Horrible proposition of Dr Jonathan Haidt

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This reference is used to support claims made by Dr Piotr Wozniak as part of an article series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.


Jonathan Haidt wants to see legislation that would systematically limit access of young people to social media.

Haidt studied Gray and Taleb

In the enclosed lecture, Haidt begins resolutely and convincingly. He appeals for more freedom, more play, and more risk-taking for children. He supports his views with science and charts. He is charming. He does not look like a man with an agenda. One might think that Dr Peter Gray will have a powerful ally in the fight for more freedom for children.

Mr Hyde

Haidt however turns out to be a wolf in sheep's clothing. He observes that there is a correlation between teen suicide and the boom in social media, esp. Instagram. He insists that as long as we have no better explanation for the correlation, we need to take action and limit teen access to social media. The correlation is there, but the answer based on neuroscience is reward deprivation (see: Ban schools, not TikTok). In that, Haidt proposition will do more harm than good. Freedom deprivation and reward deprivation will affect resilience. Poor resilience is the root of the evil. How can Haidt call for more freedom and with the other corner of the same mouth call for phone lockers at schools? More freedom in real life and less freedom in virtual world?

Morality error?

Haidt raises no instant smart aleck flags. You can see that in the face of Gov. Jeff Bush in the audience. There is no sign of narcissism instantly apparent in the lectures of Prof. Manfred Spitzer. As much as Spitzer, Haidt sells books based on his reasoning, but he does not look like a salesman. He looks like a man on the mission. That makes him only more dangerous.

If I was to explain what drives Haidt to contradict his own call for child's freedoms I would guess it is his interest in morality. He does not seem to acknowledge that morality evolves in parallel with culture and is an emergent phenomenon that needs no schooling. Haidt seems a person concerned with the fact that the influence of a parent is waning. Haidt supports individualism only as long as there is a community to provide a correction to the trajectory.

It seems that Haidt is driven not by science, but by a conviction that censorship makes sense. He denies kids their intelligence. A parent or a teacher are free to preach. However, a basic human right, and a basic demand of mental health is for a kid to have an unlimited freedom to reject adult opinion. Censorship slows down the evolution of models and progress of mankind.

Harm of screen-time restrictions

Children of Haidt might turn out great and provide "proof" that limits on freedom are tolerable in cases were a smart parent can mitigate the negative side effects of unfreedom.

Limiting access of children to digital technologies will slow down progress, increase maladaptation, and worsen mental health crisis

Antifragility vs. hormesis

Haidt insists that children are antifragile. This is a healthy way of reversing what we tend to think of children today. However, antifragility needs to be analyzed in terms of hormesis in which many stressors can produce positive outcomes up to a specific limit. For example, the graph for a push zone indicates that a tiny dose of coercion may be beneficial in learning. Wolff's law explains how we can incrementally increase stress loads in sports to build a man of steel, etc.

Thus, the function of the stress response needs to be taken into account. For example, zero coercion in learning makes for a great education strategy. Zero stress in exercise would be a horrible strategy that would take away all the benefits.

Coercion destroys children who lose their antifragile psyche and seem vulnerable to destruction by social media. In contrast, free children are antifragile in respect to screen time. That contradiction seems unresolved in Haidt's mind.

Optimum strategy in dosing stressors is freedom of choice. Brain is fantastically equipped in all the sensors needed to detect short-term harm and long-term benefits.

Freedom to dose eustress is key to antifragility

Further reading


Quoted excerpts come from the following reference:

Title: #EIE23: Jonathan Haidt: Smartphones vs. Smart Kids

Author: Jonathan Haidt

Date: Nov 20, 2023

Link: https://youtube.com/watch?v=yVq4ARIlNVg

Backlist: Neuromythology