Hint: It’s not Instagram. The roots of our generational despair extend far beyond our phone screens.
Before I began writing this article, I decided to conduct a very unscientific little survey to figure out whether my generation really was so hopeless and pessimistic in the first place. I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just the overdramatic media or the typical self-centeredness of young people that was making me believe so. I asked some of my friends about their mental health, hopes, and beliefs about the future and did the same with several adults, adding in a question about whether they had felt the same way when they were children.
Well, the media is right. Kind of.
As expected, people my age are far more pessimistic than Gen-Xers, baby boomers, and even millennials, who all noted that they’d been even more optimistic when they were our age than they are today.
We are mentally exhausted, obsessed with material achievement, insecure, and, in general, don’t believe that we will lead better lives than our parents did.
But you’ve probably heard all of this before, read the Deloitte surveys, and seen the Netflix documentaries. The more important question, in my opinion, is what makes us this way?
Both The Wall Street Journal and my mother think it’s the Internet.
According to this view, young people are unhappy because they’re exposed to large amounts of negative information online, victim to constant comparison on social media, ignorant of the “real world”, and consumed by our digital lives. Oh, and we’re all deathly anxious about being cancelled for not being woke enough.
The obvious solution, then, is to simply disconnect from social media. Jean Twenge, an academic psychologist and the author of a prominent study by the Institute for Family Studies (a conservative think tank), like an undoubtedly large number of other parents, has done just that. She doesn’t give any of her kids access to social media until they’re 13 and is even stricter with her daughters, not allowing the oldest 14-year-old a phone, let alone any social media. From political leaders to YouTube talk show hosts, many have been advocating for this strategy as the cure for our pessimism.
Most of us do recognize the negative effects of the Internet on our mental health and have attempted (and usually failed) to do social media “detoxes”. The role of huge, almost omnipresent social networks like Facebook in the radicalization of youth, is also undeniable.
However, multiple studies have shown that concerns over the impact of social media on young people’s mental health are vastly overblown. Excess use of it can certainly affect us negatively, but it blaming it for our collective despair paints a grossly incomplete picture.
Social media is an easy, obvious target because it can be dealt with by doing something as simple as asking parents to monitor their children’s time on the Internet. But blaming all our unhappiness on it delegitimizes the very real, very non-digital issues that threaten our present and future.
All over the world, political polarization is increasing. Nations are divided along ideological lines, wars between global powers seem set to break out every few months, and citizens of democracies around the world are steadily losing their rights and freedoms.
Climate change is no longer a vague future threat: from cyclones in Eastern India to forest fires in California, lives, and livelihoods are being directly threatened by it, and the situation only seems to be getting worse.
Most of gen-Z will have already seen two “once-in-a-lifetime” recessions by the time they turn 20. The job market seems increasingly rough and entire industries are likely to shut out human workers as AI becomes more sophisticated. Despite this, billionaires keep getting richer, and all over the world, income and wealth inequality is rising.
And this is to say nothing at all of the long worldwide pandemic that is as much a man-made disaster as it is a natural one.
Of course, the Internet has increased awareness about these issues. We would probably not be as worried about climate change if we didn’t see infographics and documentaries on it regularly. We wouldn’t care about the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan as much if we could not read the tweets and watch the videos of frantic women who feared that they’d have to burn their university degrees soon.
But to claim that increased awareness is the true reason for our pessimism is to shoot the messenger and ignore the real problems completely.
Unfortunately, these problems that pose existential threats to our civilization cannot be solved by taking away teenagers’ phones. They require changes, or sometimes even complete overhauls of the social, political, and economic systems that we take for granted. Individual choices and decisions are important, but they can do little without the support of the powers that be.
Pretending Gen-Z’s despondency to be a result of too much screen time is only one of the many, many ways world leaders and the mainstream media alongside them, try to convince us that change is unnecessary. That our current way of life is sustainable, healthy, and utterly normal.
If we fall for this narrative like most of our parents and teachers seem to have, we will become yet another generation that blinds itself to our problems and refuses to address them. Unlike them, though, we will not just be leaving behind a worse world for generations to come—we will live through this violent, inhospitable, and divided world ourselves.
Featured Image Credits: Wellmark