Discover more from Bonnie Kristian
The group chat is the problem
Plus: 'The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism,' a Philly streetscape, and more
Good morning! It’s Wednesday, and here are this week’s five items for you.
1. A take I haven’t written elsewhere
The group chat is the problem
Last week, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt published a lengthy piece arguing for a causal, not merely correlational, relationship between heavy adolescent smartphone use and a multi-year spike in mental health problems in that cohort (and especially among teenage girls).
It’s worth reading in full, but I want to highlight one part (bolding mine):
[I]magine that in 2011, just before the epidemic began, a 12-year-old girl was given an iPhone 4 (the first with a front-facing camera) and began to spend 5 hours a day taking and editing selfies, posting them on Instagram (which had launched the year before), and scrolling through hundreds of posts from others. This was at a time when none of her friends in 7th grade had a smartphone or any social media accounts. Suppose that Instagram does cause anxiety disorders in a dose-response way, but the size of the correlation with anxiety is smaller than the correlation of social isolation with anxiety. The girl spending 5 hours a day on Instagram finds her mental health declining, but her friends’ mental health is unchanged. We find a clear dose-response effect. If she were to quit Instagram, would her mental health improve? Yes.
But now fast forward to 2015, when most girls are on Instagram and all teens are spending far less time with their friends in person (as I showed in my Feb 16 post). Most social activity is now asynchronous—channeled through posts, comments, and emojis on Instagram, Snapchat, and a few other platforms. Childhood has been rewired—it has become phone-based—and rates of anxiety and depression are soaring (as I showed in my Feb 8 post). Suppose that in 2015, a 12-year-old girl decided to quit all social media platforms. Would her mental health improve? Not necessarily.
If all of her friends continued to spend 5 hours a day on the various platforms then she’d find it difficult to stay in touch with them. She’d be out of the loop and socially isolated. If the isolation effect is larger than the dose-response effect, then her mental health might even get worse. When we look across thousands of girls, we might find no strong or clear correlation between time on social media and level of mental disorder. We might even find that the non-users are more depressed and anxious than the moderate users (which some studies do find, known as the Goldilocks effect).
What we see in this second case is that social media creates a cohort effect: something that happened to a whole cohort of young people, including those who don’t use social media. It also creates a trap—a collective action problem—for girls and for parents. Each girl might be worse off quitting Instagram even though all girls would be better off if everyone quit.
This is what I keep running into in my own (very hypothetical, extremely future-oriented) thinking about tech policies for our kids: The group chat is the problem.
I can very easily see my way to saying no smartphone until college or driver’s license or some similar, late-teenage years milestone. Mostly by accident of the timing of my birth, that’s when I got my first phone—a little flip device for talk and text—and it seems like a reasonable timeline to me.
But the group chat.
I don’t want to consign my kids to be the unfortunate few who can’t be in the group chat. That’s a line, I think, across which teenage accusations of “mean” parenting have a ring of truth. Not being in the group chat would be like being forced, c. 1998, to go study at the library during every lunch break instead of hanging out over a meal with your friends. It would be a huge social detriment, one I’m not willing to inflict.
I suppose it’s possible this dynamic will be different in a decade, when our twins are 13 and about to enter high school, but I kind of doubt it. Group chats may evolve and migrate around different apps, but I don’t see the basic concept going away any time soon, nor do I see it becoming less of a central social location for teenagers (or adults, for that matter).
The ideal, of course, is to avoid the trap Haidt describes: Make friends with families with a similar perspective on teenage phone use so the social pressure to have a smartphone isn’t significant in your kids’ social circle. But that’s far easier said than done, and even if you somehow manage it with friend selection at school, church, etc., there are still relationships you can’t similarly choose, like cousins and neighbors. I’m not sure this is a wholly escapable trap.
It’s probably too early for my family to make concrete plans, given how the tech itself is likely to change over the next 10+ years. Right now, we’re thinking a smartwatch plus laptop pairing, which would make an iMessage group chat possible while avoiding the “world in your hand” experience of a smartphone.
But I dunno. Maybe that plan will evolve. I can’t say I’m sad the decision is still years away. If it’s nearer—or here already—for you, what did you do?
2. What I'm reading this week
The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism: How the Evangelical Battle over the End Times Shaped a Nation, by Daniel G. Hummel (forthcoming May 4, 2023)
I’m about 80 percent of the way through an advance copy of this book for a review I’m writing, and it’s been an intriguing read so far. The scope is roughly the last 200 years, so it’s fairly recent history, covering people and events whose influence is still clearly felt in modern American evangelicalism. You wouldn’t need a background in academic theology to get through this—it’s engaging and well-written, though certainly very detailed.
Though it’s not the primary topic, one of the most helpful pieces, for me, has been the location of different evangelical and fundamentalist institutions (especially colleges and seminaries) and figures (especially major pastors and writers) in their various factions and relations to one another. Many of these names are familiar, and I had some sense of their theological and cultural alignments, but Hummel has filled in a lot of my knowledge gaps.
I’ll say more in the review, and for now will simply note that the third section, which covers 1960-2020, is particularly worth a read for any observer of evangelicals as a voting bloc today.
3. A recommendation, by, who often puts out thought-provoking posts from a theologically and politically conservative viewpoint.
Like this piece, which posited (among other things) that justice used to be right-coded and forgiveness left-coded in American politics, but, in recent years, those associations have reversed, with messy cultural results:
Or this one, on repeated reconversions and what they suggest about evangelicals’ thinking on repentance:
4. Recent work
National divorce is more popular than you think | The Daily Beast
The prospect of Chinese involvement in Ukraine makes restraint that much more vital | Defense Priorities (newsletter)
Navigating the complexities of objectionable online content | The Digital Public Square (podcast discussion of my chapter in the book by the same name)