In the digital age, how much impact has social media and the economy had on Gen Z mental wellness?
Your phone pings. It’s a single WhatsApp notification from your friend, and all it says is your name. What on earth could they say next? Even though your relationship with them has been fine lately, a feeling of doom starts to swell up in your chest. You know it's probably nothing, but you can’t stop the anticipatory anxiety from creeping up on you. What could be coming?
These days, it seems like everyone and their mother has anxiety. Is it something in the air, or are people exaggerating? It’s horrible to think that, and even worse to belittle what someone says they’re feeling— but we’ve all done it. It kind of goes back to the whole ‘snowflake’ thesis— the belief amongst some that today's youth have been pampered by helicopter parents and allowed to avoid the responsibility and independence that brew mental resilience. For whatever reason, there’s a belief that both millennials and Gen Z have been slow to embrace adulthood with enthusiasm. “Adulting" has now become a verb, as if one had a choice in the matter.
University of Alberta sociologist Lisa Strohschein says these dismissive views sell young people short, and they really do have it tougher than previous generations, especially when it comes to employment prospects. “If you're in a dead-end job, that's stress producing,” she published. Late millennials and Gen Z are also delaying many of the milestones of adulthood previous generations took for granted. They're not homeowners, they're not in relationships, they're not getting married. They're living in their parents' homes. There's all kinds of things that have frustrated their efforts to get ahead. This generation as a whole is among the most educated it has ever been, but the path to success is also less clear. And when you look at the numbers, there is a huge disparity in the mental health of Gen Z, Millennials, and between previous generations.
In a survey published by the mental health advocacy group Mind Share Partners, half of millennials between 24 and 39 years old said they'd resigned from a job at least partly for mental health reasons. For Gen Z’ers between 18 and 23, the percentage spikes to 75, compared with just 20 percent among the general population.
We see this all over the world. In Canada, 69 percent of employed Gen Z and Millennials are struggling with anxiety, while 59 percent are dealing with depression, according to a survey by Ipsos. In the 2016 Canadian National College Health Assessment, 65 percent of post-secondary students reported experiencing overwhelming anxiety in the previous year, and 13 percent had even considered suicide.
So why is this the case? One popular explanation is that this generation has little to no memory of a life without social media, political polarization, racial unrest, and climate change.
Research from the University College London found that Gen Z was more likely to self-harm, have a poorer body image, skip sleep, be overweight, and have depression. Gen Z also faces pressure related to social media and technology, including harassment (sexual or otherwise), bullying, and the need to conform. It is the first generation to be exposed to potentially harmful content through social media at a young age, like self-harm videos or pro-anorexia content.
On the flip side, there are those who would argue in favour of social media. In this line of thinking, being present online not only arms you with resources and education, but it gives you a sense of community and the freedom to make friends from different places. Other generations could learn from this in terms of broadening their perspective of what constitutes friendship or connection. If you had a pen pal growing up, in this era pen pals have moved online.
But it’s not only about connections, social media’s impact on mental health could be entirely, well, irrelevant. In the Opinion essay “The Big Myth About Teenage Anxiety,” the psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman writes:
“Parents have bought into the idea that digital technology — smartphones, video games and the like — are neurobiologically and psychologically toxic. If you believe this, it seems intuitive that the generations growing up with these ubiquitous technologies are destined to suffer from psychological problems. But this dubious notion comes from a handful of studies with serious limitations.”
There are some studies that report an association between increased time spent on electronic communication and screens, and lower levels of psychological well-being. But here’s the thing: they only show correlation, which makes it entirely possible that teenagers who are more anxious are simply more drawn to smartphones to deflect their negative emotions.
It doesn't help that there's such a stigma against mental health in the workplace, especially when it involves older colleagues and a fast-paced environment. We may be precisely aware of what ails us but feel reluctant to talk about it at work, because employers often see it as a hindrance to their business’ output or react condescendingly, and we’d frankly just rather not deal with that BS. So then what happens? We reach a point where addressing their mental health and working at the same time is no longer possible. Instead, we might head to their friends and social media to talk about it— our relationships with social media come full circle.
So yes, Gen Z has been called the most depressed generation. But we’re also the best educated and most aware, which means that members of this group are more likely than their older peers to seek out mental health counseling or therapy. We don’t want any of the shaming or stigma that comes with talking about mental health, we just want to feel better. Some 37 percent of Gen Z’ers, a higher rate than any previous generation, report having worked with a mental health professional. As one trending TikTok sound would say ‘If I’ma be sad I’ma do it with pizzazz’.