It’s hard to find members of Gen Z who think their phone-based childhoods benefitted their generation
> 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:
>“…I’d actually argue that exposure to these things poises us to handle stress better than previous generations.”
Jack may think that, but he's making a testable, falsifiable claim here that is in fact easily falsified by testing it against the data. Gen Z is *incredibly* emotionally fragile compared to previous generations. So it's worth asking, why is Jack's perception of how this should work for his generation so thoroughly at odds with the facts of the matter? What is the distorted mirror he's looking through that gets his perceptions so completely wrong?
Hi, (member of Gen Z b. 1998 and UMich honors history grad ‘20)
The digital age is neither a catastrophe nor a boon, although I often feel the former. Instead it is a different age. As a member of the generation straddling two eras, though, I can speak to what underlies your data - we feel lonely because neither those before us or after share our perspective. We don’t love tech like those older than us who feel they will be left behind and need to modernize, and we are not like those younger than us who are blind to the world before. Tech to us is a tool - both good and bad. Many of us have dated both on the apps and with girls met in bars or through friends. As such we each have parts of tech we love and hate.
I personally stopped using headphones, deciding it is an unnatural way to experience sound that removes us from hearing the world around us. I also use a gigantic computer monitor that provides me massive productivity hacks. My thesis in college also featured cutting edge research because instead of merely going to archives, I used a treasure trove of online sleuthing.
In many ways we are like the Lost Generation, in love with the past but charging into the future headstrong. Of course, that generation faced bullets in trenches and we have not, but the malaise and insecurity are there. Plus, those of that generation did lead to many innovations and frankly they saved the free world with their leadership by the time of the 1940s and after. So I wouldn’t catastrophize the situation and say our lives are ruined, but certainly there were opportunities afforded others that we do not have, and opportunities afforded to us that others don’t have. And while it may frustrate me, it also gives me profound purpose. We have the opportunity to shape this century with both high digital skill as well as deep knowledge of the values of those who came before and laid the groundwork for our society.
To quote a person from a few generations before me--Admiral Jim Stockdale, “I think character is permanent and issues are transient.”
Thank you Eli for this informative, thorough post. I wanted to share two reflections:
"A significant number of young users think that social media helps them participate in a social community, express themselves, and receive emotional support." When youth are asked to make this evaluation, they lack the comparison to what a embodied, real-life social community and emotional support feels like; they equate snappy texts and emojis with community and support, but it is not the 'real thing'. Also 'self-expression' is viewed only in a positive light, yet may lead to unhealthy self-focus and a detraction from 'other-focus', which leads to greater purpose and meaning.
I found this comment by one of your respondents of interest:
“We are no longer embedded in a community 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". In my most recent post "The Great Forgetting" https://schooloftheunconformed.substack.com/p/the-great-forgetting, I discussed how memory is necessary to preserve our cultural heritage. Notably, in order to form long-term memories our mind needs time to process and transfer information from our working memory. The incessant distractions of social media thus contribute to the erasure of deep memories and lead to our collective cultural withering. This might be an additional source of mental health decline to consider.
“ It’s just a blame on social media and not a blame on ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.’””
That actually made me laugh out loud. I guess I’m not surprised that someone would say it (and believe it), but it’s impossible to take seriously. I’ve never thought of myself as a sunny optimist but all this doom-and-gloom talk feels incredibly overwrought. This isn’t some uniquely difficult time to be alive. If anything the exact opposite is true. I’m convinced that social media is a big factor at play in causing depression and anxiety. But I see in the responses (especially in context of having read The Coddling of the American Mind) a learned helplessness: the respondents all seem to believe that Gen Z are the victims of forces outside of their control:
- Social media is harming their mental health, but what can they do - all their friends are on it (setting aside the fact that they could just delete their accounts and deal with the slight unpopularity that might cause them).
- Capitalism is to blame and somehow is causing them mental troubles that their grandparents who lived through the Great Depression didn’t have.
- School shootings are threatening their lives (despite the fact that these events are so incredibly rare as to make the national news and teenagers today are physically safer than any generation of human beings in history).
- Climate change will destroy the world (setting aside the more likely scenario in which human beings adapt to it and deal with it).
It goes back to what Jon wrote about in an earlier post when it comes to locus of control. I’m one year removed from Gen Z, but I (and my friends) don’t share any of these beliefs of personal helplessness. Maybe it’s because my friends and I aren’t terribly online, but I have little doubt that the world and the country are far better off than seemingly a majority of people in Gen Z seem to think. Maybe it’s also a lack of historical perspective on their part.
Born in 1996, I grew up "chronically online," starting with sites like Neopets at a very young age and progressing to platforms like DeviantArt and Tumblr, before getting my first iPhone as a senior in high school (2013/14) and "finally" being able to join apps like Snapchat and Instagram. I love what the Internet/social media has brought me. And I also see what a detriment it has been. For me, personally, it's been more of a detriment being able to see people my own age - that I know personally - that I follow out of courtesy (we shared one class in high school, etc.) hit social milestones quicker than I do. I am frequently pruning the list of accounts I follow because the effect it has on me is not worth it. But at the same time, I also have that FoMO. It's almost a masochistic behavior - I don't want to follow, because the content makes me feel bad about myself, but I have this desire to know everything that's happening at all times...because I grew up online and thus feel like I "deserve" to know everything that's happening at all times. All of this to say: I am well aware that I am addicted to social media and the effects it has had on me, while also being grateful for living in a time where I'm able to access it. And yet, I'd rather it not exist at all...despite me being unwilling to give it up.
Well done Eli. Great work. Jon is lucky to have you on board. Mark, Brisbane.
As always love this work. But I am skeptical this approach to getting Z feedback was sound. For one, 22 responses, from a Twitter distribution, is nothing like a large or diverse sample. And two, we need to compare Z self assessment to other generations. Perhaps they all thought things were going downhill. Maybe they would cite drugs or alcohol back then.
I think this is a powerful thesis. But I didn't find the Z feedback as meaningful to the case.
This is an excellent research project.
I am not surprised by the results having a daughter that was born in 2001. The article Jonathan wrote (Why the Mental Health of Liberal Girls Sank First and Fastest) was an eye opener for sure. At the end of every section I read, I said, that’s my daughter. I watched her grow up and saw all of this. She is very smart and has a great awareness of self because of her yoga and meditation practice. Because of this, she initiated sessions with an expert in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to assist her with the challenges that she was facing. She is making great progress and is able to recognize how her thoughts and reactions to her environment can have a negative impact on her thinking and well being. She is very strong willed and will break this, I am very confident. She is currently a junior at a great liberal arts college and will graduate with honors.
I agree that the societal and economic environment have a greater impact on Gen Z than their activity on social media. Social media, based on the above charts, just appears to amplify good or bad. It doesn’t seem to create. This topic is perhaps something that should be studied and documented, as I’ve seen this topic over and over, but have never seen a formal study with facts. Just, it “feels”worse now because of societal and economic factors.
Your study does not address the individual, but rather their environment, that is making them worse off. I would argue, from personal experience, that all kids are different and that they react differently than others to their environment. Somehow, you have to document that the parents of Gen Z, have done a much worse job of parenting than, for example, parents of Baby Boomers. Let’s not forget that the individuals of Gen Z are molded by their parents and my position is that their parents should take a large portion of the blame for their children's failures.
One of skills Gen Z kids did not learn growing up is conflict resolution. I learned this in sports and various other activities while growing up. Today kids can’t deal with conflict. They don’t know how to address it, nor resolve the conflict. They get too emotional because they are being challenged. They cry “words are violence.” Without this skill, boys are not asking girls out on dates. They are too afraid.
Two thoughts (2002 here)
1. I wouldn’t underestimate how self-selecting the group of Gen Zers who even see a Jon Haidt tweet is. Same with this substack. In large part because of the social media atomization discussed, the people who see the Jon Haidt online presence have probably read Coddling, largely agree with it, and perhaps are actively working to oppose the culture described in Coddling on their own college campus (or maybe that’s just me 🤪). Gen Zers who disagree with this kind of analysis are disproportionately likely to not have heard of Jon Haidt. Further, I could easily find you 50 classmates of mine who, after reading (for instance) the paragraph in Coddling in which Jon and Greg Lukianoff argue that the use of gender pronouns isn’t necessary as a matter of safety, would forever write Jon off as a hateful right-wing bigot, and probably wouldn’t give their time to his research even to disagree with his point of view.
2.I think you’re understanding point 5.3, that social media makes other problems worse. It might be beyond the scope of this post, but it’s worth mentioning that a lot of the “gen Z is doing bad but it’s not because of social media” group cited causes that… one could easily argue are themselves driven by social media. Specifically, there were multiple people who pointed out a decline in shared spaces, institutions, events, and other opportunities for real-life socialization. (And this is to say nothing of the decline of civic organizations as described in Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, which occurred long before social media.) But I would argue that if not for social media (and social media-adjacent technologies such as Uber, DoorDash, etc.), there would be more of an effort to bring back and revitalize these types of spaces. And I think social media has directly contributed to that not happening, and even to the acceleration of their decline and of the atomization that one respondent lamented.
"decline of institutions that previously supported community connection outside of the workplace or school"
Gen-Z's version of Bowling Alone.
Third spaces are built by the participants though, which Gen-Z's fetishization of their phones prevents. I'm not blaming that on the individuals -- I think smartphones should be treated like any other addictive substance, with age restrictions -- but the collective effect is real.
And I have a very hard time taking anyone seriously who lays "blame on the imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy". I appreciate that this is a survey, but Sarah really needs to get out more.
"profound economic pressure has made young people frugal and responsible beyond their years"
I have 3 teenagers: 14, 15, 16. My oldest two are among the most non-consumer-oriented people I have ever met in America. Is that just their personality or is their growing awareness of the frailty of economic opportunities feeding a frugality of lifestyle? I don't know.
I love the Mars metaphor! Blue lips and brain damage... totally worth it man!
"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."
ChatGPT lists the most widely shared social media posts by Generation Z:
"1. Memes: Humorous images, videos, or text that are shared and remixed by users, reflecting cultural trends, current events, or relatable experiences.
2. Short-form videos: Platforms like TikTok, Instagram Reels, and YouTube Shorts have gained popularity, with users sharing and engaging with short, entertaining, or informative videos.
3. Social activism: Generation Z is highly engaged in social and political issues, sharing content related to climate change, racial equality, mental health, and LGBTQ+ rights, among others.
4. Challenges and trends: Popular challenges and trends, like dance routines, social media challenges, or viral hashtags, often spread quickly among Generation Z users.
5. Influencer content: Generation Z users often engage with and share content created by their favorite influencers or celebrities, which can include fashion, beauty, gaming, or lifestyle content."
Number #3 sticks out as a likely primary cause for the teen mental health crisis. How are young, developing minds supposed to process the firehose of largely bad news that is omnipresent?
This is very well researched and written! I super appreciate your inclusion of links to all the studies you referenced (it’s shocking how often people don’t do that).
I wish I had seen your call for thoughts sooner because I’m one of those members of Gen Z who thinks social media is a good thing. I was born in 1997, and have lived nearly my whole life with social media and the internet. I wrote a bit about it here in my opening essay on Substack:
I later distilled some of those thoughts into this passage from my essay Post-History:
“As someone who’s very first memories exist in an industrial world, and grew up in parallel with the internet— I feel compelled to impress upon people the importance of the age that we are living through. This isn’t a new chapter in the technological leaps of industrial society, this is the start of fundamentally different way of engaging with knowledge and information altogether.”
To be young in the current political climate and cultural climate is to be instinctually aware of this chasm between the modern world as it is, and as “adults” imagine it. This chasm makes the weight of the future immense on our shoulders. Across issues, the fear I see most from young people is a fear of running out of time. There is a sense that they are being asked to take on too much, too soon. They both know there are existential issues at play for humanity in the data age, but also aren’t ready to decide what needs to happen about them.
My message to Gen Z is this. We have time. The constant barrage of bad news and horror stories is the result of algorithms designed to suck every drop of profit out of us. You are right that many of these social media platforms are having negative impacts on society and our mental health. But social media isn’t the enemy, it’s the profit incentive that will mechanize humanity if we let it. Social Media is the tool by which we have a chance to organize against the coming ossification of bureaucracy.
This will require fighting the algorithms, forging own paths in the digital world, weathering evolving corporate attempts at psychological manipulation. But we must not give up the tool that is social media. Find ways to make each platform your own, understand how your mind engages with each new algorithm and don’t launch yourself into losing battles. (I for one learned quickly that my ADHD brain could not weather Tik Toks attention algorithm and so I avoid the platform altogether). And, above all else, keep that spark of human mischievousness and unpredictability alive.
I have just now reached adulthood, at 26 I am finally starting to feel a childhood of internet access solidifying into a adult mind. As I think about my younger siblings and other members of my generation who feel the burdens of the world so strongly, my single biggest piece of advice is that there is time. You do not need to solve all of tomorrow’s problems on your own. Our generation has a lot to do when we come to power, but the world will survive until we’re ready to wield it.
I’ll conclude with a passage from an upcoming, currently unfinished, essay of mine. “Today we are dealing with a language revolution on a scale not seen since the invention of the printing press. Generation Z isn’t the next generation in the history of industrial society, we are the first generation who was raised with the infinite question and answer box of the internet. We are the first generation with the 3 dimensional language tools of the internet and social media. We are a new generation of human minds, blessed with a freedom of information that past thinkers would have killed to be able to access. It may be true that the initial impact of social media and the internet on human intelligence will be a dumbing down and emotional weakening of society, but the select few who take these new tools and use them to develop their own minds will find their place among the greatest minds of human history.”
I've always thought that the problem with social media and digital devices in our pockets is a more profound one than it is often made out to be. There's a fundamental change in the way people go about their day. Now everyone, at any moment, has a distraction at one’s fingertips and are not hesitant to indulge in it. I think this can make the mind more fragile.
The opportunities one had to structure their lives and to create emotional order from emotional chaos needs deep inquiry into oneself. That is an aspect which has gotten lost in our current way of life where people often are afraid to be alone with their own minds. I have observed this. People not being able to take a walk without stimuli of their brains, in the form of music, a podcast or scrolling. A loss of perspective on how the solitude of the self is something good and useful. The brain, I think, does not just need new information piled on, it needs time to process as well. Especially emotions.
I think the techniques used in CBT, and techniques like it where you question the emotions you have, have to be practiced with intent and deep deliberation and I'm not sure that state of mind is often reached when one can just distract themselves from the anxiety temporarily. To hold the reins on the elephant one can’t just use their brains to passively engage with others and never actively engage with oneself.
Phones don’t just offer a way of comparing oneself to others but also interrupts the way one interacts with the Self. I think deep engaging with the Self comes from a lack of outside stimuli which is a rarity today.
Therefore, the type of distraction isn’t of importance to this negative effect but the distraction itself is the culprit.
I’m not sure if any of these ideas have any merit but I believe it’s something commonly observable.
I think with the decline of educational standards and the shift away from basic skills towards so-called social justice and environmental activism, young people have a sense that they're missing something important, but which they can't fully identify. They have been rewarded for merely existing, are unprepared to contend with the world as it is, and are more concerned with how things should be, but lacking the wherewithal to effect change other than acting out. Hence, the word "adult" becomes a verb that suggests incompetence rather than aspiration and growth.
The notion that the world will conform to their expectations only leads to disappointment and a sense of betrayal when they discover that's not how the world works. Because they have been taught to disdain the virtues of a self-ordering society, all that is left to them is fear and chaos, with no means of creating confidence, clarity, and order. Self-esteem cannot be endowed, it must be earned through effort, error, perseverance, and self-mastery.
This can be laid at the feet of the educational community, public schools and colleges that promote ideological activism over the learning experience. At an age where basic skills will facilitate the continuing command of abstract and critical thinking, colleges instead offer remediation for skills that should have already been acquired, and ideologies that history has repeatedly proven not just useless, but hugely destructive. The notion that change, in an of itself, is progressive and desirable is the big lie, discarding what works for what sounds good.
Instead of an institution that sustains and enhances the culture and society at large, education has become a tool to groom generations of young minds to accept consensus over independent thinking, servitude over liberty, and victimhood over aspiration ... all in the interests of safety and comity, neither of which can be delivered by what they are taught.
The idea of individualism has also become distorted in the context of group identity and herd mentality. The expression of individuality amounts to incidental externals, like a tattoo or purple hair or gender ambiguity, in an effort to try to define and differentiate themselves, but which is its own conformity to the hive mind and which does not forge true identity.
Technology has always contributed to changes in human behavior, but not to human nature.
1997 here 👋 When reading this series, I've often jumped to the conclusion that mental health = anxiety, depression, etc. Figure 3 (Effects of Social Media Apps on British Teenagers' Mental Health) resonates so much -- the negative impact on sleep is definitely my top takeaway from this post. Having social media apps on your phone destroys your sleep, productivity and ability to maintain focus (particularly during difficult tasks). The best word to describe social media products is "potent".
I have accounts on most major social media apps (hard to have a Gen Z social life without them, nevermind how much they proliferate the work side of life too), but I (1) never have the native social media apps downloaded on my phone, (2) never sleep with my phone in reach of my bed, (3) never work with my phone in my pocket / near my desk.
On top of that, I make sure I have (1) pretty strong time limits to help break me out of 'brain-off scrolling' whenever I get caught in it, (2) the newsfeed eradicator plugin on my browser so if I ever do need to go on social media sites from my laptop that I don't get caught into scrolling by accident, and (3) that I disable phone notifications across everything except texts, calls and work stuff (emails, Slack etc).
If you don't acknowledge that social media companies hire many of the most talented developers, designers and data scientists from the top universities with the sole aim of maximizing how much time you spend on their products, along with the fact that you're really just a weak bag of meat in comparison to what they've built, then you're doomed to lose. You've literally got to build an arsenal of self defense techniques to stand any chance against them.
Sent this to my stepson for his take. Thank you, as always, for the thorough, thoughtful, balanced treatment.