones, and those who do spend about eight hours a day on their phones. That leaves them with far less time for sleep, and sleep deprivation itself makes depression more likely.
They also have far less time for friends and face-to-face social contact. Last week, Olivia Reingold published an article at Bari Weiss's Free Press Substack site, "The Parents Saying No to Smartphones." Among those interviewed was Jhett Rogers, 13, who describes a school lunch hour in which everyone eats alone while scrolling their phones, and school hallways where students regularly bump into one another as they attempt to navigate while looking down at their smartphones.
Every time a classmate gets a smartphone, Jhett thinks to himself, there goes another one: "It kind of feels like I've lost a friend. Whenever I'm with them, they are zoned out and always on their phone."
Both loneliness and a decrease in social skills follow. Twelfth-graders in 2017, according to Twenge, spend less time with friends than did eighth-graders in 2001. And, writes Haidt, the more kids use smartphones, the more likely they are to be "phubbers," people who cannot maintain eye contact in conversation and are more likely to look away.
Bullying gangs form much more quickly on social media and are more vicious, as they are freed from the restraint of seeing the effect on their victims. That is just another ill effect of prolonged smartphone use.
In addition, smartphones lower self-image, as users — again, more often girls than boys — spend hours every day comparing themselves to others, who are busy trying to promote an image of their perfect lives.
Even without all these negative consequences, the cumulative effect of wasting most of the waking day, day after day, has got to be depressing. We were put into the world to achieve, to better the world in some way. Almost nothing on smartphones can provide a sense of achievement. And when the innate desire to feel that one's life has meaning and purpose is thwarted by the recognition that most of one's time is simply wasted, depression is the natural consequence.
In a fascinating piece in which he lays out the evidence that girls who label themselves liberal or progressive have been worst hit by depression and anxiety, Haidt cites evidence that the more liberal one is, the more time that one is likely to spend on smartphones. From 1970 to 2000, liberal girls spent more time with friends than their conservative counterparts. But that has now been reversed.
Haidt argues further that the liberal girls and young women are being hurt by the messages they are imbibing in their online communities, particularly a portrait of the world as one of oppressors and oppressed, victims and victimizers. That is a message that runs counter to feelings of being able to control one's life. Yet the sense that one is in control of one's life, rather than subject to the control of external forces, is one of the key predictors of overall mental health.
Haidt and co-author Greg Lukianoff argue in The Coddling of the American Mind that left-wing youth culture is dominated by three untruths: (1) that adversity can only make you weaker, not stronger; (2) always trust one's feelings and emotions as a guide; and (3) the world is a constant struggle between bad oppressors and virtuous victims. All three fly in the face of the ancient wisdom shared across cultures that Haidt explored in his first book, The Happiness Hypothesis.
Lukianoff suffered from prolonged clinical depression, which he succeeded in overcoming through CBT (cognitive behavior theory). He argues that the messages being fostered on campus and in online groups are the very opposite of those of CBT. Instead of being taught not to "catastrophize" the situation or the impact of particular events, young campus progressives are taught by the huge campus bureaucracy of bias response teams, micro-aggressions, etc., that "catastrophizing works." according to progressive writer Jill Filopovic.
And the result? Over half of liberal or progressive young women answer affirmatively to the question: Has a doctor or mental health profession ever told you that you have a mental health condition?
Okay, smartphones' negative consequences have far outweighed any possible benefits for young kids and teens. But why do I cite smartphones as another example of Rav Noach Weinberg's dictum, "In a crazy world, we [i.e., the Torah world] are the least crazy"?
Because as a community, we have largely succeeded in keeping smartphones out of the hands of children and adolescents, and certainly out of our schools.
As a community, we are not attracted to every new, shiny thing. Rather, we greet innovations with suspicion.
I remember going to a baseball game with a high school friend when the first Apple phone came out. He pulled his out at some point, and everyone within five rows of us instantly sensed its presence and came over to look.
By contrast, there is an innate conservatism about the Torah world that helps us fight the lure of the new. "Shev v'al taaseh adif — [When in doubt] better not to do anything" is not just a principle of psak halachah, but an approach to life. First, consider the damage that might result. Rabbi Nechemiah Gottlieb's interview last week on the dangers of AI was an example.
The newest ideas and fads come with no special imprimatur for us. Just the opposite. We spend much, if not most, of our days studying words of Tannaim and Amoraim, who lived between 1,600 and 2,300 years ago. There may be a roomful of scholars around the world who still read Plato or Aristotle carefully. But there is no parallel for an entire community that views those who lived millennia ago as the font of all wisdom, and which devotes itself to analysis of their words as the ultimate guide to how we conduct our lives to the finest details.
Surely, it never occurs to us that we are wiser than those who have gone before us. Or even in the same universe. That the Baal HaMaor was 19 and the Ramban 17 when they engaged in the wars of Torah with one another, each demonstrating a comprehensive knowledge of all of Talmud and an analytical sophistication that leaves us in awe, is well-nigh unfathomable to us.
The two hallmarks of a conservative disposition are built into the daily life of a Torah Jew: a reverence for the great minds of the past and deference for the accumulated wisdom of mankind, as reflected in our respect for minhag.
In addition, the Torah world still forms a community, with hierarchies of authority based on Torah learning. No one will ever say about a properly authenticated pronouncement of one of the gedolei hador, "Who is he to tell me how to run my life?"
Olivia Reingold's article mentioned above discusses the helplessness that secular parents feel when faced by a whiny 12-year old complaining that he or she is the only one in their class without a smartphone. In the Torah world, by contrast, there still exists such a thing as community standards, in which educational institutions and parents reinforce one another, because both are taking guidance from talmidei chachamim.
I'm aware that the above is an idealized portrait of our community, and that there are many ways we need to improve in our handling of technology. I too have seen infants swiping their mothers' phones as they sit on their laps. But does anyone doubt that we have dodged the bullet of the most destructive effects of smartphones on our young to a degree no other community of similar size can match? And for that we are certainly entitled to be called "the least crazy" in a crazy world.