In recent years, there has been much focus on millennials’ mental health, but there’s a whole new generation behind them now. Generation Z has never known the world without the internet and smartphones – how is that affecting their mental wellbeing?
According to the Mental Health Foundation, one in 10 children and young people in the UK are affected by mental health problems. And 70 per cent of those have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age – meaning that these children and young people will likely be carrying their mental illnesses into adulthood.
Dr Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, says that, psychologically, Generation Z are “more vulnerable than millennials were”. Teen depression and suicide rates have “skyrocketed” since 2011 and she says it’s “not an exaggeration to describe [Generation Z] as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades”. And much of this, she says, can be traced back to their phones.
We spoke to Helen Cutteridge, emotional wellbeing (self-harm) lead at Youthscape, to find out more about young people’s mental health in the UK and how it is affecting their ability to succeed in life.
“Young people have higher rates of anxiety than ever before,” Cutteridge says. “The recent Childline report suggests this, with 22 per cent of their counselling sessions last year around mental health, 22,400 young people told the service that they were contemplating ending their lives and 61 per cent of children that they referred to other services had suicidal thoughts or feelings.”
While there are many reasons for this increase – including the fact that people are more aware of mental health issues and more likely to report them – Cutteridge identifies one key issue. “Number on would be social media,” she says. “Millennials knew a life before Facebook, Gen Z have never experienced that, they are learning to live their lives with everyone watching and judging it.
“Everything is done through the filter of Snapchat or Instagram, and it’s constant. Young people aren’t switching off from this. What’s more is Gen Z are comparing themselves to lives that don’t exist. They know that celebrity lives are predominantly unrealistic but when they see people like Zoella become famous because of their social media, it suddenly becomes more attainable. They are comparing their lives to these photos that have taken a long time to take and had many filters added. They are looking at themselves in the mirror and scrutinising themselves for not looking like that.”
But comparison isn’t the only issue that social media brings into the lives of young people. Cutteridge also identifies the fact that young people today are more aware than ever before of what is going on in the world. “It scares them. Gen Z is looking at the news and they are scared of the decisions that world leaders are making,” she says. “They are worried about major natural disasters and they are scared of terrorism. The bombing in Manchester last year in particular hit home, it suddenly became a real life thought of ‘that could have been me’.”
But while all this is going on, Generation Z is also coming under more pressure to perform and to get things right to prepare them for their careers. “A constantly changing education system, exams being made harder, and needing to decide on their future in secondary school all add to this pressure,” Cutteridge says. “University is the expectation for most school leavers but with tuition fees rising there is a concern over affordability – yet schools still push for their students to attend.”
Many of the things Gen Z are struggling with impact their self-worth
As a result of this anxiety and worry, Generation Z’s ability to fulfil its potential is being diminished. Cutteridge explains: “Many of the things Gen Z are struggling with impact their self-worth, automatically making them question their ability to do things.”
Alongside this, young people’s habit of being online and connected constantly is, unsurprisingly, affecting their sleep. “Sleep is essential for our bodies and minds to function as they should and with the disturbed sleep pattern a large number of young people are functioning on, it means that they are not able to access the full potential of their brains, as a result they struggle with concentration both in school and out of it.”
So what can Generation Z do to look after themselves and give themselves the best chance of success? Cutteridge has a few suggestions: “Sleep more, get a healthy diet, learn safety around internet usage, spend more time outside and interacting with people in person engage in creative activities to learn emotional language.
“Know that switching your phone off at night is a good thing and won’t cause the end of the world. Concentrate on subjects and activities that make you happy, and remember that university isn’t the only way to get a job or be successful.”