Join us April 17-19 for the BioLogos national conference, Faith & Science 2024, as we explore God’s Word and God’s World together!

Forums
Featuring guests Francis Collins and Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt & Francis Collins | Technology, Mental Health, & the Role of Faith

Jonathan Haidt discusses the mental health epidemic in children with guest host Francis Collins, including the role of faith communities.


Share  
Twitter
Facebook
LinkedIn
Print
23 Comments
23 Comments
graphic of person with head in hands in front of computer showing many messages

Image used under license from Shutterstock.com

Jonathan Haidt discusses the mental health epidemic in children with guest host Francis Collins, including the role of faith communities.

Description

Special guest-host Francis Collins discusses the children’s mental health epidemic with Jonathan Haidt. Haidt has been studying the causes of the high rates of depression and suicide in children for many years and has found that social media is at the root of the worsening trends. But he doesn’t just have causes in mind. He also has solutions. In this discussion–and in his new book ,The Anxious Generation–he proposes solutions to be put into place in the home, in schools, and by governments. He also calls out faith communities, understanding that they can lead the way in reversing the trend of declining mental health of children.  

Theme song and credits music by Breakmaster Cylinder. Other music in this episode by Magnetize Music, courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc.

Subscribe to the podcast


Transcript

Haidt:

After writing seven chapters laying out in horrible detail the devastation of our kids, I was almost done with the book and I was on deadline. I was behind deadline. I should finish up the book. But I felt like I’ve said all this stuff about kids, but there’s so much else going on. So I just took one chapter to say what’s happening to adults. The organization that came out—I don’t remember how I did this, but suddenly it occurred to me, “Wait. The unifying principle here really is spiritual wisdom, spiritual practices.” I made a list of like, “Here’s all the ways that a phone-based life for an adult blocks spiritual progress.”

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God, I’m your host, Jim Stump, but only for a minute on this episode. I’m passing host duties off today to the very capable hands and mellifluous voice of Francis Collins. Most of you will know that Francis Collins was the founder of BioLogos about 15 years ago now and that he had to leave the organization to become the director of the National Institutes of Health. He also wrote the book, The Language of God, from which we took the title of this podcast. So it’s all very appropriate for us to hand the reins over even more so because our guest for today’s episode is the well-known social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Haidt first came onto my radar with his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. It’s been a very influential book in showing how the arguments in society between groups are less about the reasons that are given than about more deep-seated moral values.

This is important for anyone to understand, but given the work we do at BioLogos, it’s been really relevant and challenging for us to consider. Francis Collins has a new book himself coming out this fall, which draws on some of Haidt’s work in this regard, and they talk about that in this conversation. Also, Haidt isn’t himself a Christian, but he is friendly toward faith and understands the importance of religions for counteracting some of the more detrimental trends in society.

In particular, he too has a new book that’s just coming out called The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing An Epidemic of Mental Illness. It’s primarily about social media and the demonstrable harms it causes to young people. He and Collins talk about that and what religion has to offer. And Francis does his best to get Haidt to more seriously consider religion for himself. And Haidt does his best to get Francis to think a little more about the nature of scientific rationality.

They both threw out exhibit curiosity and graciousness in their conversation, which makes it a pleasure to listen to. Let’s get to the conversation between Francis Collins and Jonathan Haidt.

Collins:

Hello, Jonathan Haidt, wonderful to see you and to have a chance to chat with you in this BioLogos podcast. I’ve been a fan of your writings for quite a while and it’s really privileged to have a chance to talk with you about the work that you’re about to put out in just about a week, a new book called The Anxious Generation. Something that I think a lot of the public is going to want to look at carefully because it has a lot of insights about what’s happening, particularly to youth at this moment where we’re all kind of worried about the kids.

So we’re going to get to that. But first, maybe we could help people who are listening who don’t already know you to know something about your trajectory that got you to this point. You’re a social scientist. You’ve written a bunch of other things in the past. I guess I looked back a bit at your pathway and noticed that back in the days where you were beginning to define your area of greatest interest, you seemed interested in something called Moral Foundations Theory. Say a bit more about that and again, welcome to this podcast.

Haidt:

Okay. Well, thanks so much, Francis. I’m a big fan of the human genome and of your service to the country in so many ways. So yes, I’m a social psychologist who studies morality. I picked my topic when I was in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in the late ’80s, early ’90s. Morality and culture. Well, morality and emotion and how they vary across cultures. What was so fascinating to me was whenever you find something that appears in all societies but in somewhat different form, but yet with a lot of overlap as a psychologist.

You’ve got to say like, “Wow, there’s something really interesting going on here. There must be something in the brain, something in evolution that makes us do this.” So language is the quintessential example. Clearly it’s innate, it’s part of our nature, but yet it varies. And then there’s a lot of research on how that works. And religion is similar too. Everyone has gods, but the gods are different. Worship is different, but yet similar. And morality is that way too. A lot of people were proposing, “Oh, morality must be like language, and there’s an unconscious grammar. There’s universal grammar of morality.” I was always a fan of David Hume, the philosopher, David Hume, who said reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

In other words, our emotions, our gut feelings, intuitions, they happen quickly, they’re powerful and then they drive our reasoning. That was really clear to me in graduate school. We can never see this in ourselves, but boy, we see it in everybody else, right? Everybody else is making up post hoc reasons to defend whatever ridiculous position they took in the first place. So as I was trying to say, “Okay, I’ve got this theory about how intuitions drive morality, moral judgment, what are the intuitions?”

And so then I was looking around the world and looking at all the theories of different theories of how morality varies, and I could just kind of put them all together and said, “For which ones do we have the best evolutionary story?” So that’s what we did. This was work with Craig Joseph and Jesse Grim. And I was a graduate postdoc under Richard Shweder at the University of Chicago, a brilliant cultural anthropologist. So we were drawing on his work very much.

In any case, what we came up with is that there are originally we said five best foundations for being the taste buds of the moral sense, and they are care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity or sanctity. And then more recently we’ve added liberty and I think property or ownership also. You see that in other animals as well about territory. So there are a whole bunch of different moral foundations, but there are six that we’ve studied the most.

Collins:

Those are very helpful ways to organize this whole concept of moral foundations, of course believers—and we’re going to come to that in a bit here in terms of how does this fit together with people of faith because many of the people listening to this BioLogos podcast are of that mindset—they might be inclined to say, “Well, what about that first chapter of CS Lewis’s book called Mere Christianity, which is entitled right and wrong as a clue to the meaning of the universe.” Well, maybe that’s something we can agree on, but exactly what the clue is pointing to—

Haidt:

Well, tell me—I think I didn’t get right, I read part of that first chapter many years ago. Tell me what the clue is. I’m sure your listeners will know this, but please tell me exactly what that is. Let’s see. Let’s see whether how I would take that as a naturalist. Just to be clear, I was raised Jewish. I’m not a believer, I’m secular. I belong to a synagogue that’s relevant that I believe very much in the importance of religious communities, and I’m very much a fan of religion. That kind of differentiates me from the new atheists. I had a lot of battles with them. But please tell me what exactly did Lewis say about that in that first chapter?

Collins:

Oh, he makes the case, which is not entirely original with him, but he was very good at portraying it in fairly straightforward terms, that when you see a child at a birthday party somehow complaining because that other child got more cake than they did, and they say it’s not fair, where does this idea come from that there should be such a thing as fairness? Lewis goes through many other simple examples of how we as basically all kinds of humanity that we know anything about down through history have had this notion that there is something called good and there’s something called evil, and we are called despite ourselves to try to do the good things.

And if we actually break that rule, which even calls a law, then we find excuses to say, “Well, I was tired, or that person wasn’t very nice to me.” Or that simply proves that we believe that we should have been good or we wouldn’t need an excuse. Nobody says, “I don’t care about your idea of good and evil.” At least very few people do unless they’re really a sociopath. So Lewis’s argument would be, “That’s interesting.” Now, he didn’t have the full bore experience of the way in which psychology and particularly evolutionary psychology has provided interesting insights to that for things like kin selection, reciprocal altruism, maybe group selection, which continues to be a bit of a hot topic. He would instead say, “If you were looking for some indication of a creator who cared about human beings, wouldn’t that be an interesting sign that you find within your own heart this somewhat inexplicable calling to do things that are unselfish when you want to be selfish and maybe we should pay attention?”

Haidt:

Yes. So I think what that gets at is an aspect of human experience that we do feel this. We feel as though it’s a force, it’s a calling. It’s not our decision or our choice, and it feels like it has power over us. And so I’m reminded instantly of two things. One is Immanuel Kant’s famous line. I believe something like two things inspire awe, the starry sky above and the moral law within.

Collins:

That’s exactly right.

Haidt:

So there’s something wondrous and beautiful about it, powerful. The other, it’s Durkheim who said that, “We hear and feel the voice of authority. We hear and feel as though coming from outside of ourselves, these commandments to do this or not to do this.” And it feels like coming from some force or what he basically said is it’s actually from society, but we perceive society as God, that God is actually society, and that when we come together and we create a community, especially if we bind ourselves together around beliefs or ways of living, and I would say especially around sacred objects, people, times, places, something happens.

We form a community in the righteous mind. I called it a moral matrix. We form a moral matrix. In the movie, The Matrix, in the novel, Neuromancer, William Gibson says, “The Matrix is a consensual hallucination.” That’s what we’re all living in. We’re all living in a consensual hallucination. Thank God because life would be impossible if we couldn’t imagine something together and then live in it together.

Collins:

That’s fascinating.

Haidt:

So that’s my naturalist explanation of Lewis’s observation.

Collins:

Exactly. And I think, yeah, this kind of comes down to your priors, doesn’t it?

Haidt:

Yes.

Collins:

It’s starting with a naturalist perspective, particularly if it’s full born metaphysical naturalism, you’re going to have a hard time saying that calling is actually coming from God because you ruled that out.

Haidt:

That’s right.

Collins:

It opens one mind to the possibility that might actually be God. That’s an interesting set of explorations that many of us have been on. I started out as an atheist, so I recognize all of these priors and once had a different set than I do now. So, John, this is fascinating. I’m glad you mentioned The Righteous Mind because people who are hearing this who have not seen that book, this is another one of your really fundamental contributions that I think particularly now with so much, our society having trouble, it seems telling the difference between rational thoughts and emotions.

Well, you have the wonderful metaphor of the rider and the elephant which many of us have adopted in our own thinking and our own speaking. Say what that metaphor is just in case people haven’t fully integrated into their mind what you said about David Hume and the passions.

Haidt:

Right. So my first book was called The Happiness Hypothesis. It was about 10 ancient ideas. I read all the wisdom literature I could find, East and West. And I took out all the psychological claims and I organized them into chapters. Let’s see how ancient wisdom does. And so there were 10 chapters and chapter number one, the most basic psychological insight that you find all over is that the mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. So St. Paul, “the flesh lusted against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh that you cannot do the things ye would.” Well, why don’t you just do the things that ye would? What’s stopping you?

But there’s an architecture in there that the “ye” that is wanting to do something or wanting you to be a certain way isn’t actually in control of your behavior. And there’s all kinds of reasons for that. Our minds are pattern matchers. Again, we’re going to come back to evolution a lot in this discussion. Animal brains are 500 million years old. Language is very new. We only got reasoning very recently, probably the last million years for really for language, I think.

So our reasoning centers are very new and the brain didn’t rewire to hand control, to hand the reins over to this new ability. The control of our behavior is still largely in the hands of our automatic processes that have been running animals for 500 million years. So anyway, the metaphor that I—I live in metaphors, I love to write in metaphors, and I wanted a metaphor to convey the true relationship between reason and emotion or intuition. Most people have gone with, say, a horse and a rider. I wanted something. I wanted an animal that was much bigger and smarter, and so obviously an elephant. Now, that’s the metaphor that Buddha used, and I might have taken the metaphor from Buddha. I really don’t remember because I read Buddhism in college. I’ve always been interested in any case, Buddhist says something like a man must tame his mind as an elephant trainer trains an elephant. And that for me was the right metaphor that right now you and I we’re both very conscious of the words that we’re saying. There’s a controlled thinking part of us. That’s the rider.

But the rider, imagine a small rider on the back of a very large elephant, and if the rider pulls on the elephant’s ear or the reins, he can tell you, “Hey, let’s go to the right or let’s go to the left.” And if the elephant doesn’t care, he’ll go. But if the elephant wants something, he’s going to go and a small boy on his back really can’t do much about it. So that’s the way it felt to me.

Now, I should say that was when I was a much younger man when your passions are much stronger. Now, that I’m a little older, I feel a little more stoic, a little more calm. But if you keep that in mind, and I must say of all the things I’ve written, that metaphor seems to be the stickiest because that’s the one that… Especially psychologists and psychotherapists say to me that they find that very valuable, that we are like a small boy on the back of a large elephant. And if you think about that, you’ll understand a lot of the weirdness of human behavior.

Collins:

Well, it certainly helped me as a scientist, I guess, until it really was forced upon me to see just how strong the elephant could be. I was of the mind that the writer just does their job right. Everything will turn out fine. You can’t be a scientist without believing that rationality is important and you can’t discover things about nature if you’re a postmodernist and think that it’s just anybody’s opinion as good as anybody else’s because there’s no absolute truth.

So I was maybe more bit of a Cartesian until I fell into a hole. And a big part of that happened in COVID where it was pretty clear that having the facts was not a sufficient circumstance for a lot of the rational behavior that one would’ve hoped would happen. It was very painfully obvious there, and I learned a lot. And reading your book helped me see exactly where the flaws were in my probably overly rationalist perspective.

Haidt:

Okay. But then Francis, let me ask you, first of all, okay, where do you think rationality comes from?

Collins:

I’m not sure I’ve ever tried to quite answer that question. It seems to me we are given a creation, a universe that is intrinsically rational. It follows remarkable beautiful mathematical laws. That means that there’s order, astounding beautiful order, whether it’s something like how the nucleus holds together or how gravity does what it does, or in the simple terms of chemistry, how you could end up with something that could be self-replicating. All of that as a scientist, it’s like the universe is just full of rationality because of this border in the way that matter and energy are behaving.

And so that seems to drive you to the question about, “Okay. What else can we discern that has that same logic, that same rationality? Isn’t that also part of our calling?” And certainly for scientists, that’s what drives want to be able to somehow discover even more logic, elegance, rationality of the universe that you’re able to study.

Haidt:

Okay. So we live in a world that is governed by causal laws and everything does what it must do, and the heavens turn and the chemical reactions happen. And that is the world other than human beings. Now, how is it then that human beings are rational? Because for us to be rational, it’s a very different thing from the universe being rational. And you’ve spoken as a scientist about how scientists are rational or try to be. What I’ve found very useful, maybe it’s a little annoying to other academics, but to say, “Well, as a social psychologist, I get to weigh in and say, ‘Whatever we’re talking about, let’s just make it more social.'”

So you can show me this image of a scientist who is rational and I’m going to say to you, “No, he isn’t.” And he couldn’t possibly be unless he’s embedded in a scientific community that makes rationality emerge from their interaction. We may live in a rational universe, but we are not rational creatures as individuals. Science is a miracle because from this crooked timber, I guess, that’s another quote, from the crooked timber of humanity, you can actually construct a community that is rational. And then I would posit that that’s what went wrong with COVID during COVID, that the passions were so strong and many of them were political. If Donald Trump said, “Open the schools,” people on the left were going to say, “No, don’t open the schools.”

It’s not as though the scientists were all rational and the people were crazy because look, a lot of the scientists got it right and we’re excoriated for getting it right. So there’s a lot of different things to get. I’m just saying the scientific community, and please argue with me on this, but my view is that the scientific community, which was generally not well trusted by the right, made a number of mistakes that really alienated the right, and that was because they didn’t stay true to their principles. And the principles would be always be truthful, never ever, ever lie and never ban dissent. This is straight John Stuart Mill. “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” We have to welcome dissent and we didn’t welcome dissent during COVID. And so anyway, that’s my view. Please tell me, here we go. You tell me what you think I got wrong.

Collins:

I think you got a lot of it right. I think what we’re talking about is scientists are of the mind that there is such a thing as objective truth. I think that’s where it comes down to. And that drives you to want to be a rationalist who can discover that. And then when it is discovered to say that is truth, that doesn’t care how I feel about it. It just is. And that means it can’t be one of those things where it’s true for you and not true for me. It’s just true. There is that central constitution of knowledge as Jonathan Rauch wrote.

Haidt:

Oh, I love that book, yes.

Collins:

I do too. Which basically is something that we all should try to agree to and not try to blow up and not say, “Well, it’s just your opinion. I think when it comes to COVID, yeah, there were plenty of mistakes and I made some of them, and I have been appropriately criticized for it, especially recently, where I think back what we didn’t do oftentimes when there was a crisis is to say, “Here’s the recommendation for today.” But we didn’t say, “And that’s the best we can do right now. And it might be wrong because our information is totally inadequate to really be sure we’re on the right track.”

That statement of uncertainty was often left out, and that caused people to, when it changed a month later to begin to think these locos don’t know what to do. That was a big part of it. Now, it was—to be giving a little break to the public health experts, they were in a crisis where thousands of people were dying every day and trying in many instances to do the best they could in a 20-minute soundbite on news. But certainly there’s some lessons there that could be learned. I couldn’t agree more.

And then there was a whole massive amount of misinformation which was being very effectively spread, much more so than the facts, which made it really hard for a lot of people to sort out what to believe and what not to believe. And some of that misinformation was actually disinformation. It was intentional conspiracies and lies that made it very hard for scientists to figure out how to get back on the constitution of knowledge pathway.

Haidt:

We should bring in here the role of social media, which—

Collins:

You should. I knew we would get there.

Haidt:

Yeah. Actually, this will make a good transition over to my new book because what I… So it seemed to me… I used to be a techno optimist. I loved the internet and computers, and I always loved gadgets when I was a kid. I was very optimistic in the ’90s about the role of the internet and society, but something, and then social media comes along around 2003, the major platforms are created, and they’re not terribly nasty at first, but then sometime in the early 2010s everything gets really nasty and it felt like something changed in the fabric of social space, time, like in the fabric of the… Something changed.

And my work since 2014, 2015 has largely been on that. Why did everything go so terrible? And a lot of the answer, I believe, is that we rewired the basic fabric of society and communication and social life. Once we all got connected by… We were all connected by telephone long before that. That was great. There was no problem with being connected by telephone. But we got connected by platforms that originally were called social networking systems because they connected people. But in the early 2010s, they changed and we began calling them social media platforms because once you got the retweet button, the like button, now you had hyper virality. Now anything you say, you could become famous by tonight.

So there’s an enormous incentive to be provocative, to get angry, to show emotion, to make accusations, and all of this gels… So even the like and retweet buttons come in 2009, but it takes a little while for norms to change, for platforms to change. So it’s really around 2012, 2013 that things get explosive, they get nasty. That’s when the Russians start really messing with us, which of course they’ve been doing since the 1950s, but now they don’t have to fly over here and put swastikas on synagogues. They can just sit in St. Petersburg and make us believe that we’re all racist and we all hate each other.

So everything goes crazy around 2013, 2014 is when everything breaks out. We’re still in throes of that today. But I just bring it up now as a segue because that is the conditions under which we were in 2020 already insane because of Trump and anti-Trump, already scared and insane because of COVID, already then angry and divided because of George Floyd. And the reaction to that. So what an insane year 2020 was for so many reasons, and social media made it all so much harder.

A metaphor that I used to understand how radical this change was is imagine if you’re the California Department of Forestry and you know how to fight fires. You have a hundred years. You know about wind conditions, you know everything about dryness. You can model forest fires. And then one day God decides to play a joke and he says, “Oh, you know that 80/20 mix I was playing with on Earth, 80% nitrogen, 20% oxygen? Let’s flip that. Let’s make an 80% oxygen, 20% nitrogen. Let’s just see what would happen.”

Okay. So that happens on one day, and then now you’re the California Department of Forestry. What happens? All your knowledge is out the window because any spark turns into a conflagration. That I think is what happened to us in the 2010s.

Collins:

Well, let’s talk though about the current book that you’re about to put out, which focuses on a particularly troubling aspect of what’s happened with social media, and that’s to young people and particularly, but not uniquely to girls. I think all very concerned when we look at the mental health crisis that’s afflicting our young people with so many of them, depression, anxiety, having gone up rather steeply thoughts of suicide and sometimes actual suicide, much more than it should be. And your conclusion is while there may be a lot of factors here, that social media is a major contributor to what has happened, and we also think there’s some things we should do about that and not just bring our hand. So yeah, frame it if you would, the anxious generation, your book coming out on March 28th has a lot of data.

Haidt:

Comes out March 26.

Collins:

Oh, sorry. Got the date wrong, March 26th. And you’re a data guy. You’re not one of those like, “Oh, well, here’s how I feel.” You’re actually quite determined to survey hundreds of publications that are out there and see can you really draw a rigorous conclusion. You’re being a rational guy. You’re trying not to let that elephant run away with you. So tell us a bit more about how did you land on this? Was that your intention when you were actually studying the social media thing to focus on the kids?

Haidt:

No, it really wasn’t. So what happened was I wrote this book, The Coddling of the American Mind with my friend, Greg Lukianoff, and it’s about why everything went crazy on college campuses around 2014, 2015. We had essentially a cultural revolution, new morality taking over, mob dynamics. People are afraid, talking on eggshells, walking on eggshells. And that’s continued on to the present day. So our book was about… It was like a social science detective story. Universities were these paragons of reason and we became really stupid and we put in all these policies that backfire. We punished people for just doing their research or teaching. How did this happen? 

We laid out six causal threats, polarization, bureaucratization, declining viewpoint diversity, the absence of conservatives. We’ve gotten more and more homogeneous, progressive. One of the threads was rising anxiety and depression because as we were writing this up as a book, it was an Atlantic article originally in 2015, but we expanded it into a book 2018. While we were writing that it was really clear rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide were rising rapidly.

And that all began in the early 2010s. Suicide begins rising a couple years earlier, but almost everything is stable until around 2011. And then by 2013, everything is going up, especially for girls. So we published this in the book and then some researchers said, “Oh, it’s just a moral panic. It’s not really an epidemic, it’s just that kids will say that they’re depressed.” But no, we showed in the book that it wasn’t just self-report, it was also self-harm hospitalizations for self-harm and suicide.

So especially if you look at preteen girls, this is the most stunning, 10 to 14-year-old girls, that age range. They did not use to cut themselves. They did not use to pick up knives and razor blades and cut their wrists or cut gashes into… They didn’t use to do that. Now they do. The rate at which they do that tripled. It tripled between 2010 and 2019 before COVID. Same thing for suicide. Preteen girls did not use to kill themselves. Their rate also tripled. It’s up three times.

So something big happened. Something huge changed in the lives, especially of girls and young women in the early 2010s. What could it be? Well, I’m following Jean Twenge here, who was the first psychologist who really… She had a book called iGen, and she had an Atlantic article of smartphones destroyed a generation. She was roundly criticized by psychologists at the time, 2017 for getting ahead of the data. “Come on, it’s just a little trend. You’re exaggerating.”

She did take a risk in putting that story out, but it turns out she was absolutely right. Every year things have gotten worse and worse and worse. We are now in a full-blown catastrophe for youth mental health. So I’ve been engaged in a debate with other researchers about what’s happening and what caused it. And one of the fun things about that is I’ve developed a way of working where I show my work, everything is done in public Google documents. I invite people to criticize them.

So if listeners go to jonathanhaidt.com/reviews, you can find, we have about 15 Google Docs going through the literature on depression, anxiety, suicide, what’s the role of video games? What’s the role of pornography? We’ve got everything there. Please criticize us. That will help us. And so it’s now clear there’s no longer any debate. There is an epidemic of mental illness in American kids. It started in the early 2010s. It’s still continuing today to rise.

For girls, the numbers in like 30 or 40% you would say have clinically serious depression or anxiety depending on how you measure it. And so now what caused it? Well, I’ve been saying along with Jean Twenge and along with my lead researcher, Zach Roush, that we think the evidence is very clear that social media is very clearly linked for girls. It’s not so much for boys, but for girls, it’s very closely linked, both correlation and experimentally. And other people argue back, they say, “No, the links are too small, too weak to explain this.”

So we say, “Okay. What do you think it was?” And they say, “Oh, well, maybe it was school shootings because the horrible, horrible shooting the first grade class in Connecticut, Newtown in 2012.” So that fits the timing that since then kids have lockdown drills. But why then did the exact same thing happen the exact same time in Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the Scandinavian countries. In all these countries, we see rates of mental illness go up suddenly and sharply, especially for girls. So nothing. There’s no other theory. I keep waiting for someone to come up with a theory that can explain the timing and the international scope. No one’s done it.

Collins:

But, Jonathan, help us to distinguish then the studies that have shown correlation, which is interesting and hypothesis generating versus those that really show causation, the experimental studies. I know you’ve reviewed both, and there’s probably more studies that are large scale on correlation, but how strong is the causation?

Haidt:

Yes. So the correlational studies are clear if you just look at how much time kids spend on social media and what the state of the mental health is, what you find is that for girls, it’s a curvilinear relationship where if you spend two hours or three hours a day, you’re twice as depressed as if you’re not on it. And if you spend four hours or more, you’re three times as depressed. So you always find that relationship where the heavy users are really doing bad. And that’s true for all the technologies. Same for video games.

Video games are not as harmful as social media, but the boys who play it seven, eight hours a day, they’re messed up compared to the boys who are only playing two or three hours a day. But that’s all correlation. And listeners will hear journalists say, “Oh, well, but it’s just how can we know? Correlation doesn’t prove causation.” That’s right. That’s why we do experiments.

So there are a lot of experiments now we have about 30 or 35 cataloged on our Google Docs. And experiments take several forms. One is you assign people to get off of social media for an amount of time. And some of the studies find that it helps. Some find it doesn’t. And so my critics say, “See? The experiments are not consistent.” But guess what, if you divide them up by the amount of time that people are off, so some studies, they make people get off for a day or a week, those don’t find a benefit. And the same-

Collins:

No, they’re probably curious and upset, aren’t they?

Haidt:

No. They’re going through withdrawal, going through withdrawal. So if you have a bunch of heroin addicts and you say, “I think let’s take you off heroin for a week. That should make you feel better.” No, it makes you feel worse. But let’s do it for a month and you’re going to feel a whole lot better. So the experiments in which people get off for at least three weeks, that’s the Anna Lembke at Stanford says, “It tends to take three or four weeks to overcome withdrawal.”

Those that get people off for a while do find a benefit. And that’s an experiment with control condition, random assignment. So that does show causality. There are all kinds of other experiments exposing girls to Instagram versus other kinds. Instagram is the worst, by the way. Instagram is the worst for girls. And Facebook’s own data said that Instagram is the worst because it focuses on the face and the body whereas TikTok is more about… It used to be about dancing and things like that.

So there’s now a lot of evidence of causation. And beyond that, beyond that, you talk to the kids. I have been looking… Again, I’m a fan of John Stuart Mill. I want people to tell me where I’m wrong. If you ask the world to make you smarter, it will oblige. So, world, please tell me where I’m wrong. And I’ve gone looking for articles or essays or anything by young people defending social media. I can’t find them. You’d think that if adults are trying to ban social media, you’d think that some young people somewhere would write in defense of it, but they don’t.

When you read what Gen Z writes about social media, it’s devastating. They write about how it’s destroying their generation. So what’s happened is we are caught in a trap and the kids are caught in a trap, in a social dilemma. Why do they spend five hours a day on social media platforms? Because everyone else does. So they have to keep up. That’s it.

Collins:

So what do we do? Your book is not just making a diagnosis, it’s offering some therapeutics, some of them pretty explicit. And not going to be easy necessarily to implement, but certainly every parent who’s worried about this ought a look at what you’re recommending. So give us a snapshot of what you do about it.

Haidt:

Sure. So it might seem like parents… So the universal feeling when parents is just powerlessness. We struggle. We try, we wrestle, we fight. It’s very hard to keep the kids off. And even if you do, they’ll often find a way around because as individuals, we are weak. As individuals, our kids are in a trap. They care a lot more about their popularity than they do about their future health or about their future jobs or anything else. So what I do in the book is after going through all the evidence for all the different kinds of harm, it’s not just mental illness. And we’ll come back to that, all the other kinds of harm. After going through all the different harms and the different harms for girls and the different harms for boys and the different harms for adults, which I hope we’ll talk about. The last section of the book is on preparing for collective action. And this is the key. We’re stuck in this trap because social media is not like any other consumer product. Social media doesn’t just affect the person who consumes it. It changes the world in which kids live and forces all the kids to be on it. And that’s why we feel so powerless.

But once we realize that, now we can break out of the trap, but we have to do it together. 

So the way to get out of a collective action problem, these are well-studied in the social sciences. There are a few roots. One is government. That’s one of the reasons we have government is to solve commons dilemmas, put limits on fishing and pollution and all sorts of other things. So having a minimum age, if the government should raise the age for opening a social media count to 16. Then that would give kids time to have a normal childhood, let their brains develop, let their frontal cortex develop before being thrown into this whirlpool and cesspool. So what I’m suggesting in the book is four norms that are so simple and they’re free. We could solve this problem within two years for basically $0. Here’s how we do it. So four norms that break us out. 

One, no smartphone till high school. It’s so simple. And people think, “Oh, how will I communicate with my kid? What if something happens?” Give him a flip phone. That’s what the millennials had, and they were okay. The millennials were texting each other, but you had to do like press the S key three times to whatever, or the seven key. It was slow. So millennials did not want to spend hours texting each other. It was like, “See you at the mall.” And then they meet up. So for them, phones helped them get together. But once kids traded in their flip phones for smartphones around 2012, then the phones became their life.

A phone is essentially an experience blocker. Once a kid gets it’s going to block out all other forms of experience. They’ll all be cut way down or eliminated. So that’s why it’s so important. If you want to give your kid a phone, give them a flip phone until high school. Now, I think you’d probably wait until 16. But what we need is a norm, a clear and doable norm, and that’s high school. At the beginning of high school, you can get a smartphone, but for God’s sakes, let’s clear this crap, this garbage out of middle schools. Let’s save middle school kids. So that’s norm number one. It’s free. It costs nothing. It doesn’t even require any government. It’s just just have parents do it. And if even a third of parents would do that, well now a kid can’t say, “Mom, I have to have a smartphone. Everyone else has one. I’m isolated.” No, no. What about your friend Billy? What about Mary? They don’t have smartphones, they have flip phones.” So now parents can actually do what they think is right, and that’s norm number one, cost nothing. Number two—

Collins:

How is that being responded to as you’ve been promoting this? Because this is in the book, but it’s something you’ve also put in other places, like your Substack. Do parents go, “Yeah, I’m with you,” or like, “Oh, I don’t think I could do that”?

Haidt:

Well, I just started talking about it very recently, these specific four norms. They crystallized as I was finishing the book. And it’s the sort of thing where a parent can’t just do it themselves, but if I’m going to make a huge publicity push for this all over the country, all over the world, once the book comes out. And at that point I’m going to try to make it just obvious common sense. Just give them a flip phone until high school. That’s all.

Norm number two, no social media till 16. Now, the minimum age currently is 13. That’s the age at which a company can make a deal with a child and take their data without parental permission. That was set in law in 1998 when the internet was a much less weird and awful place. It has not been changed. We’ve got no additional protections for kids since 1998. And that so-called protection was weak because it was written so that as long as a company doesn’t know that a child is under 13, they’re okay. And that’s why Facebook could say, what’s your age? And it helpfully suggests as the default year used to until recently, the default year is 13 years ago. So that if you’re 10, “Yeah, yeah, that’s when I was born 13 years ago.” So Facebook has been encouraging underage use from the beginning because they desperately need to get kids, young kids, otherwise they’ll lose them to TikTok and other platforms. So the second rule is just let’s raise the age to 16. It’s already 13. Let’s raise the age to 16 and enforce it. Make the companies liable for underage use. We make bartenders and bar owners liable for underage drinking. We don’t say that the problem of underage drinking is entirely for the parents to police.

Kids are out in the world. They’ll try to go to a bar. We expect the bar should have some restrictions. Pornography sites should have some restrictions. They don’t. Any child can immerse him or herself, and they do. They’re all exposed to pornography and some of the boys get addicted in their early teens. There is no safeguard, no obstacle, no nothing. This is insane. This is insane. This is the world we’re raising our kids in. So rule number two is no social media till 16. I’m hopeful the government will help us here. Utah and a few other states are raised in the age of 16 or 18 or 18 without parental permission.

So that’s rule number two. But even if we don’t get government help, if enough parents, if even a third or half of parents say, “No, you’re not getting Instagram until you’re 16,” that would take a lot of pressure off everyone else, and it would make it much easier for the rest of us to tell our 11-year-old daughters like, “No, you’re not getting it until you’re 16. We’re doing that thing that most people are doing.”

Norm number three, this is so simple and so powerful. Phone free schools. These things are distraction machines. They’re experience blockers. When kids are sitting in the classroom and then they have their phone in their pocket and most of them are addicted, they’re going to check and their notifications are always going off. And if anyone is texting during the day, if anyone is texting or posting, everyone else has to check in, otherwise they’re going to be out of the loop at lunch. Everyone will be laughing about this thing that, so-and-so said about the teacher, and I didn’t know about it. I better check my text too during class.

So it’s insane, insane that we have schools in which kids can have their phones in their pockets. Completely insane. So the rules should be when you come in the morning, phones are useful for getting to and from school, of course. You come in the morning, you put your phone in a phone locker, a place that you can put it in, and it’s protected. You have no access to it during the day, and then you get it back. At the end of the day when you leave.

A Yondr pouch is also very good. The kids know how to open those, but it still makes the norm is clearly like, “No, you don’t have access to your phone.”

Collins:

A lot of schools have rules like this. I mean, schools must know this is a problem. Why haven’t they fixed this themselves?

Haidt:

Because two reasons. One is that they almost all have rules against it. Rules, nothing else. So one study found that 72% of American schools ban phone use during class, during class. That means that kids are supposed to hold their phone down low or in their lap in order to use it. That’s what that means. If the teacher is very vigilant, it means that kids must go to the bathroom to use their phones during class. And teachers tell me, kids go to the bathroom a lot more than they used to in order to use their phones.

Anyway, a rule about not using your phone during class is nonsense. It’s not helpful. It’s nothing. Plus, all it does is say, even if you could enforce it, okay, the bell rings, all the phones come out, kids are walking through the hallway on their phones. Now, our kids are dying of loneliness. A loneliness epidemic has been brewing and it especially accelerated, oh, in the early 2010s, just like everything else. Our kids are so lonely. The more time you spend on social media, the lonelier you are, because you don’t spend time with friends.

And the one time that we know kids could be with friends, they could be talking face-to-face is school. So any school that lets kids be on their phones between classes and at lunch and at recess is insane, insane. Listen, people, if you’re hearing my voice now, if you have kids in school K through 12 school, and if your kid’s school allows your kids to keep their phones on them, please, please contact the principal now and say, “Please go phone free.” The evidence that it distracts kids, they learn less, they feel more lonely, they feel less included. There’s more drama, more fights. The teachers hate it, the principals hate it. Everyone hates it except for the small number of parents who freak out at the prospect that they can’t always be in touch with their child.

So this is what principals tell me. “I wish we could ban the phones, but some of the parents would be so angry, so upset. We don’t dare try.” But again it’s because of that—

Collins:

Is that because of safetyism, the fear that somehow if they don’t have immediate connection to their kids, something will happen. You should talk a bit about that too. That does seem like it’s played out in a very negative way in other aspects of childhood as well.

Haidt:

Absolutely. That’s right. There’s really two pieces to this story. The loss of the play-based childhood and the arrival of the phone-based childhood. So let me finish my four norms because the fourth one is actually about the play-based childhood. So the first three were about phones, no smartphone before high school, no social media before 16, phone free schools. The fourth foundational norm is far more childhood independence and free play. And so the key here is that play is the most important thing that kids do.

If you’re a mammal, the mammals have these long childhoods. Mammals have these large brains. Mammals play. All mammals play, and that’s what they do in order to wire up the brain. And so from maybe a few tens or hundreds of millions of years ago, whenever mammals emerged until around the 1980s, kids played. That’s what they did. But in the 1980s, we began to freak out.

We had new media exposing us, cable TV exposing us. There are a few cases of true abduction every year in this country. I mean, there’s a few dozen cases in the whole country. Your risk of your kids being abducted is way, way, way less than being struck by lightning. But suddenly, we were all faced with the stories and people freaked out for a lot of other reasons. We began locking up our kids, especially in the ’90s, thinking if an eight, nine, 10-year-old kid walks to a park like something terrible will happen.

By the early 2000s, nobody had seen a child unescorted in so long that if a child ever did walk to a park alone, a neighbor would call 911 said, “Look, there’s a thing out there. It’s got two legs, but it’s not a full person. I don’t know what it is, but someone come pick it up. It might get hurt.”

Collins:

My own neighborhood, Silver Spring had this national case of parents who let their 6-year-old and their 10-year-old walk to the playground alone and neighbors called the police and the children were actually taken into custody for several hours without the parents even knowing where they were. And then they were threatened by social services that these children might have to be fostered out to other families because they were clearly ignoring the safety of the six and 10-year-old who were maybe four blocks from their own house. Just an astounding example of the safetyism that has become so widespread on the basis of really tiny risks that somehow seem to dominate the entire discussion.

Haidt:

Exactly, exactly. It’s a great example of irrationality that a vivid risk, a few stories about kids who are abducted is enough to make parents clinging to their children, deprive them of experience. They are going to get harmed if you don’t let them grow up. They’re going to get harmed if you don’t let them play. If you don’t let them learn how to be self-governing, they’re not going to end up being independent adults.

So we had this irrational freakout, not just in the US, it also happened in the UK and Canada. It didn’t happen as much in Scandinavia or most of Northern Europe, but it happened in all the English-speaking countries. We deprived our kids of freedom and play. And there’s good evidence that here I’m drawing on the work of Peter Gray, a really great psychologist who studies play at Boston College that if you deprive kids of play, there’s a lot of evidence from other animals and humans that they become more anxious.

They’re not as bold in exploring new places. So if we want to set our kids to discover mode and out of defend mode, we should give them a lot of independence. They must take risks and kids will seek out risks. They’ll climb up to the top of a wall and then they’ll climb higher on a tree and they’ll ride a bicycle and they’ll ride it over a jump ramp. Kids are trying to give themselves risk because that’s what they need to develop their brains.

But we stopped all that in the ’90s. So that’s the backstory to all this. I don’t want to blame the whole mental health epidemic on the phones. That explains the timing. The phones explain why it’s 2012. But the backstory is the loss of normal, healthy human childhood. So what I say in the book is that we have. Our big mistake was that we have overprotected our children in the real world and underprotected them online. We need to reverse that.

Collins:

That makes total sense. No, I was growing up on a farm with a brother who’s a year and a half older than me. We would leave the farmhouse at some point and not be seen for hours and climb trees and occasionally encounter snakes. And occasionally somebody fell in the pond or got a cut or a scrape and you went back and got patched up and you went back out again.

Haidt:

Exactly. That’s right.

Collins:

You figured out how to negotiate things with your brother because you didn’t always agree and how to recognize what’s a risk that maybe you should take. And all of that was part of the learning process. It just seemed so normal at the time. Now, it would seem like, “Wow, you’re allowing your kids to do that?”

Haidt:

That’s right. That’s right. And what you said about working through conflicts and working things out with your brother is so important. Now, so there’s this ridiculous idea in safetyism, the worship of safety above all else. This ridiculous idea that if kids have fights or conflicts or if they call each other names, well, that could be hurtful. We don’t want that to happen, which is again, insane because kids need to tease each other. They need to argue and fight. They need to do all this.

So in the book, I show these photographs from a playground in Berkeley, California. A friend of mine, Robert Strand, took these wonderful photos of a playground where they have instructions for the kids on how to play tag, and it explains the rules and it says clearly, “Resolve disputes with rock, paper, scissors. Don’t argue about it. Don’t state your case otherwise you might learn how to actually persuade people.”

No, no, no. Rock, paper, scissors, then there won’t be hurt feelings. It says one finger tag because you don’t want anyone to tag someone hard with their whole hand, so one finger. Are the kids that stupid and fragile that we have to tell them how to play tag?

Collins:

Wow.

Haidt:

And for the football. So of course not tackle football, but for touch football, the rules include, football, touch football cannot be played unless an adult is there to referee. That’s insane. It’s like the most nutritious part of playing a game is the fights, is the disagreements. That’s the best part for child development. But what we’re doing is we’re trying to take out all the nutrition from children, just give them experiences where they won’t be upset. And what what you get is young adults who can’t handle the real world. It’s not their fault we did this to them.

Collins:

Jon, this is fascinating conversation. And again, both very troubling in terms of how far we seem to have fallen from a healthy society, but also encouraging in terms of the things that we could turn it around. We haven’t talked as much about the adults who’ve also been caught up in the same social media traps, and we haven’t talked about how this might be relevant particularly to people who listen to BioLogos podcast who are people of faith. Maybe I’d like to take you to that topic, which I know is—

Haidt:

Yes, let’s do that.

Collins:

Having had a chance to look at the galley proofs of your book, there’s a wonderful chapter, chapter eight about this that I want to ask you about. I know you’re not yourself a person who would call yourself a believer, but somehow you seem to have some pretty interesting insights here about faith and its role in flourishing. So say a bit more about how you frame all of that.

Haidt:

Sure. So when I was writing The Happiness Hypothesis, and I was looking for what are the universal human insights, most nearly all societies order themselves on it with a moral dimension of up and down. And it’s not just good, bad, it’s actually divine is up, God is up, goodness is up, and like the devil or sin or carnality or something is down. And it varies a little around the world, what exactly the dimension is, but it’s very, very common. Christians say, “What would Jesus do?” That’s a categorical imperative. It’s a very simple rule for deciding what’s right. How should I act? How should I live?

Collins:

Back to the moral law where we started.

Haidt:

That’s right. That’s right. And there’s one in Hinduism. This is from Vivekananda, a Hindu sage in the 19th century, I think it was. He said, “Any action that makes us go godward is a good action and is our duty. Any action that makes us go downward,” he said downward, “is a bad action and we should not do it.” And so once you see that people have this dimension, and we should say, I spent three months in India in 1993 doing research on purity and pollution and began to get just a little bit of a feeling for this even though I’m a secular person. I began to get a feeling for a world in which things are not just made of matter and that’s all there is to it, but a world in which say an American flag isn’t just cloth, it actually has… There’s something in it that should be protected. You should not use it as a floor mat. You should not use it to wipe your counters. That somehow there’s an invisible moral essence. And I hadn’t really seen that before. And a feeling of certain places should be kept pure. In a Hindu home, there’s always the puja room. There’s an area where the shrine is. You have to bathe or cleanse yourself before you go in there. And just simple things like realizing like, “Oh, when I walk into my apartment, I should take off my shoes.” Which people do all over Asia, but Americans don’t do.

We march around the world, get our feet dirty, walk into our house because we don’t think about contagion as much. In any case, there’s lots of small examples. But the point is that people, whether you believe in God or not, to be a human is to have these feelings of sometimes being elevated or lifted up and noble, sometimes to be degraded. When you watch reality TV, like the old Jerry Springer Show from the 1990s, you watch people turned into animals. It’s entertaining. It’s fascinating, but the face that you’re making right now is a cringe, a disgust face. Yes, because it brings us down. It’s degrading.

So that’s my background as a secular social scientist is really taking divinity seriously as an experience, as a psychological construct. Whether or not God exists, this is just a fact about human beings. And now what I did in chapter eight was after writing seven chapters, laying out in horrible detail the devastation of our kids, I was almost done with the book and I was on deadline. I was behind deadline. I should finish up the book, but I felt like I’ve said all this stuff about kids, but there’s so much else going on. And so I just took one chapter to say what’s happening to adults? And the organization that came out—I don’t remember how I did this, but suddenly it occurred to me, “Wait, the unifying principle here really is spiritual wisdom, spiritual practices.”

I made a list of like, “Here’s all the ways that a phone-based life for an adult blocks spiritual progress.” And so well here, let’s just go through them. Let me just pull it up in the manuscript here. Let’s see. Okay, so the first thing is, I’ve already mentioned Emile Durkheim. Human beings need to be planted in communities and the best communities, the strongest, the most binding are those that hold something sacred in common. They have a reason for being, they have a moral compass or purpose. And so a religious community or a country that has a religious basis would be a good example.

What we do in such communities is we define space and time to—we define holy times and profane times. So there are holy days, there is a Sabbath, and then there’s ordinary days on which you work. That’s what profane means, is ordinary. It’s the same for space. There are sacred spaces and there are profane spaces. And if we all respect that and we all do things in synchrony like we do. We go about our business, but on Sunday morning, we all go to church.

Or if you’re Muslim five times a day, you bow towards Mecca, whatever else you’re doing. That is what people do to create a strong binding community. Now, let’s suppose you’re raised instead in networks, not communities. A young person, a Gen Z, born after 1995, they don’t have much experience in communities. They’ve been on their phone or a screen most of their lives. They went through COVID. They didn’t leave the house. All they know is screens. There’s no ordering of space or time.

On the internet, there’s no holy days, there’s no Sabbath, nothing ever closes. Everything is the same. There’s no ordering of space. Everything is open. Any child can go onto PornHub. Any child can buy drugs. Well, there you need a credit card, or Bitcoin or something. But it’s a structuralist world. And that is a recipe for anomie or normlessness, which leads to depression. So that’s just one is having shared sacredness in the online world. Imagine growing up with no shared sacredness. Nothing that you have in common with other people that orders your life among this dimension.

A second dimension that I write about here is embodiment. So there’s lots of spirituality online. There’s lots of websites for believers. There’s a huge number for spiritual, but not religious, meditation sites. All sorts of things you can do. But you’re alone in your room. And when you look at how spiritual practices play out in the world, so many of them are people moving together in time, bowing together and especially singing together, clapping together, dancing together.

Collins:

Yes. Zoom worship just doesn’t do it.

Haidt:

It doesn’t work. That’s right. It doesn’t work. That’s right. It’s missing because we’re physical creatures. We’re embodied creatures. But life online is not embodied. It’s disembodied. And the fact that you can communicate with people who have no body is frightening. Artificial intelligence now is so good people are falling in love. You can make a chatbot. You can turn up the dial on sexiness or intellect or humor. You can give her a face. You can give her a breast size, whatever you want. You can customize this person. And then young men are falling in love with these avatars.

And this is going to impede their ability to learn how to talk to young women. It happens the reverse as well. But I think boys are especially susceptible. Oh, I should just take a moment. Sorry, just a little timeout. Just to say, we talked a lot about girls. For boys, it’s not social media, it’s them getting just sucked away from the real world and pulled into the virtual world.

Boys are dropping out of school. They get worse grades. They don’t go to college. They’re working less. They’re living at home with their parents. More boys are dropping out of life because it’s not nearly as exciting as multiplayer video games and pornography. It’s not that they’re on social media so much, it’s that the electronic appeals of fake sex and violence are so good that boys are not developing the skills that will turn them into men.

So anyway, well, I could go on. I’ll just maybe just list some of the others. Stillness, silence, and focus like meditation. But when you grow up online, you’ve got stuff coming in all the time. It’s just an ocean of stimulus, of ephemera, of trivia. And I’ll just stop with this one. Transcending the self. One of the most important or central aspects of spiritual practice… Okay, here, I’ll throw this over to you. But as an atheist, it seems to me that the essential characteristic, the most important characteristic is overcoming the self.

It’s a technology or a set of traditions or ways or practices to make you stop valuing yourself and putting yourself forward and putting yourself first. It’s a way of losing the self so that you’re open to communion, to merging. Mysticism is always about losing the self and feeling a sense of oneness with universe or with God. And the first line of that mega bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life, if I remember correctly, Rick Warren’s book, the first line was, “It’s not all about you.” So let me just stop there. What is central to spiritual progress or spiritual development?

Collins:

Well, transcendence, absolutely. Various words have been used to describe that. Again, coming back to Lewis, he would call that joy, this experience, which comes across sometimes when you didn’t expect it of being lifted outside of yourself. With this intense feeling of belonging and of being merged and of just some sort of hunger to hang onto it. And then ultimately it slips away. For me, it’s the experience sometimes brought on by music, something that just gets into your very soul and it lifts you into a place that you otherwise can’t get to.

And for a believer that is also a glimpse of what you think we are all called to do in relationship with God. So yeah, hence the importance of that, I think in the spiritual life. And I have to say, Jon, if your prior was not zero on there being a God, wouldn’t the transcendence part of this be a particularly interesting example of maybe a bit of a calling to find that relationship through that transcendent moment?

Haidt:

Yes, I would say it is. And I get that feeling from nature, from mountains, from vistas. I’ve gotten it from music. I’ll never forget the first time in college in a classical music course that I didn’t end up taking, but I went to a few lectures of playing Beethoven Seventh. There’s a movement that I’ll never forget, the feeling in that classroom, in that auditorium with the powerful, powerful… The rising intensity in the violins. And so I have these experiences.

Maybe it is that my priors were they… I’d say they were zero for a while. I used to be a sort of an angry atheist when I was in high school and college. They’re not zero now. They’re very low, but they’re not zero now. I’m open to the world there being a lot more to the universe than we could ever know.

Collins:

That’s really interesting to hear. I was close friends with Christopher Hitchens in his last couple of years, and we talked a lot about this whole business of priors and how close to zero are they? He would never allow that his were more than like 10 to the minus 12, but maybe yours is a little bit higher than that. I’m sure all the people listening to this who are believers will now pray for Jonathan Haidt’s priors. What that does? Maybe it will. So I know we’ve spent a lot of time here, but I don’t want to finish this conversation about faith without hearing from you sort of your perspective of how people of faith maybe are in a stronger position than they realize to actually deal with the current crisis we have of alienation and separation and of loss of a sense of what’s true and what’s not true. Say a bit more about that.

Haidt:

Yes, actually, I’m so glad you asked me that because this isn’t actually in the book. This is a set of findings that… Well, we say a tiny bit in the book, but there’s a set of findings we have even since I finished writing the book. There’s this astonishing and very consistent finding that—okay, so we’ve known for a long time that people who are religious are a little happier than people are not. That’s been known for a long time. People who are on the right politically are a little happier than people on the left that’s been known for a long time. And if you look at the graphs of teenagers and you see those differences up to about 2011, 2012, and then as we go along through the 2010s, some of the lines go up like for depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicide. Some of the lines go up. It’s especially the lines for progressives more than conservatives and especially for atheists and agnostics rather than religious kids or kids in religious families. And so I think, and multiple data sets show this, and Zach Roush, my researcher, has found that across European countries, which countries are the ones where kids are getting more depressed. What would you say? Can you guess, if you had to guess between Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, where would you expect kids would get washed away by this new technology?

Collins:

I would guess it would be those that really don’t have much of a spiritual anchor, which in Europe, the Protestants are not actually sticking too closely to the spiritual part of it.

Haidt:

You got it. You got it. And that’s what Durkheim observed too. Emile Durkheim observed that the more you’re bound into a community, the less you kill yourself. And he said back in whatever 1902 or whenever it was written, that it was the Protestants who had the highest suicide rates and the Orthodox Jews and the religious Catholics had lower rates. So what we see over and over again is that kids need to grow up in a community where they are bound in, there’s a moral sense. There are stable people that are there for years and years that give them moral guidance, that act as moral exemplars.

That’s a healthy way for kids to grow up. And that’s the way that everybody used to grow up practically. But now that’s largely gone for secular folk. Every secular folk are on their devices a lot more than religious folk. So yes, I can definitely say that to listeners, if you are a religious Christian or if you are a religious member of any order and you have some structure to your week or your month and you go to church and you have a community and your kids are exposed to adults who have their best interests, if that’s the way you’re raising your kids, you’re probably pretty insulated from the mental illness epidemic that is sweeping the Western world.

Whereas if you are a secular progressive and you give your kids very little moral guidance, who am I to tell them what to believe or what to do? And your kids are not exposed to a constant and stable group of adults, but rather they’re spending most of their time looking at weirdos on the internet who were chosen because some algorithm thought that this would engage your child. If that’s the way your kid is growing up, your kid is at very, very high risk for serious depression, anxiety, self-harm, and at much elevated risk of suicide.

So as I said early on while I’m not a believer myself, the social science evidence on the benefits of religion is so powerful and has gotten so much more powerful since 2012 that as I said, I’m a fan of religion. I think we’re going to be hearing a lot more about this over the next couple of years because the data, the findings… People weren’t talking about this a couple of years ago, but I think this is going to come out as a big part of the story of who’s gotten washed away and who’s doing okay.

Collins:

Well, people who are listening to this podcast to our people of faith, I hope are reassured and encouraged by that. And they would also say, as I would, not only is it good for your mental health, it’s actually true which we live in a better place to be able to make, which is important, I think.

Haidt:

So if I could just add on then, because moral truths feel like objective truths. And so especially for those who are raising their kids in a Christian community or who go to a Christian school, if you have any kind of religious based school, you’re in a really great position to enact all four of the foundational reforms. And so we’re finding, I gave a talk to a collection of Jewish day schools, and they are so gung ho about this because think about it, Jews already have built in the Sabbath.

Jews already have built in a day on which you have to turn your devices off. And what do you do? The kids run around and play with each other like crazy. That’s what they do on the Sabbath. They run around. So Jews already have the ability to say, “We’re shutting these things off for 24 hours.” And the schools who are trying to raise kids with moral character and a biblical orientation and knowledge of the Torah.

So religious schools, I think, are the best places in the country to enact all four reforms because you can actually say to parents, “Please don’t give your kids a smartphone before high school.” You can say that. A secular school isn’t going to say that. My kids go to New York City public schools, there’s no way the principal is going to say, “Parents, please don’t give your kids a smartphone.” Even though perhaps he’d want to. But you can say no smartphones till high school.

You can say no social media till 18. You can say, “Let’s just keep our kids off till they’re 18 or at least 16.” You can say, “We’re going phone-free.” You can say, “Nobody should have access to a phone from bell to bell during the school day.” And you can give your kids a lot more independence because there’ll be with each other and there’ll be other adults around. There will be watchful eyes in the community. So I think religious communities can lead the way in reversing the mental health crisis and showing the rest of us, here’s how you raise kids in the digital age.

Collins:

That’s a wonderful way to conclude our conversation. Jon, I just want to say it’s wonderful that you’re not only a really good social psychologist, you’ve been willing to put yourself into this role of a communicator doing the kind of work that relatively few people do, and no doubt finding yourself sometimes being shot at with arrows from both sides of all of this. But I think we’re all in your debt that you have done the hard work of coming up with this conclusion about social media, which may not be an easy one for people to hear, but is critical for us to recognize and then to act upon. So I’m glad in your book, which is coming up March 26th, The Anxious Generation. People will have a chance to see all of what lies beneath the arguments you’ve made so compellingly in this podcast. So I just want to say thank you, and it’s wonderful to have a chance to have this conversation.

Haidt:

Well, thank you so much, Francis. If I could just add just a couple of notes to direct listeners on where to go. Of course I hope you’ll buy the book. I hope you’ll buy 10 copies and give them to all your friends and the principal of your… and the teachers in your kids’ school, et cetera, et cetera. But I hope everybody will also subscribe to my Substack, which is free. Just go to afterbabel.com.

Collins:

I’m a subscriber.

Haidt:

This is where we put out… We have a huge variety of posts, not just data, but advice for parents and schools. So afterbabel.com. And I co-founded an organization called Let Grow with Lenor Skenazy, the author of Free-Range Kids. So if you want advice, especially if your kids are K through 8 or just under 13 or so, please go to letgrow.org. We have all kinds of advice and programs and simple things to do to give your kids a play-based childhood and to give them more independence. And then lastly, the website for the book is anxiousgeneration.com.

We have a lot of resources there including all the Google Docs that I mentioned. So those are my last words. Francis, I’m very grateful to you for giving me this chance to talk to a religious leaning audience. I’ve always enjoyed… You and I have met a few times. We had a few conversations. I’ve always enjoyed my time with you and just your attitude. Here, you are a man of faith in science. That must be hard at times. It must have been at times. You seem to have managed it quite well.

Collins:

Oh, well, you’re very kind. I’ve been a fortunate person and it gives me a chance to have conversations like this and then to reflect on it. And I hope everybody listening is doing some reflecting as well. We can figure out how to turn this problem around. You’re really helping us. Thank you, Jon.

Haidt:

Thank you, Francis.

Credits

Colin Hoogerwerf:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by The Fetzer Institute. Fetzer supports a movement of organizations who are applying spiritual solutions to society’s toughest problems. Get involved at fetzer.org. And by the John Templeton Foundation, which funds research and catalyzes conversations that inspire people with awe and wonder. And BioLogos is also supported by individual donors and listeners like you who contribute to BioLogos.

Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River Watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find the link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org where you’ll find articles, videos, and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


Featured guests

BioLogos - Francis Collins

Francis Collins

Francis Collins is one of the world’s leading scientists and geneticists, and the founder of BioLogos, where he is now a Senior Fellow. In his early scientific career, he discovered the gene for cystic fibrosis. Then he led an international collaboration that first mapped the entire human genome. For that work he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science. In 2009 he was appointed as Director of the National Institutes of Health, where he served three presidents until 2021, including oversight of the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022 he was asked to serve for 8 months as Acting Science Advisor to the President, and he continues service today in the White House as a Special Projects Advisor. In 2006, Collins wrote the best-selling book The Language of God. It tells the story of his journey from atheism to Christian belief, showing that science actually enhances faith. The tremendous response to the book prompted Collins to found BioLogos. He envisioned it as a forum to discuss issues at the intersection of faith and science and to celebrate the harmony found there. His reputation quickly attracted a large network of faith leaders, including Tim Keller, Philip Yancey, and NT Wright. These and others joined the BioLogos conversation and affirmed the value of engaging science as believers. BioLogos is now an organization that reaches millions around the world. In celebration of his world-class scientific accomplishments and deep Christian faith, Collins was awarded the Templeton Prize in 2020. It honors individuals who are “harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.” He joined a prestigious group of previous winners, including Mother Teresa, Francis Ayala, Charles Townes, Desmond Tutu, and Billy Graham.
Jonathan Haidt headshot

Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He obtained his PhD in social psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992 and taught at the University of Virginia for sixteen years. His research focuses on moral and political psychology, as described in his book The Righteous Mind. His latest book, The Anxious Generation, is a direct continuation of the themes explored in The Coddling of the American Mind (written with Greg Lukianoff). He writes the After Babel Substack.


23 posts about this topic

Join the conversation on the BioLogos forum

At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.

Join the Conversation