Do you know where your kids go every day?
A Zoomer explains her generation’s malaise to older generations
The After Babel Substack is about the technological and sociological changes that caused the chaos and fragmentation of modern life (i.e., the collapse of the Tower of Babel, around 2014). In our first year we’re focusing on the effects of smartphones, social media, the loss of childhood independence, and parental fears which combined to cause the international adolescent mental health crisis. Over time, we’ll be publishing many more articles on the democracy crisis that is now so apparent in the U.S.
In examining adolescent mental health, our posts have mostly been data-heavy and empirical. From my first post (The Teen Mental Illness Epidemic Began Around 2012) through Zach and my most recent post (Suicide Rates Are Up for Gen Z Across the Anglosphere, Especially for Girls), we have documented that there is indeed a crisis, it is international, and the evidence points to two main causal factors: the end of the play-based childhood, and its replacement by the phone-based childhood. (I tell this story in The Anxious Generation, which you can pre-order now.)
It was necessary for us to start this way—to lay out our ideas and refine them, and to show readers and skeptics the many kinds of evidence we’ve been collecting. (You can find all of our review documents here.) But across our first 24 posts, we’ve given readers very little sense of what it is actually like to be a young person today. We’ve been writing about Gen Z, without hearing from Gen Z.
To rectify that imbalance, we’ll be running a series of posts called “Voices of Gen Z.” Our first post in the series was run last April, by Eli George (born in 1999). It was titled: Do the Kids Think They’re Alright? The answer was no. Eli was not able to find members of Gen Z who thought that their generation was doing fine, or that their phone-based life was generally good for them.
We continue the series now with a second post, by Gen Z phenomenon Rikki Schlott, who took my place as Greg Lukianoff’s writing partner for their recent book The Canceling of the American Mind. (Here’s my Foreword for the book.) Rikki first came to talk to me when she was an undergraduate student at NYU. I recognized her talents and her courage right away. She had begun speaking out against the crushing orthodoxy that has infected student life at so many elite schools since 2015 (as Greg and I documented in The Coddling). She ultimately dropped out of NYU and is pursuing a career as a writer and journalist. (See her regular columns at the New York Post.) Rikki was born in the year 2000. She got her first smartphone at age 10 and she opened her first Instagram account at age 11. She has seen the devastation wrought by Instagram, TikTok, and other platforms on herself and her friends. Many of those friends have scars on their wrists as a result, Rikki tells me.
In her haunting essay below, Rikki helps us older folk understand what happened to her generation when their social lives moved onto smartphones. Adolescents were taken away somewhere, and many have not yet come back.
Voices of Gen Z, #2: Rikki Schlott
People often ask me to explain their kids to them. They are baffled by the children that they raised and yet somehow do not know.
It sounds impossible and yet makes sense—considering that the hours their kids spent under the same roof were also spent in a maze of digital crevices. Parents always expected that their sons and daughters would soon return from the dark side of the dreaded adolescent years, but more and more seem afraid that their children will never come back from wherever it is they’re going.
These are strangers in their own home.
Parents ask me: Why are my kids so anxious and depressed? Where do they go all day on their devices? How can I get them back?
If you’re a parent wondering the same, I hope I can be an intermediary for you. I understand the desperation that leads parents to ask me — an older Zoomer whose iPhone has been an appendage since age 10 — to help them understand. I am on the leading edge of a tidal wave of digital natives entering adulthood with harrowing stories to share. So I’ll take my best shot at explaining the malaise of my generation.
Gen Z has inherited a post-hope world, stripped of what matters. Instead, we have been offered a smorgasbord of easy and unsatisfying substitutes.
All the things that have traditionally made life worth living — love, community, country, faith, work, and family — have been “debunked.”
Sentiments I hear often from peers:
Love — “Monogamy is so outdated.”
Community — “I have enough friends online.”
Country — “I’m embarrassed to be an American.”
Work — “I’m quiet-quitting.”
Family — “I’m not bringing kids into this melting world.”
Faith — “My parents are such naive Bible thumpers. By the way, what’s your star sign?”
Everything that matters has been devalued for Zoomers, leaving behind a generation with gaping holes where the foundations of a meaningful life should be. They’re desperately grasping for alternative purpose-making systems, all of which fall short.
I’m not saying all Zoomers should become church-going office drones who churn out babies and never question their country. But our dismal mental health records and the scars on our wrists seem to indicate that becoming faithless digital vagabonds is just not working out for us.
Of course there are well-adjusted teens in spite of the forces working against them, but the overall figures are bleak. In fact, nearly half of teens agree with statements like “my life is not useful,” “I do not enjoy life,” and “I can’t do anything right.” Back in 2010, fewer than 30% of teens agreed with those statements.
Something is clearly wrong. Gen Z is quietly begging for help. Naturally, the opportunists have swarmed in with ready-made plugs to fill our voids and make us “whole.”
Do you feel isolated? Why don’t you take a peek at what all your peers are doing on social media, or just make digital friends on message boards — all without leaving your bed!
Are you struggling in love? How about a paralyzing stream of commodified potential partners to swipe through on a dating app. You can cycle through as many transactional relationships as you please!
Are you lacking positive role models? How about a voyeuristic trip into an influencer’s live-streamed morning routine. Or a self-appointed life coach with lots of opinions and no real expertise.
Has your faith waned? Just hook your identity to a pseudo-religious political ideology. Spluttering commentators stand ready to lead you down rabbit holes, until the only people you see eye-to-eye with are extremists on the other side of a screen.
The quick-fixes on offer are endless — and enormously profitable for the influencers, app developers, and social media masters who have seduced perforated Zoomers with the possibility of feeling whole again.
But one panacea on the snake oil salesman’s menu is more dangerous and alluring than any other.
Are you bored? Stressed? Overwhelmed? Just thinking too much? Try an algorithmic waterfall of quick-hit content, made just for you.
Open TikTok and hand over the reins of your brain to our secret algorithm! You don’t even have to do the work of choosing your own adventure; we’ll figure out what you most want.
It’s a tasting menu of the full range of human emotions — a 15-second sound-bite of your favorite comedian, a soldier returning home to an enthusiastic dog, a tone-deaf take from a political foe.
Laugh, cry, seethe, repeat.
This is an abrupt and transformative change in the way young people are spending their limited quantity of attention. Of course, parents have long worried that new technologies – from television to video games – would cause harm to their kids. But this isn’t just another groundless moral panic. Adolescent mental health has never been worse. The suicide rate for teen girls is now the highest it has ever been, not just in the U.S. but in all of the main English-speaking nations. Something happened to Gen Z.
As Jon and Zach have shown repeatedly on the After Babel Substack, the “Great Rewiring of Childhood” that took place between 2010 and 2015 hit my generation just as we were entering puberty. The Millennials were largely spared from the carnage because all but the last few years of them were beyond puberty when the phone-based childhood swept in.
The day-to-day life of a typical teen or tween today would be unrecognizable to someone who came of age before the smartphone arrived. Zoomers are spending an average of 9 hours daily in this screen-time doom loop — desperate to forget the gaping holes they’re bleeding out of, even if just for… 9 hours a day. Uncomfortable silence could be time to ponder why they’re so miserable in the first place. Drowning it out with algorithmic white noise is far easier.
Is it any wonder that kids today are strangers to the people who raised them?
That’s how I explain kids to their parents.
* * * * * * *
Parents also ask me for solutions.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from talking to my fellow Zoomers, it’s that we almost unanimously recognize the damage our smartphones have done. I’ve never heard someone say, “I still hate my mom for not letting me get a phone until I was 13.”
My suggestion: delay. Wait until high school to give them a phone. (As Jon recommends, you can give them a flip phone before that.) Wait even longer to let them have an Instagram or TikTok account. The resentment is temporary. They’ll thank you later.
I still hold out hope that parents, educators, researchers, and Zoomers can work together to reconfigure technology’s role in childhood.
We were the guinea pigs of the digital age. Our suffering should inspire solutions, lest it be in vain.
Postscript from Jon Haidt:
If you are a member of Gen Z, born after 1995, and you disagree either with this post or with the story I’ve been telling about your generation, please say so in the comments section. We’ll be collecting dissenting views and inviting critics to write for the Substack.