13 May 2024

The Anxious Generation: Navigating the impact of smartphone use on tomorrow’s workforce

In today’s digital age, smartphones have become an integral part of our lives, but what are the consequences of this technology on the mental and physical health of younger generations?

Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Anxious Generation, delves into the profound effects of smartphone use and social media on childhood development and mental health.

Let’s explore how this phenomenon is shaping Generation Z (born 1995 to 2009) and Generational Alpha (born 2010 – 2024), and what it means for the future workforce.

The rise of mental health challenges

The book highlights a stark reality: the mental health landscape among children and adolescents has undergone a dramatic shift since the widespread adoption of smartphones. What seemed like a stable era in the early 2000s quickly transformed into a crisis by the 2010s. Reported cases of depressive episodes skyrocketed, with alarming increases among girls and boys. University students experienced surges in anxiety, depression, ADHD, and bipolar disorder diagnoses, painting a troubling picture of the mental state of Generation Z.

What are the harmful effects of a ‘phone-based’ childhood?

The rise of smartphones has reshaped childhood experiences in three key ways:

  • Less “unstructured play”. A phone-based childhood involves a structured virtual environment. It can’t offer the same developmental opportunities as the physical world of free play. Free play is crucial for developing skills such as cooperation, risk assessment, friendship, and imagination.
  • Limited emotional connection and social bonding. Without ample practice in reading emotional cues and building relationships, young people may face challenges in forming effective workplace connections.
  • Skewed social learning. Smartphones and social media can impact how younger generations perceive and adopt behaviours and values. The metrics-driven (number of likes) nature of online interactions may shape their understanding of success and influence their approach to professional growth and role models.

Understanding these dynamics is crucial for supporting Generation Z and Generation Alpha’s transition into the workforce, ensuring they have the necessary skills and adaptability to thrive in professional environments.

The great rewiring of childhood

Smartphones ushered in the era of constant connectivity, a phenomenon Haidt dubs the Great Rewiring of Childhood. By the mid-2010s, a significant portion of teenagers and even younger children owned smartphones, paving the way for continuous online engagement. This shift has significantly impacted social interaction, sleep patterns, attention spans, and the rise of addictive behaviours among young people.

The four primary ways in which smartphones negatively impact childhood:

  1. Social Deprivation: Face-to-face interactions among children have dwindled, replaced by digital interactions that often lack depth and authenticity. Parents, too, find themselves distracted by smartphones during family time, impacting the quality of interactions with their children.
  2. Sleep Deprivation: Late-night smartphone use disrupts adolescents’ sleep patterns, leading to heightened levels of depression, anxiety, aggression, and impulse control issues.
  3. Attention Fragmentation: Frequent notifications and constant digital stimuli hinder deep thinking and reflective engagement, potentially contributing to attention-related disorders like ADHD.
  4. Addiction: Smartphones and social media platforms are designed to be addictive, particularly for young, impressionable minds. They exploit behavioural triggers and offer variable rewards, fostering compulsive usage and withdrawal symptoms.

How might future generations be negatively impacted at work?

Here are some concerns we have about the impact on future generations in the workplace. And these don’t just apply to under 25s! Let’s face it, smartphone addiction isn’t just a youth issue!

Smartphone addiction can have negative effects on:

  • Social skills
  • Mental health
  • Physical health
  • Sleep habits
  • Attention spans
  • Creativity and imagination
  • Confidence in social situations
  • Teamworking skills

All of these factors can impact levels of productivity, engagement, and safety at work.

Taking action

To address this crisis, we need a holistic approach. Governments should enforce online safety rules for young people, while tech companies must ensure age-appropriate and secure platforms. Parents and caregivers can also make a big impact by setting screen time limits and encouraging free play.

‘The Anxious Generation’ highlights how smartphones are affecting young people’s development and mental health. These challenges have implications for the future workforce. Understanding these issues and taking action can pave the way for a healthier future workforce.

How we can help

At Understood, we offer brilliantly bespoke training that transforms behaviour by building better human connections. We focus on emotional intelligence, communication skills, behavioural safety, resilience, managing distraction, assertiveness and more. Get in touch today to explore how we can help your employees to thrive in a digital world.