Bill Maher Debated the Generational Effects of Social Media

Jonathan Haidt talked tech on this week’s “Real Time”

March 30, 2024 10:25 am
Bill Maher on pandemic nostalgia
Bill Maher is understandably baffled by nostalgia for early 2020.

What’s it like to grow up fully online? It’s something that might be unimaginable for some readers and a part of personal history for others. The gulf between these two experiences is vast, and speaks volumes — and may or may not be at the root of some of the nation’s mental health issues right now. Which brings us to this week’s Real Time With Bill Maher, and the book that Maher dubbed “a clarion call” — Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.

Haidt was the featured guest on this week’s episode. His position? That “childhood seems to have changed” between 2010 and 2015. He pointed to increased levels of self-harm and suicide, and posited that the rise of smartphones and high-speed data were responsible. Mammals need play in their development, he argued — and the role that smartphones played in isolating young people ran contrary to this. It’s one of a few factors in the mix here; Haidt also cited the dovetailing of overprotective parents and the allure of the internet.

He found a receptive audience in Maher, who himself referred to “the portal of evil that is the phone.” And while Haidt has been making variations on this argument for a while now, and cited a recent Florida law regulating the social media usage of minors as grounds for a potential bipartisan push on the issue. He also mentioned the work of sociologist Emile Durkheim, which took me back to my freshman year of college when I took an Intro to Sociology course. 

That said, Haidt could also be more glib when it suited him. “Millennials had flip phones,” he said. “They came out fine.” His conversation with Maher is unlikely to end this debate — but it’s also clearly not going away any time soon.

How to Raise Your Kids in the Social Media Age, According to an Expert
A good place to start? Devorah Heitner, author of “Growing Up in Public,” says to stop spying on them.

Some other notable moments from the episode:

  • Maher, in his opening monologue: “P. Diddy’s really fucked now, because all the defense lawyers in America are working for Trump.”
  • On a more meta level, Maher also revealed that he’s not a fan of conspiracy theories around the Baltimore bridge collapse.
  • For this episode’s panel, Fareed Zakaria and Mark Esper joined Maher for a conversation that began by addressing Ronna McDaniel’s hiring and firing by NBC, and – more broadly – how the media should handle election denial.
  • The panel debate saw an unexpectedly detailed discussion of the legacy of Gus Hall, the longtime head of the Communist Party USA.
  • Also unexpectedly referenced this episode: the Brian DePalma film Body Double.
  • Both guests tapped into the general mood of anti-wokeness on the show, with Zakaria arguing that Joe Biden needed a Sister Souljah moment of his own.
  • Maher’s escalating disbelief on the “are you better off now than you were four years ago” argument was especially memorable: “We washed the mail! We played baseball in front of cardboard cut-outs!”
  • Maher made one very resonant point about the aftermath of the pandemic: there’s plenty of evidence that improving air filtration is vitally important, and yet there hasn’t been much work done in that department.
  • Maher, taking a more irreverent look at diseases: “Bird flu was just found in a goat, which means we’re just one lonely farmer away from the next pandemic.”
  • Real Time will be off next week and returns on April 12.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.