The Anxious Generation

Dozens of books are published every year now on the risks of technology and AI. I can only read a fraction and I have to confess I start more than I finish. But every so often I am gripped by a book I can’t put down and then want everyone to read.

The last time that happened was Shoshanna Zuboff’s masterpiece The Age of Surveillance Capitalism in 2019 which exposes the economic and financial models, the risks and exploitation at the heart of Big Tech. It’s not a light read nor a short one at almost 700 pages but foundational to understanding the changes at the heart of the global economy.

The Anxious Generation is more focussed and altogether easier to read and understand – but I would say equally important. Jonathan Haidt is Professor of Ethical Leadership in the Stern School of Business in New York University. He’s a serious academic. More importantly he is also a parent and cares passionately about the wellbeing of young people.

His book deserves to be read by every parent and grandparent; by every headteacher; every church leader; every politician. It’s a cool-headed, factual and devastating analysis of what has happened to the mental health of children and young people since 2010. It’s also a cry for radical reform in relation to children, schools, smart phones and social media.

Life on Mars

Haidt begins and ends his book with a parable: “suppose when your first child turned 10 a visionary billionaire whom you’ve never met chose her to join the first permanent human settlement on Mars?”. Would you agree? Of course not. But what has happened to children and young people over the last 14 years has been the equivalent: a set of experiences Haidt calls the Great Rewiring.

The Great Rewiring happened in 2010 with three global developments in technology. The first was the widespread adoption of the smart phone with thousands of apps. The second was the invention of the front-facing camera and the arrival of the selfie. The third was the rise of social media, driven by algorithms and especially the like and retweet/repost buttons. The Anxious Generation is not a diatribe against technology as such, or the internet, or computer games but an analysis of what has happened to children and young people as a consequence of these key and almost universal developments.

Previous studies have demonstrated a correlation between the sharp rise in anxiety and mental health issues and social media. Haidt claims to take the evidence a step further and demonstrates clear causation. I was completely convinced by his arguments which underlined so much of what I learned during the long passage of the Online Safety Bill through Parliament. Some of his reviewers do still question his evidence base but the book is supported by a website with tables of statistics and updates for those who want to follow through on this.

Haidt follows through on his general analysis with more detailed studies of the differential effects of social media on boys and girls. These are probably the most chilling and serious chapters in the book. He sets the widespread use of social media in the context of an equally serious long-term trend: under supervision of children online combines with over supervision in the real world with fewer opportunities for real life play and experimentation has produced the current sharp rise in anxiety, unhappiness, self-harming and suicidal thoughts with tragic consequences for a generation.

The Prescription

Haidt’s prescription and call to action are specific and clear and undergirded by every argument in the book. He makes four recommendations:

• No smart phones before high school (aged 14)
• No social media before 16
• Phone-free schools
• Far more unsupervised play and childhood independence.

Haidt demonstrates convincingly that the minds of young teenagers are still developing until the age of 16 and young teens are simply unable to resist the addictive behaviours taught by the algorithms which drive social media. Social media is therefore positively dangerous in forming addictive habits before the age of 16. He also demonstrates that the current social media threshold of 13 (ignored by many children and parents) is entirely arbitrary and has no basis in medical research. By phone-free schools he means more than no phones visible in lessons but a system whereby phones are locked away securely at the beginning of the school day and not unlocked until the end. The Times carried an article on 9 April exploring the radical difference this has made in one school in Kent.

Haidt’s conclusions are relevant to every school governor, every teacher and every parent in Britain. Young children want smart phones and are often given smart phones from the age of eight or nine. It’s currently considered normal to give your child a smart phone at the latest by secondary school with access to all the social media apps. It takes a determined parent and school to stand against the trend. But Haidt’s analysis speaks for itself. The current socially accepted norm is deeply damaging to the mental health of a whole generation.

Spiritual Practices

One of the most fascinating chapters in The Anxious Generation is the section on spiritual practices. Haidt himself is an atheist but he writes as someone who appreciates and sees the value of traditional spiritual practices for mental health. He outlines six which he believes are significant:

1. Shared sacredness (times and places set apart)
2. Embodiment and real-world experiences
3. Silence, stillness and focus developed by prayer and meditation
4. Transcending the self in worship
5. Be slow to anger and quick to forgive (the opposite to habits developed by social media) and
6. Find awe in nature.

This is an excellent list for churches and church schools to reflect on and to develop further. As a diocese we have done a huge amount of work in this area through SpaceMakers, our contemplative toolkit for schools to teach exactly these and other spiritual disciplines.

What can schools and churches and chaplaincies do?

The Anxious Generation is a vital book. Read it for yourself and recommend it to others. We are in the midst of a mental health pandemic and not just for children. Many of Haidt’s lessons apply equally to adults addicted to their phones, constantly checking into social media and unable to focus on any single thing for more than a few minutes.

Churches are well placed to form communities of resistance to technology addiction for both adults and for children and young people. Draw people together. Host conversations. Get medical experts in. Develop strategies together.

School heads and governors have key responsibilities here to ensure that church schools are places of safety and learning. That will mean taking very seriously the call to ban smart phones during the school day though decisions need to be carefully made and prepared for.

We have scores of chaplains across the diocese working in universities, the armed forces, prisons and other settings with a generation of young adults already addicted to technologies but also beginning to look for ways to grow stronger.

Looking back from the future

I am convinced that in 10 or 20 years’ time, the world will look back in anger at our carelessness in exposing children and young people to addictive technologies, harmful content and permanent distraction through what Haidt calls the Great Rewiring of childhood and adolescence. It is time to wake up to the reality of the crisis in child mental health and its causes. Jonathan Haidt’s book is a really significant step forward – but we need to take action together.

I hope this finds you well and this letter comes with thanksgiving and appreciation for your ministry especially during this season of Lent and Passiontide.

Our Diocesan Synod last Saturday spent time addressing our mission and ministry with children and young people. Can I encourage you to take time to listen to or read the transcript of my Presidential Address which details why this is so important at this time.

Following widespread consultation, I have taken the unusual step of asking every parish and deanery to give greater priority to this ministry, to pray and plan next steps between now and September. At the conclusion of the afternoon’s debate, the need for urgency was recognised by our Synod and I am hugely encouraged by their unanimous support and endorsement of the following motion:

“That this Synod endorses the need to significantly increase our engagement with children, young people, families and schools, building on Disciples Together and to share the good news of Jesus Christ, and calls on every deanery and benefice in 2024 to develop plans and partnerships for growth.”

I’ve been a bishop long enough now to know that bishops need to be sparing in directives and appeals of this kind. All too easily they can produce guilt and weariness rather than fresh energy and initiative. However, it does seem to me that this is a moment to make an exception. Over the last year, the Discipleship Enablers have spent a lot of time listening to children and young people and those who work with them; to parishes and to deaneries. We know there is energy around this agenda. We know there is consensus to make this a priority. We know that churches are already committing resources. We are confident that people understand that this will mean many different things in many different places.

Over half a million children and young people live in the Diocese of Oxford – between a fifth and a quarter of our population of 2.4 million people are under 20. We are all aware that the post-lockdown regathering and restoring of our work with children and young people has been much slower than for adults. We need to face the reality that although we are engaging with tens of thousands of children and families through our schools, our engagement with children and young people through our parish churches is no longer as confident and strong.

This reality should not lead us to despair, but it should be a spur to reset our youth and children’s work with urgency as a vital part of our service to our communities and of sharing in God’s mission to God’s world.

The process for developing deanery plans will be led by your Area Teams working through their Area Deans, Lay Chairs and relevant local deanery structures. The process of developing parish plans is the responsibility of every PCC. I would be grateful if you could pass this letter and the appropriate links onto the PCC and create space on an agenda in the near future for a full discussion to follow.

Parishes and deaneries will be supported by the team of Discipleship Enablers who are producing resources, parish mapping templates and supportive statistical data available through your deanery. Listening to the voice of children and young people themselves will be vital to our planning. Can I commend to you our exciting new resource ‘Amplify: from a whisper to a waves‘ which will provide the ideas and approaches you need. The focus is not on grand plans but on discerning the ‘one next step’ which can make a difference in your context.

These plans are not for the sake of the church but for the sake of God’s Kingdom and for the sake of the tens of thousands of children and young people and families we will serve through this vision: children who need a foundation; who need purpose; who need love and support; families who need community and practical help and guidance; young people who need investment and friendship and confidence; young adults who need models for living.

We want children and young people to come to know Jesus and love Jesus and follow Jesus. We want to make disciples. We want to bless families and young adults and see them access the immense treasure of the gospel.

With thanks in anticipation for all you are able to do to raise the profile of this ministry.

Watch Bishop Steven’s presidential address or download the transcript.

Young girl resting face on her hand and looking at a mobile phone which is lighting up her face.

The Bishop of Oxford, raises concern about online harms, powers, and disinformation in the second reading of the Online Harms Bill in the House of Lords.

The Bishop of Oxford spoke in a Second Reading of the Schools Bill in the House of Lords on Monday 23 May. Read the full text of his speech or watch on Bishop Steven’s Facebook page.

The Age Assurance (Minimum Standards) Bill

The Age Assurance (Minimum Standards) Bill had its second reading in the House of Lords on Friday 19 November. The Bishop of Oxford spoke in support of the bill. Read the text of his speech, or watch on Bishop Steven’s Facebook page.

My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Russell, and indeed every other noble Lord who has spoken in this debate. It has been extraordinary and very moving. I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on securing this Second Reading and on her passionate and brilliant opening speech. With others, I thank and commend her for her tireless commitment to protecting children online. That she does so with such consistent grace and good humour, against the backdrop of glacially slow progress and revelations about both the variety and scale of harms to children, is no small achievement in itself.

One of my interests in this debate is the more than 280 church schools and the more than 50,000 children who are a precious part of my diocese of Oxford. A substantial proportion are at significant risk for want of this Bill. The primary responsibility of the Government is the protection of all their citizens and especially and particularly those unable to protect themselves. Future generations will, I think, look back on the first two decades of this century and our unregulated use of technology with deep pain and regret, as they reflect on the ways in which children are exposed to harmful material online, the damage which has followed, and will follow, and our tardiness in setting effective regulation in place. We will be judged in a similar way to those who exploited child labour in past generations.

Children are precious to God and to society, not as potential adults nor in the future tense but simply and completely in themselves. Each is of immense value. The evidence is clear that many are emerging from a digital childhood wounded and scarred in ways which are tragic but entirely preventable.

The Government make much of being pro-business in support of the emerging technologies of this fourth industrial revolution but, if they are equally serious about making the UK a safe country to be online, they really must do more to be pro-business in ways that protect children. Other noble Lords have movingly pointed out the many risks our children face whenever they venture online.

We now know with increasing certainty how it is not only other users, so-called bad actors, but many online service providers themselves—not least Facebook, or now Meta—that target children, their data extracted, their identities manipulated, their impulses exploited. It should be noted that many of these same service providers say they would welcome clear guidance and regulation from the Government, even while other businesses say they already possess the tools and opportunities to do this both safely and profitably.

The age-appropriate design code is a welcome and genuinely world-leading innovation, and the Government would do well to note—against the siren voices denying technical feasibility or fearing the balkanisation of the internet—that businesses, the service providers, have now found it easier to standardise their processes to the highest regulatory watermark globally in the interests of reducing costs and complexity. This bodes well for the principle-based and proportional approach to age verification that the Bill artfully encapsulates.

As others have asked, what possible reason can there be for further delay? If protecting children is good in and of itself; if business publicly expresses the need for clearer guidance on how to frame that protection; when business itself sees commercial opportunity in the tools for protection; when a regulator is now waiting in the wings; after government delay already threatens a lost generation—why is the Bill from the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, not being eagerly and urgently adopted by the Government themselves, if that is indeed the case? I hope we will hear good news today. I eagerly await the Minister’s answer.

Further reading

Watch Bishop Steven’s speech on his Facebook page

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sets a child in the midst of his disciples and invites them to reshape their priorities. What would happen if we did that today in the public square?

It was good to be at St. Michael at the Northgate on Sunday for the Patronal Festival and to mark 50 years since St. Michael’s became the civic Church of the City of Oxford. The service was attended by the Lord Lieutenant, the Lord Mayor of Oxford and members of the Council. The Bible Readings for Michaelmas were Revelation 12.7-12 and Matthew 18.1-11.

A sermon given by the Bishop of Oxford on Sunday 26 September 2021:

It’s very good to mark today the 50 years in which St. Michael at the Northgate has been the civic Church of the city of Oxford. It is good to express thanks and appreciation to those who have served as City Rectors in that time, including Anthony, and to all those who have served and serve as Mayors, Councillors and officers. Thank you for your leadership and care and especially in the challenges of the last twenty months.

St Michael’s became the City Church in 1971. We are looking back today over fifty years. By coincidence the new ITV series of Endeavour, the Inspector Morse prequel, is also set in 1971: a good reminder of some of the changes over the last two generations. The line that stays with me from last Sunday’s episode is the taxi driver charging 75 new pence for a ride from the station to Summertown.

There have been many changes over that time. Our first reading from Revelation uses the language of war in heaven and describes the conflict between good and evil as a battle.

As we look back we can see that battles have indeed been fought and won. Our city is more inclusive. Town and gown are better integrated, each more appreciative of the other.

Oxford is described by its poorest residents as a compassionate city; a place of safety for the most vulnerable. Women are better represented in our leadership. The church and faith communities work well together. The city has been able to welcome and to integrate into its life migrants from all over the world and to celebrate diverse cultures.

Year by year we welcome students, academics and scientists and help equip them for global leadership in the arts, the sciences and the social sciences. The influence of our city extends across the world.

St. Michael and all Angels is part of this social fabric in its role as a city church: as a place of prayer and worship; in the role of the City Rector as chaplain to the Mayor and Council; as a symbol of our City’s deep Christian heritage; as a witness to the Christian values of integrity, service, humility and safeguarding the vulnerable which flow through our gospel reading.

The Church, of course, makes no claim to perfection: we are often slow to change ourselves; we continually fall far short of our ideals; we are sometimes on the wrong side in these great battles. We are called continually to repentance and to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ ourselves as the only safe foundation of our message to those around us.

Greatness in the kingdom of heaven does not lie, Jesus reminds us, with politicians or religious leaders but with little children. Both politicians and religious leaders will be judged by the ways in which the interests of those children have first place in our decision making and in our actions.

Anniversaries are a good moment to look back and measure the journey we have travelled together. But they are also a moment to look forward. What are our hopes for this city as we look ahead now to another fifty years: to the year 2071. What battles lie ahead in the great war being fought in heaven and on earth? What will the Church dare say to the City in this next, uncertain chapter of our life together?

To put the question a different way: if Jesus were to place a child in our midst this morning here in Oxford in 2021, what battles would be uppermost in our minds as we look to safeguard the well-being of that child through the next generation? What needs to change?

Three are uppermost in my mind. I will be interested to know if they match your own.

The first is undoubtedly the battle being fought over the earth’s climate. The world faces twin emergencies of climate change and biodiversity loss. Science tells us clearly that the next ten years will be decisive in that battle and will determine the future of life on earth. Will the child Jesus sets in our midst inherit a world in which all can flourish?

For Christians, we are stewards of God’s good creation. How can our city make a significant, world changing contribution to this great challenge of our age through our policies and example and convening power and the priorities we set? How can this City Church lift up and support the green agenda as part of our God given mission to the city?

The second challenge faced by the child Jesus sets in our midst is one of health and safety and especially mental, emotional and spiritual health. A child or young person growing up today will face immense pressures, many arising from the misuse and exploitation of technology.

COVID has revealed a tidal wave of mental health pressures on the young which has been building for decades. How can our city increase resources directed to the mental, emotional and spiritual health of the young through harnessing the churches and faith communities, the third sector and the health and social services? There is a battle here for investment and of priorities. How can this City Church be an advocate for children and young people as we imagine the child Jesus sets in our midst?

My third challenge for the next generation is the challenge of rising inequality: the gap between rich and poor which again has been revealed and has increased through COVID. Oxford as a city is a tremendous generator of wealth and innovation. The City anchors and will help drive the Oxford-Cambridge arc which will be an engine of the UK economy in the coming decades.

But we are also in danger of becoming a segmented city in which the gap between rich and poor grows wider to the detriment of all. How is it possible for us to become a fairer city in terms of access, health, transport, work and housing? Is it time for a fairness commission which can look at the future of our city through the lens of inequality? How can this City Church continue to set out a vision for justice and fairness for all as a core part of its role as the civic church of Oxford?

There was a war in heaven, says Revelation. As we look back over fifty years we give thanks for battles fought and won and for the role this Church has played in the civic life of this great city. We give thanks for all those who contribute to that civic life today.

But as we look forward we know that there are battles still to come and great resources to meet them both seen and unseen. Christ sets in our midst a little child and challenges our priorities for the future. Together as a city we are called to have a vision for a greener, more sustainable world; for a healthier world; for a fairer world.

We commit ourselves, imperfect as we are, to these great challenges. In this Church dedicated to St. Michael, we too, every single one of us, are called to fight on the side of the angels.

This is a message for all the children in the Diocese of Oxford – Bishop Steven needs your help to make people smile this Christmas.


REInspired brings Christianity alive in classrooms across Berkshire and beyond. Julia Jones describes her faith journey, and the journey of REInspired in episode 4 of My (extraordinary) Family.