Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Anxious Generation’: Essential Learning for Youth Ministers

“I was pretty nervous to leave my phone at home this weekend,” confessed a high school student as we traveled home from a student leadership retreat with a local outdoor ministry. “It was actually great to be without it,” he admitted.

Other students joined in, agreeing with the first. “It’s gotten harder for me to put down my phone and disconnect from social media,” one shared. As we rattled around in the ministry’s iconic blue bus, we had a thoughtful conversation about how our use of technology was changing—and how it was changing us.

This dialogue from the winter of 2018 provided my first clue that Gen Z felt dissatisfied with the effects of social media on their lives and mental health. In the years since, we’ve learned more about the harmful effects of social media use on Gen Z.

Leading the charge in these discoveries is Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist with a deep understanding of the zeitgeist and a passion to see change. Haidt’s new book, The Anxious Generation, serves as a clarion call for all of us who love teenagers. His central thesis asserts that we adults are under-protecting adolescents online and over-protecting them in the real world.

Haidt himself is an atheist (culturally Jewish) and roots his social-psychology research in evolutionary theory. Even so, faithful youth ministers and parents seeking to help form teenagers in the gospel will likely agree with many of his conclusions. 

Following, I offer a summary of Haidt’s central claim and several broad recommendations for how youth ministers can respond in light of the gospel.  

Understand the Great Rewiring

Throughout the book, Haidt demonstrates how our culture has indoctrinated the need for safetyism, or the prohibition of childhood activities involving any risk of harm. In doing so, he explains, we are minimizing the very risks that young people need to face in order to spark healthy development. 

At the same time, Haidt argues that our society has under-appreciated the very real harms that come to children and teenagers in the online world. All of this has led to what Haidt calls “the Great Rewiring of childhood,” which includes the mental health crisis and the epidemic of loneliness we now see.

Based on research Haidt has compiled alongside Jean Twenge and others, he contends that the arrival of the iPhone is largely responsible for this dramatic shift in childhood and adolescence. He writes, “By 2015, more than 70% of American teens carried a touch screen around with them, and these screens became much better at holding their attention, even when they were with their friends. This is why I date the beginning of the phone-based childhood to the early 2010s” (116).

In contrast to the estimated 40-50 hours the average preteen or teenager spends online in a given week, what children and teenagers really need is more “face-to-face, synchronous, embodied, physical play” (121). And, he says, they need this time to be phone-free in order to protect their in-person interactions. 

Haidt’s most widely circulated recommendation from the book comprises what he refers to as four “new norms” to free young people from the powerful grip of screen time and social media. These include: 1.) No smart phones before high school, 2.) no social media before age 16, 3.) phone-free schools, and 4.) more independence, free play, and responsibility in the real world.

Recommendations for Youth Ministers

Youth ministers must begin by acknowledging the limits of our roles. Of course, it is not ultimately our decision at what age our students receive a smart phone or gain access to social media. We want to partner with parents as they make these tough decisions, never shaming or antagonizing them.

Here are some things youth ministers can do with their God-given influence:

Share Research and Help Families Work Together

We can share Haidt’s research and recommendations with the parents in our churches, initiating conversations about how technology use is shaping their family life and their children’s spiritual lives. In a spirit of grace and collaboration, we can encourage them to consider how to scale back the hours their teenagers may already be spending on smart phones and social media.

Wherever possible, we can also seek to gain an audience with parents of younger children in our churches. We can help these younger families think together about how to create a community in which their children won’t be “the only ones” without a smart phone or a TikTok account. As the family of God, we can and should work together to shape norms surrounding technology use.

As Haidt remarks, “limits are hard to impose if you are the only family imposing them, so try to coordinate with the parents of your child’s friends. When many families impose similar limits, they break out of the collective action trap and everyone is better off” (278).

Teach Teenagers That We Are Embodied Souls

A key point of agreement between Haidt’s conclusions and the Christian story centers around the reality that human beings are necessarily embodied creatures. As Christians, we stand with the early Church in rejecting gnosticism, or the idea that physical matter is less valuable than spiritual essence. 

The Genesis account, in which God calls his creation of human beings good, and the New Testament’s insistence that Jesus took on a physical body both powerfully demonstrate the essential nature of bodies. We live in a day and age, however, that increasingly devalues our bodies—not least of all by redirecting more of our attention the online world.

Along these lines, Haidt explains how the move to more online activity largely short-circuits the development children and teenagers need to grow into healthy adulthood. He writes, “Are screen-based experiences less valuable than real-life flesh-and-blood experiences? …A resounding yes. Communicating by text supplemented by emojis is not going to develop the parts of the brain that are ‘expecting’ to get tuned up during conversations supplemented by facial expressions, changing vocal tones, direct eye contact, and body language.”

The biblical narrative supports Haidt’s conclusion. God has created human beings in his image with a clearly defined telos, or aim, of ordering and stewarding the world as his divine representatives (Gen. 1-2), and he redeems our bodies through Christ’s rising physically from the dead (Phil. 3:21; Rom. 8:21). 

While we don’t want to demonize technology itself, we do need to teach and model for the teenagers in our care the ways in which our online experiences fail to promote true flourishing.

Facilitate Spiritual Relationships, Risk, and Rites of Passage

Throughout the book, Haidt explains the deep need children and teenagers have for opportunities that will stretch them, helping them grow into healthy maturity. He comments on several key needs: 

“A [child] doesn’t morph into a culturally functional adult solely through biological maturation. Children benefit from role models (for cultural learning), challenges (to stimulate antifragility), public recognition of each new status (to change their social identity), and mentors who are not their parents as they mature into competent, flourishing adults” (Haidt, 102). 

Gospel-centered youth ministry proposes to offer teenagers these very elements within a framework of Christian discipleship: We bridge relationships with faithful mentors and mix-aged peers as we impart biblical wisdom and community. We offer compelling, age-appropriate challenges, such as the ones made possible on youth group trips and retreats, to help teenagers grow spiritually. We provide meaningful rites of passage—from including students in leadership, to empowering their service in the local church, and perhaps marking other milestones as well. As youth ministers, we direct these activities toward the very specific goal of forming teenagers to trust in Jesus, who died to rescue sinners.

If you’re not already doing these things, consider how you might subtly shift your ministry efforts to include them. The point is not to add ten more things to your ministry schedule—no youth minister I know needs more programs to run! Rather, we want to look for ways to foster spiritual development, especially in those areas in which we know Gen Z and Alpha are struggling.

Get Outdoors

Haidt’s research further indicates that whenever possible, we should aim for these interactions to happen outdoors and to includeoccasional physical risk-taking and thrilling adventure” (121). He explains how offering “bigger thrills in nature” inspire teenagers to live more in the real world and less online (Haidt, 283).

As Christian leaders, we have all the more reason to invite our students to look away from their phones and to awe at the God of creation. I am not naturally an outdoorsy person, but I have seen firsthand how adventures in creation cultivate the spiritual lives of students. The retreat I mentioned previously involved snowshoeing around a frozen lake in New Hampshire. It’s no coincidence that teenagers experienced the disconnection from their devices (a rule we enforced) so powerfully on that trip.

Haidt summarizes his recommendations saying, “The idea behind all of these suggestions is to let teens grow more confident and competent by engaging with the real world. Encourage activities that stretch them beyond their comfort zone. Yours too! Risking a serious injury for no good reason is dumb. But some risk is part of any hero’s journey, and there’s plenty of risk in not taking the journey too” (284).

Be Gentle With the Parents in Your Church

It’s tough out there for parents today in our media-saturated world, with all its fear-mongering. Most parents I know are doing their best, on high alert to care for their their kids. 

The messages we hear about safetyism sound compelling. As a result, youth ministers likely will face more questions and more caution from the parents of Generations Z and Alpha than we’ve experienced in the past. 

For example, over my last few years in youth ministry, I increasingly heard from parents who would not send their teenagers on an international trip with our church. On more than one occasion, I also learned that a parent had instructed his or her teenager to sneak a cell phone into a retreat duffle bag against our church’s policies. I am willing to bet you’ve had similar experiences. 

The fear parents face is real, and we see the effects in our ministries. It’s easy to become frustrated when we feel parents are being overprotective, or when they do not seem to value our efforts to foster their children’s development.

Perhaps one of the most essential aspects of our role in ministering to Gen Z is that of winsomely working with parents in order to advocate for students’ healthy spiritual development. We must ask for God’s grace to make us (and the parents and leaders with whom we partner) to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves (Mat. 10:16). Let’s look for every opportunity to allow teenagers to grow into true maturity through healthy risk-taking. Meanwhile, let’s walk tenderly with the parents in our churches, who may have a hard time letting them go.

A Word of Gospel Hope

On a recent podcast with Russell Moore, Haidt described some research findings that have emerged since the publication of the book. Not only are many teenagers aware of the problems facing their generation, but those who are rooted in faith communities fare better than those who are not. As youth ministers, this should encourage us to continue investing in the students in our churches, and perhaps especially those on the fringes of our youth groups.

More than any statistic or research finding, we cling to the certain hope that Jesus is Lord. Though we easily feel knocked backward as we serve an anxious generation, he is neither surprised nor daunted by the Great Rewiring. Youth minister, take courage that the gospel you preach to teenagers is the very words of eternal life (John 6:68) for students who are anxious, distracted, lonely, and needing purpose.

As we contend for the spiritual development of teenagers in our care, we can give thanks for research like Haidt’s, which illuminates the challenges they face. It will take courage to adapt ministry in your context to meet the needs of this generation, and to partner with their parents in striking the right balance of safety versus risk. But the God of grace goes before you, giving you all that you need. 

If your church doesn’t already have a family ministry, Rooted offers a mentoring program for staff and lay leaders to help you get started.

Chelsea is Editor of Youth Ministry Content and the Director of Publishing for Rooted. She previously served as a youth pastor in New England churches for 13 years and participates on the advisory council at the La Vida Center for Outdoor Education and Leadership at Gordon College. Chelsea and her husband, Steve, live north of Boston and are parents to Wells and Emmett. She holds an M.Div from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where she is currently pursuing a Master of Theology (Th.M.) in Old Testament Studies. Chelsea is passionate about teaching teenagers biblical theology and helping them learn to study Scripture for themselves.

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