For a rising number of Gen Z teens and pre-teens today, their memories will be eerily different. They will be of sitting alone indoors, of soaring screen times, and increasingly, of self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
Gen Z’s Mental Health
In recent years, rates of anxiety disorders, depression, and suicide have been rising drastically among teenagers and pre-teens — far beyond the levels of Millennials.
For example, in 2017, one in five girls in the U.S. aged between 12 and 17 suffered at “least one major depressive episode.” In America, the suicide rate has risen 34% for teenage boys (as of 2016, compared to the average rate from 2006-2010). For girls, it’s risen by a shocking 82%. For the first time in 24 years, in 2011, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.
In the U.S., the suicide rate has risen 34% for teenage boys and 82% for teenage girls.
We see similar patterns in the U.K. Here, 1 in 4 girls is clinically depressed by the time they’re 14. The suicide rate for young boys in the U.K. has risen 17% through to 2017, while the rate for girls has increased by 46%.
Coronavirus and the impact of restrictions have no doubt worsened the problem. For instance, from April to October 2020 there was a 24% increase in the number of mental health emergency visits (including suicide attempts) for children ages 5 to 11 in the U.S., and a 31% rise for those aged between 12 and 17.
But, suicidal thoughts in young kids were already on the rise before the pandemic began. For example, the number of children aged between 6 and 12 visiting children’s hospitals in the U.S. for suicidal thoughts or self-harm has more than doubled since 2016. Even before the pandemic hit, from 2009 to 2017, rates of depression increased by more than 60% among kids ages 14 to 17.
Aren’t Teens Always Miserable?
Dark topics like depression and suicide are often enticing to vulnerable young minds. But today’s teens (and increasingly kids) aren’t just interested in gloomy topics and gothic music — they’re increasingly physically harming themselves, contemplating and committing suicide. For instance, while less than 1% of over-75s have ever self-harmed, 12% of Millennials have done so and one in four Gen Z girls.
Heavy social media usage for young girls is correlated more strongly with anxiety and depression than heroin use.
Across 46 children’s hospitals across America, the Children’s Hospital Association documented “5,485 emergency room inpatient visits for suicidal thoughts and self-harm among 6- to-12-year-olds at these hospitals since 2019, up from 2,555 in 2016.” Although the full statistics aren’t available yet for 2020, in the first three quarters of the year there were already 3,503 such visits.
The number of visits for teenagers with suicidal thoughts or who had self-harmed also rose from 2016 to 2019 by 44%, compared with a 115% rise for younger children.
Looking at the figures for self-harm and suicide, this clearly isn’t just down to Gen Z’s greater willingness to talk about their mental health problems, nor just ordinary teenage anguish. Something has clearly shifted.
Is Social Media Complicit?
Prominent sociologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge in part blame social media for Gen Z’s misery, looking at correlations between the introduction of the iPhone, addiction to smartphone usage, and worsening mental health.
Social media is now used at an earlier age than ever before, with the youngest of Gen Z having no idea what life was like before it. Nowadays, 12% of children first use a phone between the ages of 1 to 2 years old, and most children now own their own phone before age 7.
12% of children first use a phone between the ages of 1 to 2 years old.
Correlation isn’t causation, of course — but there are disturbing patterns that shouldn’t be ignored. For example, among teens who use social media for more than five hours a day, one study showed a 50% increase in symptoms of depression among girls (35% among boys), compared with those who only use social media for 1-3 hours a day.
Alarmingly, sociologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge also found that heavy use of social media for young girls is correlated more strongly with anxiety and depression than heroin use.
According to Jean Twenge, without exception, all screen-related activities are associated with less happiness, while all off-screen activities are linked to more happiness. For example, eighth-graders spending 10 or more hours a week on social media are 56% more likely to say they’re unhappy than those who spend less time on social media.
All screen-related activities are associated with less happiness.
By contrast, those who spend an above-average proportion of their time socializing with others face-to-face are 20% less likely to claim they’re unhappy than those who hang out with friends for a below-average amount of time. Eighth-graders who use social media heavily increase their risk of depression by 27%, while those involved in activities like sports and attending religious services face a much lower risk.
As Twenge clarifies, it could be the case that miserable teens simply spend more time online. But, research shows that screen time (and particularly time spent on social media) can cause unhappiness. For instance, one study asked college students with Facebook to fill out online surveys five times a day over the course of two weeks. They were instructed to report their mood and how much they had used Facebook. It was found that the more they used Facebook, the unhappier they felt — but feeling unhappy didn’t lead them to spend more time on Facebook.
What Makes Social Media So Bad?
It’s often said that the same warnings were given about books and the introduction of TV — that they would shut children away from the real world and warp their minds. But social media is drastically different from anything we’ve seen before — and this is something that many of us are too addicted to admit.
The problem is, social media algorithms today not only serve to remind teenagers of their misery, but fuel and encourage it. Take all the usual pressures that come with being young — how you look, how popular you are, how your body is changing, and what your future is going to look like — and add to them the constant social comparison online and tech features purposely designed to keep you addicted. This is likely why adolescents who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35% more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, like making a suicide plan (much higher than the risk of watching TV).
Teens and pre-teens have easy access to content related to self-harm and suicide online.
What’s more, teens and pre-teens have easy access to content directly related to self-harm and suicide online, especially on apps like Instagram. After 14-year-old Molly Russell committed suicide in the U.K. in 2017 after seeing graphic images on the app, Instagram began to remove around 10,000 suicide and self-harm images a day.
But, kids today have grown up with technology; they know how to bypass strict screen controls, hide apps from their home screen, and use hashtags that won’t be detected by Instagram like #selfharn and #selfharmm, or #deb (depression) and #annie (anxiety). Being greeted with the option either to “get support” or “see posts anyway” is hardly going to stop them.
“I have no doubt that Instagram helped kill my daughter,” Molly Russell’s father told BBC News after Molly’s death, holding her suicide note which reads “I’m sorry, I did this because of me.”
Following her death, Molly’s father discovered that she was following multiple accounts on Instagram sharing details of depression, suicide, and self-harm. “I think tens of thousands in this country are looking at them,” he claimed, referring to posts that encourage adolescents to starve themselves, cut themselves, and even end their lives.
And, once you follow one of these accounts on Instagram, the app is engineered to helpfully suggest more to you. As head of the suicide prevention charity Papyrus told the BBC: “It’s illegal to aid someone in suicide...that makes Instagram complicit.”
It’s not only the constant comparison and the unethical algorithms that are the problems, either. Social media usage is also linked to spending less time outside and less time socializing.
Even before the pandemic, three-quarters of U.K. children spent less time outdoors than prison inmates. In 2018, National Trust research showed that children are playing outside for an average of four hours a week, compared with 8.2 hours for their parents when they were kids. In 2018, a study by the U.K. government found that 10% of respondents had not even been in a natural environment like a park, forest, or beach for at least a year. And now the pandemic has forced children to completely replace real-life socialization for screen time.
This is “the greatest psychological experiment we’ve ever run on humanity.”
It’s often said that kids are more resilient than we think — that they’ll be unaffected long-term by social media addiction and likely grow out of their misery.
But adolescents, especially very young kids, are shaped by their experiences. Who knows what the effects of growing up alongside these addictive technologies — combined now with a whole year of social isolation — will be?
Former design ethicist for Google, Tristan Harris, claims that we’re currently running “the greatest psychological experiment we've ever run on humanity” — and kids are the guinea pigs. “We’re 10 years into this mass hypnosis,” as Harris puts it, “We’re 10 years into kids thinking it’s normal to get the social approval of 10,000 people they’ve never met.”
Understandably, a lot of people fall into the trap of believing that kids spending a few hours a day on social media is harmless.
But, would any decent parent willingly hand their child a drug perfectly curated for maximum addiction, one that intentionally exploits their psychological vulnerabilities and alters the way their mind works? Even if it made them more popular, and every other child used it?
This isn’t about being anti-technology, nor am I denying that social media can help foster positive connections and make life more convenient. But, it’s about the importance of distancing adolescents — especially young children — away from a culture of constant instant gratification and social comparison, one that plies them with an entirely synthetic sense of comfort, community, and validation from others, ultimately leaving them lonelier and more miserable than before.
With Gen Z the most anxious, depressed, and fragile generation on record, and social media algorithms only becoming more invasive and addictive, what will the next generation look like if things don’t change?
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