Review
Character
Comment
Digital
1 min read

Re-enchanting the anxious generation

The future doesn’t have to be horrible.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Two teenager lean against a rail, arms crossed, and laugh together.
LaShawn Dobbs on Unsplash.

I meet many anxious people as I wait for meetings in the Palace Westminster, but one in particular stands out. As I was queueing to get through security, a breathless American man rushed over asking if he was in the right place to meet the Minister of State for Universities. Once I had reassured him that he was, and he had caught his breath, I asked him where he was from and what he did for a job. He told me he was a social psychologist from New York. 

Funnily enough, the night before, I had been reading a book by a social psychologist from New York. I asked the man if he had come across the author, Jonathan Haidt. He replied with a smile: “I am Jonathan Haidt.” 

I chuckle when I remember that chance encounter, especially considering the title of his latest book – The Anxious Generation. The book tackles a much more serious topic than queueing nerves. It claims to show, in the words of the subtitle: “How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness”.  

The Anxious Generation is a tightly argued plea to parents and educators for a radical change in the way that young people are allowed to engage with digital technology in general and social media in particular.  

It follows the line of thought he began in his book The Coddling of the American Mind which argued that ‘helicopter parenting’ has led to such a fragility in young adults that universities are no longer places of open and free dialogue, but somewhere young people feel the need to be protected from ideas they disagree with. That problem was what Haidt was preparing to discuss with the Minister when we met outside Parliament.

“Embracing all this is a desire to maintain and hand on to our children an earth that offers genuine possibilities of flourishing.” 

Mary Grey

The Anxious Generation makes a compelling case for the way we are failing a generation of children. It likens the social media world to another planet that we are all happily sending our children off to without first learning about or checking any of the risks linked with the potentially toxic environment. It concludes that as much as we are overprotecting our children in the physical world, we are under-protecting them in the digital world, thereby complicit in the resulting tidal wave of mental health disorders.   

Haidt writes:  

“Are screen-based experiences less valuable than real-life flesh-and-blood experiences? When we’re talking about children whose brains evolved to expect certain kinds of experiences at certain ages, yes. A resounding yes.” 

Haidt argues that what children need is less screen time and more unsupervised play. Some might call this the re-enchantment of childhood– a rediscovery of wonder, and simple emotional connections with freedom, food, imagination, curiosity, those around them and the great outdoors. Perhaps there is healthy therapy to be found in this re-enchantment through the sharing of art, poetry, and fantasy. Maybe a rediscovery of faith and hope can help to bring healing.  

Mary Grey, Emeritus Professor of Theology at the University of Wales in Lampeter, describes re-enchantment like this: 

“The market’s language of desire must be replaced by reflecting what we really long for, like satisfying relationships and intimacy, meaningful communities where our values are shared, with working conditions that do not create an unbearable level of stress, enough income to cover basic and leisure needs, and planning for the future. Embracing all this is a desire to maintain and hand on to our children an earth that offers genuine possibilities of flourishing. … This is not an invitation to exchange reality for Magic Kingdoms, but to become embodied kinships of women, men, children and earth creatures in a re-imagined and transformed world of sustainable earth communities of healing and hope.” 

The re-enchantment of childhood is an attractive theory. I often find myself comparing my children’s childhood with that of my own. I’m sure I played more in the garden than they do, climbed more trees, cycled more round the block, round the town, and later round the county in my spare time. I remember as a teenager getting on a bus to travel from Brighton to Durham without either parents or phones. Around the same time, I travelled to Tbilisi, Georgia with just a backpack, a map, a couple of friends and quite a lot of self-confidence. I wish that my children could experience some of the pleasures that come with fixing a bike or looking up at the stars or browsing the library to find answers, instead of just googling.  

Yet, at the same time, if my children were making their way to Durham or Tbilisi today, I would certainly make sure they had plenty of charge on their phone and all the necessary mobile data roaming rights, and I would probably WhatsApp them regularly until they arrived safely at their destination.  

Haidt presents a perfect story, one that explains all the evidence. He doesn’t mention anything that might challenge it, or anything that the doesn’t quite fit.

Haidt’s book touches a nerve. Not just because of my own contradictory feelings as a parent, but because of the shocking statistics that reflect the wider state of our nation’s children. With waiting lists for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services at a record high, a 47 per cent increase in young people being treated for eating disorders compared to pre-pandemic, and an enormous leap in prevalence of probable mental disorder from one in nine children (in England aged 8-25 years old in 2017) to one in five (similar cohort in 2023), the mental health of the next generation is rightly highly concerning.   

The blame has been levelled in many different directions: COVID lockdowns, school league tables, excessive homework, helicopter parenting, screen time, and general disenchantment in society at large.  Some even say the increase is directly related to the increase in public discussion and awareness about mental health disorders.  

For Haidt it is social media that is public mental health enemy number one. However, he does admit he is not a specialist in children’s mental health, child psychology or clinical psychology. This has led to some criticism about his conclusions. Professor Candice L. Odgers, the Associate Dean for research into psychological science and informatics at the University of California challenges head on the central argument of Haidt’s book. She claims:  

“...the book’s repeated suggestion that digital technologies are rewiring our children’s brains and causing an epidemic of mental illness is not supported by science. Worse, the bold proposal that social media is to blame might distract us from effectively responding to the real causes of the current mental health crisis in young people.” 

Similarly Henna Cundill, a researcher with the centre for autism and theology at the University of Aberdeen, wrote last week in an article for Seen and Unseen:  

“From a scientific perspective, the argument is a barrage of statistics, arranged to the tune of ‘correlation equals causation’. “ 

Cundill and Professor Odgers are right to be sceptical. Sometimes we let our commitment to a story shape the way that we read the evidence. If there’s one thing I remember from A- level statistics it is that causation and correlation should not be confused. In his bid to add urgency and cogency to his argument, Haidt presents a perfect story, one that explains all the evidence. He doesn’t mention anything that might challenge it, or anything that the doesn’t quite fit. It is not a scientific treatise - which is both the book’s strength and its weakness.  

Nevertheless, many of the recommendations Haidt suggests are wise and helpful. Even Professor Odgers, to some extent, agrees.  

“Many of Haidt’s solutions for parents, adolescents, educators and big technology firms are reasonable, including stricter content-moderation policies and requiring companies to take user age into account when designing platforms and algorithms. Others, such as age-based restrictions and bans on mobile devices, are unlikely to be effective in practice — or worse, could backfire given what we know about adolescent behaviour.” 

Therein lies the issue. Because of the lack of evidence for the causes, all we are left with – even from the experts – is what may or may not be likely to be effective in practice.   

I wonder if this paucity of robust scientific evidence stems from the fact that the issues facing the next generation are even more complex than we could ever imagine. 

The truth is that hype, hysteria and horror are more likely to gain traction than humdrum and happy medium. 

Every generation is different from the last. My own youth in the UK in the late 1980s when I became part of the video games and micro-computers subculture was just as much a mystery to my parents and teachers.  My generation’s problems were blamed on everything from the microwave to Mrs Thatcher to the milk that we drank following the disaster at Chernobyl.  

It seems to me too simplistic to demonise the technology. It’s an easy sell, after all. In fact, whenever there is a major technical shift, horror stories are created by those who believe the dangers outweigh the benefits. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein seems to be a reaction to the industrial revolution. The nuclear threat led to movies about Godzilla and 60-foot-tall Amazonian women. The advent of the internet brought us the Terminator films.   

The truth is that hype, hysteria and horror are more likely to gain traction than humdrum and happy medium. Yet, despite the many and serious problems, the rise of new technologies, even social media, also have much to offer, and they are not going away soon. Instead of demonising new technology as the problem, perhaps we need to find ways to turn it into the solution.  

And perhaps there are glimmers of hope. I like the fact that my children are connected to the wider world, that they know people and languages from more diverse places than I ever did. I like that they know what is going on in the world way before the 9 o’clock news. I like the fact that they are on the cutting edge of advancements I will never experience in my lifetime. I like the fact that they can get their homework checked by AI, that they don’t need to phone me up every time they want to try a new recipe, that we can grumble together about the football match in real time even when we are on different sides of the world. I like that they can browse the Bible or listen to podcasts about history while they are waiting at a bus stop.  I like the fact that they have libraries of books at their fingertips, that they can disappear into fantasy worlds with a swipe and don’t have to spend hours at the job centre when they need to find work. And I love the fact that my children and their friends are rediscovering board games, crochet, embroidery and hiking and taking them to a whole new level because they are learning these crafts from experts around the world.  

I sincerely appreciate that Jonathan Haidt cares about the real and desperate problem of youth mental health. His book adds weight to the pleas of those of us advocating for urgent investment into this area. It reminds us of the world beyond the digital borders and it gives us hope that the re-enchantment of childhood is not impossible.  

However, the solution to these complex issues cannot be found in nostalgia alone. We cannot turn back the clock, nor should we want to. The past had problems of its own.  

I would love someone to write a book that looks forward, that equips young people to live in the worlds of today and tomorrow. If, by some strange coincidence, Jonathan Haidt is reading this article and is in the process of writing that book, I do hope I will bump into him again to thank him.  

Essay
Belief
Comment
1 min read

Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.