Do the Kids Think They’re Alright?
It’s hard to find members of Gen Z who think their phone-based childhoods benefitted their generation
A common criticism I have received since 2015 is that I am misunderstanding the younger generation; I’m just another in a long line of older people lamenting the behavior of “kids these days.” As a social psychologist long active in the field of cultural psychology, I know that this could be true. Even more than previous generations, Gen Z has created an online culture that us older folk can’t even see, let alone understand. So I have been on the lookout for writings by members of Gen Z explaining their generation to outsiders, and I would especially like to find criticisms of The Coddling of the American Mind, or of my more recent writings about social media.
So far, I have found almost none. When I speak to high school and college audiences, I usually ask those who think I got the story wrong to raise their hands and then come forward and ask the first questions. I rarely get a hand raised or a critical question. I therefore asked my two research assistants, Zach Rausch and Eli George, for help finding voices of Gen Z. Zach was born in 1994, so he’s a late millennial. Eli, however, was born in 1999, so he’s Gen Z, and he took on the task. He graduated last May from Harvard with majors in philosophy and musicology and with a good deal of academic research in the humanities. Below is his report. He too, failed to find much disagreement about the path Gen Z is on, although he found some keen observations about additional sociological and economic factors that are contributing to Gen Z’s difficulties. I hope in particular that members of Gen Z will read it and tell us what they think Eli got wrong.1
— Jon Haidt
p.s.: Next week at After Babel we’ll have a big week with two posts: On Monday I’ll post my response to critics of my earlier post where I showed that social media is a cause, not just a correlate, of the teen mental illness epidemic. And then next Wednesday we’ll have part 2 of Zach’s examination of mental health trends around the world. He’ll show what has happened in the five Scandinavian countries since 2010. (See part 1 here, on the 5 Anglosphere countries.)
I’m Eli George, a researcher working with Jon Haidt and Zach Rausch on this Substack and Jon’s book. I was born in 1999 and came of age with a smartphone in my pocket. I’m intimately familiar with the addictive effects of social media on young people, having watched so many people around me become less curious and more fragile as they went through adolescence on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr. I also know that living my social life online as a teenager made me addicted to my phone, ruined my sleep, and gave me a general feeling of social anxiety and dread that persisted whether or not I was with other people. The connection between social media use and poor mental health that is found in so many studies feels intuitive to me. But that means that I share Jon’s confirmation bias.
So, Jon asked me to find young people who disagree with us. We think social media has changed childhood and adolescence for the worse, so much so that it constitutes a “great rewiring of childhood.” Beginning in the 1990s, a childhood based heavily on outdoor play began to fade away and was replaced by a phone-based childhood in the early 2010s, when teens traded in their flip phones for smartphones.
Can we find young people who disagree with that thesis? Do my peers think that we’ve been set up for success? Our hope was that engaging with conflicting opinions would help to better understand how young people see their relationship to smartphones and social media and add qualitative depth to the story that we are developing on this substack and in Jon’s book. Jon likes to quote John Stuart Mill on this subject: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”
1. What Do Quantitative Studies Find?
I first spent some time with several existing studies that try to capture what young people think about their social media usage (collected in section 4 of Jon and Jean Twenge’s open-source Google doc, Social Media and Mental Health: A Collaborative Review).
A 2018 study of over four thousand Australian youth aged 12 to 25, for example, reported that 62% believe that mental health of young people is declining (as opposed to 23% who say it’s improving), and a plurality (37%) blame social media (see Figures 1 and 2). The next most common response, “expectations from family, school, and community,” was given by 17% of respondents.
Figure 1. Views of Australian young people (ages 12-25) on their mental health. Participants were asked: “In your opinion, is the mental health of young people in Australia getting better or worse?” Headspace National Youth Mental Health Survey, 2018.
Figure 2. Views of Australian young people (ages 12-25) on the cause for declining mental health. Participants who indicated that mental health was declining were given an open-ended question — “Do you have any ideas why the mental health of young people in Australia is getting worse?” — and responses were categorized by researchers. Headspace National Youth Mental Health Survey, 2018.
A 2017 study by the Royal Society for Public Health asked about 1500 UK teenagers aged 14-24 to score the quality and health effects of their time spent on the five major social media platforms: Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.2 Participants were given a list of factors related to health and mental well-being that social media use might affect (e.g., anxiety, sleep quality, fear of missing out [FoMO]). They were then told to score each platform's effect on each factor, on a scale from -2 (very negative) to +2 (very positive). The researchers averaged the score for each factor on each platform. They also offered a mean score among all the factors for each platform to estimate the overall positive or negative effect of a platform as a whole. Figure 3 shows these ratings for Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube.
Figure 3. Effects of Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube on various aspects of British Teenagers' mental health. #StatusofMind survey, Royal Society for Public Health.
The aggregated scores revealed that young users had, on net, negative opinions of the effects that highly social apps like Instagram and Snapchat were having on their mental well-being. Both Instagram and Snapchat were said, by teens, to worsen anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleep, body image, bullying, and FoMO. Interestingly, though, Facebook and Twitter received neutral net ratings, and YouTube had a positive rating (see Figure 3).
It is also evident that, even if the average young Instagram user has an overall negative opinion of the health-related effects, they see many parts of their experience as beneficial. Self-expression, emotional support, and community building have positive average scores for both Instagram and Snapchat.
Conversely, while YouTube’s overall score was positive, it received the worst score of any platform for sleep loss and earned negative ratings for body image, real-world relationships, bullying, and FoMO.
Other surveys further complicate the picture. In a 2022 Pew study that surveyed 13-17-year-old American teenagers, respondents reported perceiving valuable opportunities to receive emotional support and express themselves on social media websites, which, for many, outweigh the negative social pressures they feel.
As Figure 4 shows, 32% of interviewed teenagers believed that the benefits outweigh the costs for them personally, while only 9% believe the effect is negative. Interestingly, though, that flips when teens are asked about social media’s effects on other teenagers: 32% of respondents indicated that social media usage has a net negative impact on their peers, compared to 24% who think it had a positive impact.
Figure 4. Teens’ opinions on the effects of social media on themselves and others. Connection, Creativity, and Drama: Teen Life on Social Media in 2022, Pew Research Center.
Work done by the American Psychological Association for their Stress in America: Generation Z project suggested similar ambivalence:
It’s clear that social media is an enormous part of Gen Zs’ lives, and for more than half of them (55 percent), it provides a feeling of support. The flipside, however, is that nearly half say social media makes them feel judged (45 percent), and nearly two in five (38 percent) report feeling bad about themselves as a result of social media use.
These studies suggest three conclusions:
A large number of young people believe that social media is having a negative impact on the mental health of their cohort, though this might be isolated to intensely social apps like Instagram and Snapchat. They come to this conclusion more often when invited to consider their peers’ experiences instead of their own.
The platforms' negative effects on teenagers’ body image, sleep patterns, FoMO, and overall level of anxiety are key reasons that young users see the platforms as harmful.
A significant number of young users think that social media helps them participate in a social community, express themselves, and receive emotional support.
More studies with similar results can be found in section 4 of Jon’s collaborative review document.
2. What Do Qualitative Studies Find?
I next looked at qualitative studies, in which members of Gen Z are interviewed and their answers are coded and analyzed. Such studies also find a mix of negative and positive reported effects.
I noticed a consensus emerging across many of the qualitative studies. Interviewees appear to hold similar views about the potential dangers and benefits of social media, and those views mirrored the conclusions of the quantitative studies.
The interviewees’ assessments differed in how they weighed the value of any risk or possible benefit, and in how they changed their behavior to respond to potentially negative experiences. One study led by Amber van der Wal, Patti Valkenburg, and Irene van Driel (awaiting review) of 55 young teenagers suggests this kind of complexity:
[S]ome girls expressed that the continuous stream of “perfect pictures” on social media leaves them feeling insecure and jealous. Some try to counter those feelings by, for example, following accounts that revolve around body positivity, such as Feminist, an activist Instagram account that promotes body positivity. One girl (15) disclosed: “Feminist, that’s something I follow and that makes me less insecure.” Another girl (15) even decided to only follow accounts “from people who look like me” so that she would keep feeling good about herself.
The authors concluded that “It’s the experience that matters” when judging the impact that a social media platform will have on any given teen. Young users who are prepared to alter their behavior in response to negative experiences––for example, feeling discomfort about one’s body or noticing an addictive desire to scroll––can reap benefits from the platforms. Those who don’t change their behavior can get lost in traumatizing material and addictive usage.
In a literature review published in 2022, Anjali Poppat and Carolyn Tarrant identified five major social media impacts that young users have reported across 24 qualitative studies, as seen below in Figure 5. They classified each as positive, negative, or both, and noted corresponding well-being concepts that individuals might refer to.
Figure 5. Five kinds of effects that a social media platform might have on a young user. Exploring adolescents’ perspectives on social media and mental health and well-being – A qualitative literature review, from van der Wal, Patti Valkenburg, & van Driel (pre-print), re-graphed by Zach Rausch.
The authors highlight the extent to which these five effects, or “themes,” interact in ways that are sometimes counterintuitive. For example, the pleasure of connection can quickly turn into an addictive desire:
[T]here was significant interplay between the five emerging themes, reflecting the complexity of factors at play. For instance, Singleton et al. (2016) found that although online connection was positive, it resulted in the need to stay informed about others’ lives, which led to compulsive use of the sites in fear of not knowing. Similarly, in the study by O’Reilly et al. (2018), adolescents admitted that the positive connection aspect quickly turned into reliance on social media to stay connected, fuelling addiction.
Similarly, the fulfillment of online self-expression can quickly turn into self-policing when users are aware that they are being watched and judged:
[A]lthough self-expression was reported as hugely positive, there was constant fear of judgement and strict adherence to ‘virtual norms’ to protect against this (Kennedy & Lynch, 2016; Weinstein, 2018). In addition, the expectation to share was a heavy burden; some would prefer to keep their lives private and only accept close friends on their profiles, but feared judgement from others regarding numbers of online friends (Calancie et al., 2017).
They also cite evidence that the quality of a young user’s experiences online is highly dependent on his or her real-world personality and circumstances:
[H]igh self-esteem and effective parental management of internet use were protective factors, whilst pre-existing anxiety or depression made individuals more vulnerable to online harm. Furthermore, individuals with higher digital resilience could better recognise and manage online risk and hence buffer against potential harm. Importantly, those more vulnerable to offline risk were more likely to be vulnerable to online risk (Bradbook et al., 2008).
This literature review adds further evidence to conclusions 2 and 3 from the quantitative studies: it suggests a similar ledger of social benefits and mental health harms. Both of these qualitative analyses also provide evidence for another conclusion:
A young user’s overall social aptitude and worldly circumstances has a strong impact on whether they experience more of the positive aspects of social media platforms or the negative ones.
There are two additional qualitative studies in section 4 of the collaborative review document, with similar findings.
3. The Common Sense Media Study
As I was finishing this post, an important study was published by Common Sense Media. The study, led by Jacqueline Nesi of Brown University, examined the way American girls aged 11 to 15 feel about their experiences on social media. A major focus of the study was the value or harm of particular platform features (e.g., appearance filters or comment sections), as opposed to the value or harm of different kinds of experiences a user might have (e.g., self-expression, cyber bullying). They discovered that young teen girls had net negative opinions of location-sharing features and public accounts, as Figure 6 shows. The study found net positive opinions of the other ten features, like private messaging, notifications, and video recommendations. In 10 of the 12 categories, neutral opinions represented the largest category of responses.
The study also found that people who had strong opinions about platform features were more likely to be depressed. That was true even if their strong opinions were positive.
Figure 6. What teen girls think about a number of social media features. Teens and Mental Health: How Girls Really Feel About Social Media, Common Sense Media.
It is worth noting that the features which received the most positive responses are associated with video sharing or messaging platforms, like YouTube or iMessage. It is, however, unclear whether the features which received the most negative scores can be tied to Snapchat and Instagram (the platforms which the Royal Society for Public Health study found to have the most negative effects): location sharing is native to Snapchat, but also iMessage; Youtube is built on public accounts; Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have endless scrolling, but Snapchat does not.
Despite this ambivalent data on platform features, the study includes quotes from many girls who struggle with logging off and have ideas for improving the apps. They talk about the opportunity cost of time spent on addictive apps:
“I felt the app wasted my time, and it just made me more predisposed to get sucked into my phone (Snap, TikTok,etc.) for prolonged periods of time.”
About the distressing content they were encountering:
“I watched one or two videos and they took over my algorithm with really depressing and anxiety videos.”
About the possibility of endless cyberbullying:
“I was being bullied by other kids at my school who made accounts about ugly people and posted about me being ugly and doing cringey things.”
And about the way their expectations had been warped:
“I had unrealistic ideas of what I should look like and how my life should be.”
The feature breakdown in this Common Sense Media study challenges the division between good/neutral apps (YouTube, messaging apps) and bad apps (Instagram, Snapchat) that the Royal Society of Public Health report seemed to suggest. The quotes throughout the Common Sense Media report detail lived experiences of many girls who find the apps to be harmful places overall, even though they enjoy many of the specific features of the apps.
4. A Request To Disagree With Us
While these studies provide important data on the opinions of young people using particular platforms, they still didn’t give us what we were looking for: commentary from members of Gen Z about their overall prospects in light of their phone-based childhoods. We wanted to hear from young people who would tell us that their generation was doing fine or that Jon had misunderstood them.
We wondered what young people would say if they were given more space to write about the ramifications of a phone-based childhood for their generation as a whole. So, we invited people directly to tell us what they thought and encouraged them to disagree with us on the fundamental questions. Is Gen Z actually doing ok? Has social media been good for Gen Z overall?
The Tweet directed members of Gen Z to a Google doc, and at the top of the doc were these additional instructions:
My name is Eli George, I’m a young person (born 1999) working with Jonathan Haidt on his book and his After Babel substack about what social media has done to the mental health of Gen Z. We have been writing about the teen mental illness epidemic that began around 2012, and have argued that Gen Z is more depressed and less resilient than people at the same age in previous generations. We certainly are not blaming members of Gen Z––our argument is that Gen Z was deprived of many of the things that help children develop into healthy adults.
We want to hear from young people, especially those who disagree with us. Do you think young people are doing fine? Do you think that our generation is turning out well, and there’s no need to change much? Do you think that social media has been good for Gen Z, overall? If so, why?
Please leave your thoughts, or link us to essays in which other members of Gen Z have given an answer, or a defense of Gen Z.
Twenty-two people left thoughtful comments, which I organized here along with the original prompt.
We received two main kinds of responses: those that argued that Gen Z is doing just fine (4 responses); and those who don’t (18 responses). That second group breaks down into two subgroups: those that primarily blame social media (6 responses) and those that provided explanations for Gen Z’s bad outlook beyond social media (12 responses). Below I highlight particularly persuasive or interesting selections from responses in each category.
Figure 7. What Gen Z thinks about Gen Z. From Jon’s call for disagreement. See the full responses in our Google doc.
4.1 Those Who Said Gen Z Is Doing Well
To our surprise, we had a tough time finding the key thing we asked for. Only 4 of the 22 responses made arguments that stated or implied that Gen Z was doing well or was set up for success, while the other 18 said they were doing poorly. Though it's true that Jon’s Twitter audience is not a representative sample, the document was shared widely, including on a number of large email lists. We did not expect that such a small proportion of the respondents would argue that Gen Z is doing well. It was also surprising that, even among those four responses, only one viewed social media itself as a positive influence without qualification: Andrew, in response #2, argued that social media gives people the freedom to avoid opinions or people with whom they disagree, which he characterized as a positive development:
“I think that Gen Z is actually uniquely positioned to have an outsized impact. In terms of culture, I have found that there has been a large growth in strictly positive interpersonal relations. If you have a problem with someone’s opinion on something, you just don’t engage them on that topic and mitigate time spent with them to highly controlled times.”
The other three offered qualified accounts of Gen Z’s prospects and relationship to social media.
In response #3, Jose Luis argued that, while social media can be harmful, it has been crucial in motivating young people for political causes.
Jack, in response #1, argued that Gen Z is “the most mature generation in history” precisely because the internet gave them access to such horrible stuff:
“[W]ith the rise of the social media and unfettered, mostly unmonitored access to the internet, we’ve been exposed to heavy topics very early on in our lives. If you go onto tiktok, sometimes you’ll see videos along the lines of ‘13 year old me eating dinner with my family after watching …(insert mature/heavy topic here).’ As a result of this, we don’t have the same luxury of living in a dreamlike childhood where we grew up thinking everything was going to be ok. …I’d actually argue that exposure to these things poises us to handle stress better than previous generations.”
In response #4, Kendra argued that Gen Z is doing exactly as well as their parents––that is to say, poorly––because they are both addicted to their phones:
“My brain chemistry most certainly changed as a result of growing up in tandem with the internet, but I do not believe that I am any more addicted to it than my own parents.”
Both of the latter two responses disagree with the basic premise of Jon’s project but do so in roundabout ways which actually draw attention to some of social media’s negative consequences.
4.2 Those Who Said Gen Z Is Doing Badly, in Large Part Because of Social Media
All of the other 18 responses acknowledged, in one way or another, that Gen Z has not been set up for success:
“Gen Z has nothing to fight for.”
“Altogether, can you really blame Gen Z for having to grow up in such a shit point in history, but also have the technology and information to verify it?”
“I agree with most of the comments that social media has caused significant fragmentation in society that has never before been seen.”
“I think that social media is a huge, unimaginable stressor [on Gen Z]”
Six of them agreed with our premise without much qualification: Gen Z is doing badly, and it is their social media-based childhood that is to blame.
Henry thought that social media platforms work a bit like gambling or hard drugs—they can be fun for the people who have the mental clarity to use them well, but make life much harder for people who lack the required self-control and critical thinking:
“My main concern, as a young person, is that the new tools provided to us by the internet, social media, etc are going to further widen the gap in success and ability caused by natural factors (like IQ, socio-economic status, family status, etc.) I think that we’re simply given access to levels of stimulation and information that are historically unprecedented. Those who are naturally more able to sort through the static caused by the big data wave will be better off than previous generations, in the long run. Whereas those with less critical thinking skills…will drown.”
Aaron, from Australia, thought that social media inculcates a constant awareness that we are being watched and judged in public. This, he argued, leads to a constant focus on careful self-presentation, which can encourage anxiety:
“This constant exposure means that you have a chance of being thrust into the public eye, and soon you may be interacting with unknown groups of people who may even provide financial incentives (I suspect this is likely much more harmful to teenage girls for obvious reasons). As a result, maintaining a positive public image may become intimately tied with your life circumstances, which I suspect fuels much of the Gen-z obsession with identity.”
And William, also from Australia, considers social media to be the proximate cause for the breakdown of non-tribal social groups:
“While some consider this positive (people can be who they want/express themselves), the thousands of different social groups have fragmented otherwise culturally homogenous societies. Pre-internet there existed a broader cultural familiarity among members there were events, people, and media that everyone had in common. I think this it easier to strike up a conversation with strangers and quickly establish mutual understanding. Nowadays I meet people whose identities revolve around a specific piece of media, academic or political perspective reinforced by the echo chambers of social media.”
All six responses mention that social media changes the way we think, beyond just making us unhappy. Many cite the changes that have taken place in the news media and information sphere. All six think those changes have been largely for the worse.
4.3 Alternative Theories for the Cause of Gen Z’s Problems
The larger subcategory, however, were the twelve respondents who followed our instructions to disagree with us and did so by proposing alternate theories for Gen Z’s troubling outlook. Two major themes emerged across responses.
The first is the breakdown of social institutions. Ben, for example, cited the loss of “Third Spaces,” places that encourage socializing and provide the foundations for a community life beyond work and the home:
“Being 24, I do not know of any place to be around people in public besides the local bar(s), nor do I recall a time from before where they existed… Maybe I am being too reactionary and nostalgic for some kind of Friends-like (the Sitcom) coffee shop to hang out at, but I have a feeling that Gen Zers might be the first generation to not have ‘Third Places’ be common in our communities”
Declan made a similar point:
“One of these broader changes that I’ll use (at risk of oversimplification) to exemplify the whole process is the decline of institutions that previously supported community connection outside of the workplace or school - third spaces, religious spaces, dense and vibrant town centers (via urbanization) and city centers (via suburbanization), etc. These have been hollowed out over time and the replacement we’ve found for them is, essentially, entities that look like communities but are really elaborately (or not-so-elaborately) disguised ways of extracting data about user behavior (social media).”
An anonymous respondent from the UK mentioned his wish for shared experiences through mass public events:
“The thing i miss is the collective event. The thing that every single person in the school/university/work enjoyed separately but at the same time.”
Others echoed similar concerns:
“secular western culture has become toxic and we are living through unprecedented atomization.”
“We are no longer embeded in a communitiy to which we contribute to, we have not inherited any mythological narrative to guide our way forward, we have absolutely no institutional sources for acquiring wisdom available for us, and lastly, we are bombarded with bullshit (in the technical sense of the word)”
The second theme was the increasing levels of financial dependency and/or precarity experienced by young people today. Kyle from Australia offered a strong summary of the ramifications of crippling debt for young people:
“How can young people develop resilience when they still are almost completely reliant on their parents? Independence, on at least a base level is necessary. In Australia, despite highly subsidized university fees, high costs of living tend to discourage many students from living away from home. As a result far less young people are forced to the essential life skills that come from living independently. Additionally, many young people are missing out on the meaningful relationships that come with going away for university/college. On the other hand, in America I have observed that a lot if not most young people still decide to leave home for college. Although, due to the very high cost of higher education it is very difficult for individuals to become financially independent from their parents.”
Taylor explained that, in a highly competitive culture and economy, the financial security that her parents attained would require extreme self-sacrifice to acquire today:
“Many of the rules our parents' generation followed to lead a successful aren’t applicable to Gen Z because the world has changed a lot. A stark disconnection exists between the promise of the past and the reality of the present. I am compelled to exert myself tenfold in order to obtain the same level of opportunity and security as my parents generation.”
Sarah provided a different, but relevant perspective. She argued that our argument “fails to consider all social factors that social media might exacerbate. It’s just a blame on social media and not a blame on ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.’” She went on to connect many problems, like unreachable beauty standards and incel culture, to real-world social problems which predate social media platforms. In her view, the platforms are only responsible for making things worse.
4.4 Discussion of Responses
The headline result of this project is that we asked members of Gen Z to tell us they were doing well, and hardly any did. While only one respondent defended social media as being actively good for Gen Z, roughly half of the respondents provided arguments that explained Gen Z’s difficulties without focusing on social media. The responses helped to suggest refinements to the four provisional conclusions that the quantitative and qualitative studies led me to:
The studies suggest that many young people believe that Instagram and Snapchat have the strongest negative impacts on their mental health. Our respondents, however, did not limit their critiques to the visual social media—Instagram and Snapchat. Many comments focused on the wide distribution of information and the possibility of cancellation, which are more characteristic of (though not unique to) Twitter.
While the studies also suggest that sleep interference, body image issues, and FoMO are among the most negative impacts of social media usage, these were not a central focus in our responses. Many of our commenters focused on addiction to social media, and many others focused on the negative impacts of growing up on public platforms where nothing is really private and mistakes never really disappear. Similarly, few of our commenters mentioned the reported benefits of social media use: participating in a social community, expressing themselves, and receiving emotional support.
Both Henry and Sarah made interesting points about how social media exacerbates existing problems, both for individual users and society. This mirrors the earlier finding that the quality of a user's experience on a platform depends on her preexisting social skills and self-control.
4.5 Are Other Explanations for Gen Z’s Bad Outlook Convincing?
Both of the main alternative arguments presented by our commenters suggest that Gen Z is doing badly because––for reasons beyond the presence of a phone in their pocket––the world is worse for them than for their parents’ generations. This is an argument that Jon hears often, although typically with different examples of decline––global warming and school shootings are often cited. Though I share a deep concern about both threats, I think about my father, who grew up in the 70s, when there was a real threat of nuclear annihilation and of being one of the 2.2 million young men drafted to risk death in a Vietnamese jungle. Should I really believe that the current events of my time are a greater burden on my mental health than the current events of his time?
Our respondents’ social and economic arguments, which emphasize the breakdown of a society composed of responsible citizens, are more convincing to me. As part of this project, I searched for essays in magazines and blogs in which young people defended Gen Z. Two were very relevant: one by Stephanie Bai for Maclean’s and another by Alfie Robinson for Persuasion. Both defended their cohort, but did so by claiming that the value of Gen Z is that they’ve come of age in a time that is uniquely hostile to them. Bai locates the root of that hostility in the mindless corporate busy work and “bullshit jobs,” which (she argues) Gen Z is beginning to reject as it enters the labor force. Robinson argues that profound economic pressure has made young people frugal and responsible beyond their years.
I am compelled by these arguments, especially for older teenagers, and agree that a phone-based childhood is not the only cause of Gen Z’s mental health problems. That said, I think that social media usage exacerbates anxiety about many seemingly unrelated things, particularly current events. If teenagers today are feeling more anxious than previous generations about broad social issues like these, it seems likely to be, at least in part, because the phone-based childhood immerses Gen Z continuously in personally-tailored, cynical, and often dread-inducing news stories throughout the day, beginning in middle school. Previous generations had far more time to just be kids, play, gossip, and hang out together. Their attention was on each other, not on their news feeds.
I set out to find young people who think either that “the kids are alright” or that our phone-based life is a good or healthy life. I come away with three main conclusions:
5.1 It’s hard to find anyone in Gen Z who says that their generation is doing well overall.
No survey or study that we could find reported that teenagers had a positive view of their cohort’s mental health or overall well-being. And only four commenters on our document had any reason to doubt that Gen Z was headed down a dangerous path, even though disagreement on that point is what we asked for. The kids do not believe that they’re alright.
5.2 It’s hard to find anyone in Gen Z mounting a strong defense of social media.
Many respondents in our survey were able to suggest factors that influence Gen Z’s poor mental health and preparedness for adulthood, but only one of 22 actively defended the impact of social media usage on Gen Z. If social media companies are now on trial, both literally and also figuratively in the court of public opinion, then the silence of Gen Z in defense of social media is deafening. It is like the “dog that didn’t bark” in the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of Silver Blaze.
Most of the studies I consulted find that young users see a mix of positive and negative effects. You could argue that the benefits of self-expression and community building balance out the raised anxiety levels, addictive usage, and damaged sleep. I think this misses an important point, though.
What alternative might a child envision when asked if social media positively impacts their life? For many, social media apps are where the majority of their social life takes place, and therefore all the benefits of social life are attributed to the places where it happens. So of course kids report positive experiences of “social engagement and peer support.”
I believe this is a misattribution. If, to extend Jon’s metaphor, kids growing up in a station on Mars had to go to a low-oxygen playground to meet their friends and express themselves, they may well say that the benefits of attending that low-oxygen playground outweigh the risks. Better to have blue lips and a bit of brain damage than no friends. But that misses the real question: wouldn’t they all be better off if they could meet their friends in a normal playground, with enough oxygen, back on Earth?
I think that if you asked children whether social connection, emotional support, and self-expression are benefits of playing with their friends, most would say yes. These are the benefits of having friends—not the unique benefit of social media per se. It is true that many people have been given access to virtual social networks who might have otherwise felt marginal at school, home, or in their communities. It is also true that some platforms, especially TikTok, provide outlets for creativity and self-expression. These are important factors, but the core tragedy remains: the primary outlets for social connection and expression have moved onto platforms that are designed to addict, distract, and outrage users.
I was a perfect example of someone who should have found solace and community on these global platforms. I stuttered badly, and I spent nearly all my time playing in orchestras. On apps like Facebook and Instagram, I was able to keep up with musicians I met from other places. But when I look back, I think that my online social life was responsible for more anxiety than fulfillment.
5.3 Social media usage magnifies other problems.
Social media platforms make depressed teens more depressed, insecure teens more prone to body image issues, and teens who have trouble focusing more prone to addiction. It turns distant global worries into fear- and outrage-inducing sound bites that flood teen and pre-teen news feeds and do little to help them grow into the kind of responsible and rational citizens who could help address the world’s problems as adults.
In sum, our efforts to find and elicit the views of Gen Z largely confirm our initial concerns while also suggesting additional avenues for investigation. The kids are not alright, and the combination of smartphones and social media is a major reason why.4
[Note: We are still looking for members of Gen Z who can tell us what we have missed and gotten wrong. If you are a member of Gen Z, or you know of any essays by Gen Z writers that we missed, or any studies of Gen Z that tell a different story, please tell us in the comments.]
We first put up this post on April 12 with a slightly different subtitle: "It’s hard to find members of Gen Z who think their phone-based childhoods benefitted them.” A few minutes after posting, we realized this is not true; the Pew study shows that 32% of Gen Z thought that the effects on them personally were “mostly positive.” We don’t doubt that many individuals enjoy each of the platforms, and many are able to use them in ways that truly bring them benefit. The gist of the rest of the post was about the overall effects of social media on Gen Z as a whole, so we changed the last words of the subtitle to “their generation.”
The participants in this study were roughly evenly divided between male and female, but the study did not break down its results by gender. This is true of most studies cited in this post. This can hide effects, as girls typically experience mental health effects from social media at higher rates than boys.
We are well aware that this is not any kind of representative sample. Our goal was not to produce generalizable knowledge by measuring the average beliefs of Gen Z. It was to engage with members of Gen Z to ask them to critique our work.
Thank you to Jon and especially Zach for helping to plan and edit this post.