UNC System president: What smartphones do to our students

Published April 11, 2024

By Peter Hans

(Editor's note: This opinion piece was first printed in The News and Observer, April 11, 2024)



When state lawmakers chartered the University of North Carolina in 1789, they gave it the simple and lovely charge “to consult the happiness of a rising generation.” It’s a timeless, deeply humane goal — and it’s getting tougher.

The author and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt thinks much of the blame lies with the glowing rectangle you’re probably using to read this essay. The introduction of smartphones a little more than a decade ago has been a catastrophe for children and adolescents, Haidt argues in his new book “The Anxious Generation,” replacing play and exploration with screen-scrolling isolation.

“This is when life was radically rewired for young people,” Haidt said during a February talk at UNC-Chapel Hill. “This is when Gen Z’s mental health collapsed, because they now had a phone-based childhood.”

Haidt isn’t blaming the students; he’s calling out the grownups who have replaced playtime with screen time. You simply cannot spend hours a day staring at phones and iPads without profoundly warping human development, and there’s now a mountain of evidence — from rising youth suicide to falling rates of close friendship — that a permissive approach to technology is bad for kids.

The direct effects of excessive screen time are bad enough — skewed body image, unhealthy social comparisons, an ambient sense of angst and doom about the world. American teenagers now spend somewhere between five and nine hours per day in front of screens — time that they’re not spending with friends, going outside, sleeping, or studying.

The effects on colleges are clear: growing demand for counseling, skyrocketing rates of psychiatric disorders, and heightened concerns about student safety. Last month, college newspapers across North Carolina collaborated on a special issue about mental health, declaring it a generational crisis.

“A normal part of being an American college student now is that you are anxious and depressed,” Haidt said at UNC. His prescription is simple and bracing: schools and parents should severely limit smartphone time.

At the UNC System, we recently directed campuses to block access to some of the worst social media actors — anonymous gossip apps like YikYak and Sidechat that intentionally target college students. But it’s the big players like YouTube, TikTok and Instagram that are squandering enormous quantities of time and focus.

We aren’t going to turn public college campuses into tech-free monasteries, but universities can embrace their long-held role as places apart, intentionally counter-cultural havens where students get space to think and mature. In a tech-saturated era, that means helping students build real-world social connection, exposing them to intensive classroom conversation, and insisting on the slow work of deep thinking.

When the Wall Street Journal’s Julie Jargon recently interviewed young people about their reasons for deleting TikTok, the answers were searing. “I realized I have a very finite amount of time on this planet, and there is so much I want to experience and accomplish and do,” explained a 25 year-old woman. “I was wasting so much time distracting myself.”

A strong college education should echo that message — that life is precious and finite, and there are much higher forms of happiness than an endless scroll.