Generation Z, born from 1995 onward, has been raised with “moral dependency,” argues social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. As the first generation to get social media at age 13, Gen Z has been denied the independence that previous generations enjoyed — the “free play,” the time spent off devices.
In general, Haidt argues that this generation is more fragile and sensitive to conflict, insults, and exclusion, making them less adept at solving problems on their own. And Haidt believes that overprotection has made them weaker and easily discouraged.
That’s why teaching critical thinking and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be the key to helping young people question their initial interpretations and improve their mental health. Haidt also discusses identity politics, differentiating between “common humanity” and “common enemy” approaches. Fostering a sense of commonality rather than division, Haidt argues, is essential for creating inclusive and diverse environments in educational institutions and society at large.
JONATHAN HAIDT: Every generation loves to complain about the generation coming along, but at the same time, there's a very sharp change with kids who were born in 1995 and afterwards- surprisingly sharp. Beginning with kids born in 1995, they spend a lot less time going out with friends. They don't get a driver's license as often. They don't drink as much. They don't go out on dates. They don't work for money as much. What are they doing? They're spending a lot more time sitting on their beds with their devices interacting that way. These are the first kids who got social media when they were 13, roughly. They were subjected to much more anti-bullying content in their schools, much more adult supervision. They were raised in the years after 9/11. They were given much less recess and free play. With No Child Left Behind, there was much more testing pushed down into earlier grades. So in a lot of ways, Gen Z has been denied the independence, the independent play that previous generations got. Gen Z has been raised with what's called 'moral dependency.' There's always been an adult there for them to go to, and so we don't know if this is for sure the reason, but they seem to have more difficulty working out problems on their own. When we protect children from unpleasantness, from conflicts, from insults, from teasing, from exclusion, we are setting them up to be weak, to be more easily damaged, to be more easily discouraged.
In the 1990s, as the crime rate was plummeting, as American life was getting safer and safer, Americans freaked out and thought that if they take their eyes off their children, the children will be abducted. The fear was stoked by cable TV in the 1980s; there were a few high-profile abductions.
MOVIE CLIP: 'Last year, 50,000 children disappeared. Many of them from nice, safe neighborhoods.'
MOVIE CLIP: 'It's okay. Come on, hop in.'
MOVIE CLIP: 'Talk to your children about not talking to strangers, and do it today.'
HAIDT: But it's not until the 1990s that we really start locking kids up and saying, "You cannot be outside until you're 14 or 15." Lenore Skenazy, who wrote the book, "Free Range Kids." She became famous as "America's worst mom" because in 2009, she let her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway. Not only did he survive, he was thrilled. He felt he'd learned something. He felt he could go out into the world. We took this essential period of childhood from about 8 to 12, when kids throughout history have practiced independence, have gotten into adventures, have made rafts and floated down the Mississippi River- we took that period and said, "You don't get to practice independence," until it's too late, until that period is over. Now, a couple years before you go to college, "Now you can go outside. Oh, okay, go off to college." And a lot of 'em are not ready. They're just not used to being independent. When they get to college, they need more help. They're asking adults for more help. Protect me from this. Punish him for saying that. Protect me from that book. Students are thinking in terms of safety and danger. Students say, by their own admission, they are more fragile. They use a language of fragility, weakness, trauma, triggering. They see triggers all over the world.
What are triggers? Triggers are cases where you take a part of your nervous system and you say, "If someone says that word, they can control my nervous system and make me afraid and anxious." That's a terrible idea. We should not be teaching our kids to to see the world as being full of triggers. We should teach them to live in a world that is physically quite safe, but full of offensive statements and ideas, especially on the internet.
The bottom line is that if we want to raise a generation of kids who can deal with diversity of all kinds, who can go out into a world that's physically actually quite safe but yet full of offensive, offensive content, we need to get our educational practices in line with some very basic, important psychological principles. They are: We are all prone to motivated reasoning and the confirmation bias, and we're all prone to tribalism, and black-and-white thinking. We need to be educating kids so that they do less of this stuff.
Always trust your feelings: It may sound wise, it may sound romantic. But wise people around the world have noticed that we don't react to the world as it actually is, we react to the constructions, the perceptions. Epictetus said, "It is not things themselves that disturb us but our interpretations of things." All of us have had experiences with these. One thing I like to think about is Homer Simpson saying: 'Shut up, brain or I'll stab you with a Q-tip!' Our brains do this. Our brains go on and on, and we're like, "Stop it, stop it, stop it!" What we've begun seeing on campus is that students are encouraged to follow their feelings. If they feel offended by something, then they have been attacked. They're supposed to not question those feelings. But part of wisdom is the ability to say, "Now, wait a second. Are there other ways to look at this?" These are crucial skills for critical thinking. These are crucial skills for mental health. And we need to be teaching young people at all stages to question their first interpretations, look for evidence, and improve the way they interpret the world.
CBT is just a way of teaching people skills to do exactly that, to question their feelings, to look for evidence. So in CBT, you learn the names of these distortions, about 15 or so distortions. You can guess what they mean: Catastrophizing, black-and-white thinking, labeling, mind reading. Aaron Beck, a psychiatrist in the 1960s, noticed that depressed and anxious people have a way of constructing these beliefs that, "I'm bad. The future is bad. My future- the world is a bad place," and they're mutually reinforcing. And this is the way the world feels to them. And if you can improve their thinking and break up those beliefs, they're released from the depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy is not more effective than several other treatments. There are-most treatments are about equally effective- but it's so easy to learn! Other techniques like meditation work, but they're harder; most people drop off. So CBT is easy, really well-tested, has a huge impact on a variety of mental illnesses, especially those related to depression and anxiety. We think every college student, and heck, every high school student should be taught these basic skills, given how high the rates of anxiety and depression are today.
'Life is a battle between good people and evil people.' If you think about it for a moment, who are we? What is our species? We evolved in small-scale societies that were locked in struggle with other small-scale societies. Human nature is really, really finely tailored for intergroup conflict, for tribal warfare. This is the way our ancestors lived for a long time. Now that we've transcended it, we're so desperate for it. We've invented team sports, fraternities, we love these sorts of competitions- our brains are made for it. Now, it can be fun or it can get dark, and it can lead to racism, all kinds of- all kinds of forms of bigotry. And on some college campuses and in some high schools, we see forms of education, forms of training that teach students to make more and more distinctions, to see more and more binary dimensions between people where the people who are high are bad, the people who are low are good.
When we talk about identity politics, which is a controversial topic, we start by saying, "Of course, you need identity politics." Identity politics is not a bad thing automatically. Politics can be based on any distinction. It can be based on any group interest. So, for gay students or Black students or women who organize, that's identity politics; that's perfectly legitimate. The question is: How are they organizing? What's the overarching framework? And we've seen two versions of it in American history: You can do it the way most of the civil rights leaders did it, Martin Luther King, in particular, where you draw a larger circle around the group, you emphasize what we have in common, and then you say, "Some of our brothers and sisters are being denied equal access, equal opportunity, or equal dignity." That works. That has worked historically in much tougher times and zones, and that works and will work on college campuses. The other way you do it, which is growing on college campuses, is 'common enemy identity politics.' It's based on the Bedouin notion: 'Me against my brother, me and my brother against our cousin, me, my brother, and cousin against the stranger.' It's a very general principle of social psychology. If you try to unite people, "Let's all unite against them. They're the bad people. They're the cause of the problems. Let's all stick together." That's a really dangerous thing to do in a multiethnic society. Especially in a university, where we're actually all trying to work together to solve the problem. If we're creating multiethnic environments on campuses, and in most of our organizations we're struggling to increase diversity, what you should obviously be doing is turning down the tribal sentiments; is emphasizing what we have in common. Identity politics done with a common humanity frame, is a good thing, and is likely to work. Identity politics done by uniting everybody against the people with power and privilege, one race versus another race, one gender versus another gender- this is madness. This is a really bad idea if you're trying to emphasize an increased diversity and inclusion. We call that common enemy identity politics. The more we encourage people to see the people around them as good versus evil, the harder it's gonna be to create an an inclusive, diverse environment.
DIRECTOR: Thank you, and very well said. Jonathan, thank you so much for your time.
HAIDT: My pleasure.
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