Back in the 1990s, the Cold War was over, the fear of nuclear war was gone, the [United States] ran a surplus, the crime rate plummeted—and the music was pretty good, too. The risks kids were at from diseases, car accidents, and crime were all plummeting. It was the safest time ever.
But because of changes in the media environment, we were divorced from reality—we got a steady diet of stories about childhood abductions. Almost nobody gets abducted in the United States—there are about 100 true kidnappings a year in a country of 350 million people. It almost never happens, but each time it happens, especially if it happens to a middle-class white kid, there’s constant coverage.
Throughout history, there have been innovations that link us closer together, and whenever that happens, there are all kinds of unforeseen effects. Take the automobile—people can move around, so it changes sex life, and dating, and marriage. The automobile, the telephone, the airplane—all of these things have effects on society, and it takes decades for that to work out. But with social media, we’ve never had something come in so fast that was so transformative in changing social relationships.
And the problem is not the internet, and it’s not screen time. Research that I’m collecting shows that it’s not time spent watching Netflix, and it’s not even time on the computer. It’s specifically social media that has pushed us over the edge, and I think it is a major cause of the rise of depression and anxiety, [especially] for girls.
Had Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter never been invented, I do not think our politics would have blown up. I do not think Donald Trump would be president. I do not think Brexit would have happened. I do not think that our democracy would be as imperiled as it is. Of course, Facebook and Twitter do a lot of good things, too, but the downside is so severe that I’m beginning to worry that social media is incompatible with a functioning democracy.
Social media is seductive even though it’s most effective as a way to literally waste time. But I’m older than the generation Haidt is worried about. And even to me–as someone who has written exclusively on their own platform for over a decade and grew up with just AOL instant messenger–it’s amazing how easy is it to fall prey to the endless feed.