gen z social media

Is Social Media Bad for Gen Z’s Mental Health?

Over the past decade, mental health professionals have witnessed a concerning increase in mental illness and the demand for treatment. Generation Z (the cohort born between 1997 and 2012) appear to bear a disproportionate burden of these mental health challenges.

According to the National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, individuals under 34 experience “high or very high levels” of psychological distress almost twice as often as those above 65. That being said, psychologists and psychiatrists have conducted extensive scholarly research and clinical studies to unravel the causal factors behind such a disparity. One thing is becoming increasingly clear: no single factor can account for the complexity and scale of this phenomenon.

As the first generation of digital natives, it’s easy to attribute Gen Z's heightened psychological distress to the internet. In fact, researchers like Abi-Jaoude, Naylor, and Pignatiello (2020, p.E136) note the correlation between the increase in adolescent mental distress and the widespread use of smartphones and social media. However, this relationship is more complex than it may seem at first glance.

Gen Z’s Social Media Habits
The unique way Gen Z utilises social media comes as no surprise. According to a 2023 study conducted by the McKinsey Health Institute, younger generations engage with social media in both "active and passive ways." This includes posting on platforms like Instagram and TikTok, as well as scrolling through their feeds.

Actively engaging on social media is a powerful way for individuals to express support, foster communities, and exchange information. The McKinsey study (2023) reinforces this perspective, affirming that "more than 50 percent of all [generational] groups recognised self-expression and social connectivity as positive attributes of social media." In other words, social media can provide a sense of liberation and solace that may not be readily attainable in a young person’s offline life.

Dr Galambos, MindSkiller® founder and consultant psychiatrist, agrees. Speaking at a panel on "Social Media Use in Young People" for Wolper Hospital, he notes that social media helps young people who would otherwise lead "very lonely lives." Dr Galambos mentions individuals with autism spectrum disorder, severe avoidant personality, or severe social anxiety, saying, "Someone might suffer a major depressive disorder and also be very withdrawn and struggling, and [social media] might be their little lifeline... it might be the only way they are managing through."

While social media can provide a sense of connection and alleviate loneliness, it can also pose risks for young users, especially those with pre-existing mental health concerns. As Dr Galambos points out, seeking like-minded individuals may inadvertently lead to the “spread of maladaptive coping mechanisms” and other "negative messages that aren't helpful, that aren't health-promoting... that may contribute to the symptoms and their level of disability."

Unfortunately, as social media algorithms continue to foster echo chambers, this sort of negative messaging and cyberbullying is becoming increasingly apparent, with 44% of young Australians having negative experiences online during a six-month monitoring period in 2020.

Contextualising Social Media and Gen Z Mental Health
All things considered, social media use is not inherently good or bad. It is not necessarily how long a young person spends online that matters, but instead how they use social media and what content they consume. There is no denying that digital overuse and addiction are becoming problems for Gen Z, but “destructive” use is often contingent upon pre-existing conditions and specific environmental factors.

Shifting cultural dynamics, influenced by factors such as rising living costs, heightened competition for resources, and smaller nuclear families, have reshaped societal norms and communication in significant ways. The consequences are profound, as parents often find themselves compelled to work full-time jobs to provide for their families, leaving limited time for nurturing relationships within the home. As a result, a prevailing sense of loneliness has taken root among today's youth.

Recent research shows that "Fifty-eight percent of Gen Z reported two or more unmet social needs, compared with 16 percent of people from older generations" (McKinsey Health Institute, 2022). These needs encompass critical aspects such as income, employment, education, food, housing, transportation, social support, and safety. Notably, these unmet needs have been consistently associated with higher rates of self-reported behavioural health conditions. This, in turn, creates a more precarious digital landscape for young individuals to navigate.

Nevertheless, Gen Z has demonstrated a significant interest in utilising digital wellness apps and programs to educate themselves about mental health, where this demographic uses such platforms almost twice as frequently as Gen X or baby boomers (McKinsey Health Institute, 2023). MindSkiller® acknowledges this emerging trend, harnessing the online world's potential to share information and promote greater mental health literacy.

Abi-Jaoude, Naylor, K. T., & Pignatiello, A. (2020). Smartphones, social media use and youth mental health. Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), 192(6), E136–E141.

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