Harry Potter and the Magical Phone
A beloved story of the millennial generation, retold for Gen Z
[A note from Jon Haidt]
A theme of The Anxious Generation is that we are overprotecting children in the real world while underprotecting them in the virtual world. That’s an abstract principle. In the post below, Raffi Grinberg illustrates it brilliantly by re-imagining the Harry Potter story if Harry had been born into Gen Z, instead of being born at the start of the Millennial generation (his imputed birth year is 1980).
Raffi is well-placed to comment on these themes. He’s a millennial himself (born 1990). I first met him when he came to see me, in 2017, with ideas about how to improve a project I was working on: an attempt to teach students the skills of speaking to those who don’t share their beliefs. Raffi had great ideas about how to make the project more engaging, and how to program it online, which evolved into the Constructive Dialogue Institute. I am grateful to Raffi for the key role he played in launching the whole thing.
Raffi now runs a separate organization, Dialog, which in some ways has a similar mission: they convene leaders from around the world (CEOs, high-ranking politicians, public intellectuals, etc.) for off-the-record conversations in which there is plenty of disagreement and plenty of learning. Raffi is also writing a book based on his popular course “Adulting 101” at Boston College, to teach recent college grads everything they need to know about the real world. You can subscribe to his Substack (or even better—forward it to a 20-something-year-old you know).
Zach Rausch (who is the overall editor of After Babel) helped Raffi refine the post, connect it concretely to the research we have been collecting, and then took some of his text and used DALL-E 3 to illustrate various scenes. As you’ll see, Zach is still fine-tuning his abilities — there are quite a few different Harry’s below.
— Jon Haidt
You can subscribe to Raffi’s Substack, The Adulting Professor:
The summer that Harry Potter turned 11, he received a letter in the mail informing that he was born to magical parents.1 The next moment, a half-giant by the name of Hagrid appeared at his doorstep and bestowed upon Harry a shiny new smartphone. Hagrid whisked him off to App Alley to collect all the tools he would need to make the most of this magical new adventure.
First up was a neon purple and yellow building, full of ever-scrolling images of smiling people. “With Instagram,” a brightly-dressed witch explained, “you can keep up-to-date on all your friends’ lives, while sharing highlights of yours!”
“Wow!” Harry exclaimed. “So this will show me every moment of their lives?”
“No,” replied the Instagram Witch. “Only the moments they want to share.”
“Hmm,” murmured Harry. “Wouldn’t that give me a distorted view of what their lives are like? And give me unrealistic expectations of how I should be dressing and eating?”
“Perhaps,” shrugged the Instagram Witch.
“And if I’m constantly seeing other people having fun without me, could that lead to major FOMO?”
“Yes yes,” muttered the Instagram Witch. “Now that you mention it, we’ve seen that girls who spend five or more hours each day on social media are three times as likely to be depressed as those who report not using social media at all.” The United States is currently facing an adolescent mental health crisis, in part fueled by social media.”
“Alright, that’s enough of that!” bellowed Hagrid. He plopped the Instagram icon onto Harry’s phone.
Off they went to a tall building decorated with a beautiful blue bird (which appeared hastily redecorated by an X across its body). “Welcome to Twitter!” said an enthusiastic wizard, “where you can expose yourself to more new ideas than ever, and share your own.”
“Cool!” said Harry. “Do people really become more open-minded as a result?”
“Not exactly,” responded the Twitter Wizard. “Although users are exposed to other opinions, their tribal instincts tend to become activated which makes them feel threatened and thus shut themselves off from other opinions, linking mostly to people who share their ideology.”
“But at least it makes you feel better to find like-minded people?” ventured Harry.
“Not quite. The most common words associated with re-Tweeting are emotional words—such as ‘angry’, ‘disgusted’, or ‘outraged’—which are linked with a 17% rise in virality for each word mentioned.”
“Okay, thank you very much!” cried Hagrid, putting the X into Harry’s phone.
Their final stop was a massive clock that kept re-ticking in 6-second intervals. “Behold the ever-entertaining TikTok!” cried a witch, “where short videos are curated just for you.”
“How come everyone looks so beautiful?” asked Harry, wide-eyed.
“Ah, just a bit of our magic. These filters spruce everyone up automatically.”
“So if I spend a long time on TikTok,” asked Harry, “won’t everyone in the real world appear drab by comparison?”
“Perhaps,” admitted the TikTok witch. “Exposure to artificially-altered images and videos often creates unrealistic expectations for your own looks. Watching TikTok videos of thin women dancing has been shown to cause significant declines in one’s body image, which can in turn increase the risk of developing eating disorders.”
“And so ends our magical visit to App Alley,” said Hagrid after granting Harry’s phone the TikTok icon.
“What’s over there?” asked Harry, peering down a shadowy corner.
“Knockturn Alley. All sorts of dark stuff. You really shouldn’t go—”
But Harry had already walked ahead, and was now speaking with a wizard wearing a yellow hooded robe.
“With this wondrous app,” wheezed the Pornhub Wizard, “you can indulge all your sexual curiosities.”
“What does ‘indulge’ mean? What are ‘sexual curiosities’? Remember, I’m 11.”
“Not to worry, young man. As long as you’re willing to lie about your age and employ a few easy tricks to keep your parents from knowing, you’ll be able to use it as much as you want. You may become one of the 5% of male users who develop a pornography addiction, or one of the countless others whose intimate relationships are disrupted by their heavy pornography use.”
Hagrid grabbed Harry by the arm and pulled him back into the bright light outside, but not before the Pornhub Wizard stealthily threw his icon into Harry’s phone.
Hagrid told Harry it was time to head to Hogwarts to meet with Dumbledore.
“Wait,” said Harry, confused. “Will Hogwarts be providing me with some kind of training to mitigate the dark side of these apps? Some kind of… defense against the dark arts?”
Hagrid laughed. “Of course not. We don’t have a teacher for that.”
By the time Harry reached Dumbledore’s office, he had enough time to reflect and do some research of his own. In an act of unusual maturity, Harry handed his new phone to Dumbledore.
“As exciting as this smartphone is, sir, I would like to hold off until age 16, when my brain is more developed and equipped to navigate these dangers. Otherwise, I’m at increased risk of developing all sorts of mental health problems. And it’s not just about what’s in my head—mental health disorders can lead to physical harm as well (self-inflicted). In the hands of a discerning adult, this smartphone can be a great tool; in the hands of a child, it can be truly dangerous.”
“Alright Harry,” nodded Dumbledore. “As you wish.”
“In the meantime, sir, could I have a wand?”
“Absolutely not.” Dumbledore grew very serious. “We don't let kids play with wands2 anymore—they’re too dangerous.”
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Actually, parents who who became sick of him complaining that all of his friends have smartphones.
Climbing trees, biking around the neighborhood, riding public transportation, being exposed to germs via other kids, etc.