Gen Z, Social Media, and Mental Health

May 22, 2024
A girl using social media on her phone

A generation raised on the internet is feeling its effects, navigating algorithms, and forging community.

By Shelby Crosier

Years of growing youth mental health concerns came to a head during the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association declared a National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health in 2021. However, a mental health crisis was beginning in young people long before the pandemic began.

“There was an inflection point starting between 2010 and 2012 where we started seeing spiking levels of everything,” says Benjamin Druss, MD, professor and Rosalynn Carter Chair in Mental Health in the Department of Health Policy and Management. “From reports of feeling lonely and left out, to depressive symptoms, to rising rates of diagnosed and treated anxiety and depression.”

Since 2011, the number of high school-aged youth (12- to 17-years-old) experiencing depressive symptoms—like sadness or hopelessness—considering suicide, and attempting suicide has gone up. In 2021, almost one third of high school students had experienced poor mental health within the past month. Concerningly, there are large disparities in this trend, with female, LGBTQ+, and  racial and ethnic minority youth being more likely to experience poor mental health.

The youth mental health crisis has, in many ways, fallen onto the shoulders of Generation Z. Defined by Pew Research Center as anyone born between 1997 and roughly 2012 (putting them between 12 and 27 years old), this generation has almost always been exposed to mobile devices, high speed Wi-Fi, social media, and an internet landscape that allows for constant connectedness—for better or for worse.

Rising Time Online, Rising Mental Health Concerns

Overall use of all social media sites has risen in the last decade, and youth are the most likely to use YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram. Members of Gen Z in particular are more likely than older generations to spend more time on social media daily, and a third of teenagers use at least one site almost constantly.

A growing body of research shows that this level of near-constant social media and internet use negatively impacts youth mental health. For example, one study showed that youth who spend over 3 hours each day on social media are at higher risk for mental health problems. According to a 2023 U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on social media and youth mental health, some of the major concerns that come with social media use are sleep loss, cyberbullying and harassment, body image issues and disordered eating behaviors, and depressive symptoms.

“A lot of youth say that social media is too much for them, but often this realization comes after significant negative experiences. They only see it once it’s really harmful to them,” says Dean M. Daniele Fallin, PhD. Some of this harm, according to the Surgeon General’s Advisory, could stem from exposure to harmful content, from influencers who encourage physical and social comparison, to violent and explicit material.

Algorithms and features built into digital platforms to maximize user engagement are another important factor in the mental health harms of social media. This fact is mentioned in the Surgeon General’s Advisory and emphasized by Janet Cummings, PhD, professor of health policy and management.

“These algorithms are developed to hold our attention and drive ad revenue,” says Cummings. “If what’s holding our attention online is something that creates or exacerbates loneliness, depression, or anxiety, those could get ramped up by increased engagement with these platforms.”

It is no wonder, then, that Gen Zers are more likely than their older counterparts to report feeling negative mental health effects from social media use.

“Social media is like a vector of contagion where things get magnified and amplified,” says Druss. “Once there is some bad feeling, it just tends to get bounced around and amplified in a way that it wouldn’t in real-life interactions.”

Finding Connection and Community Online

Social media can also have positive impacts on young people. It often provides an avenue for youth to find community and connectionwith others. This can be especially important for LGBTQ+ youth, who often use social media to connect with and support each other.

Some young people also find that online spaces positively affect their mental health by allowing them to be creative and build communities around their creative output. Sarah Timbie, an MPH student in global environmental health at Rollins and self-identified member of Gen Z, runs an online jewelry business and “does a lot of arts and crafts” in her free time.

“A huge positive impact [of social media] for me has been having an artistic community,” she shares. “Social media can be really helpful for people who are starting out in a new hobby or project. People can be super positive and encouraging about the growth of new artists, and they love giving tips.”

According to Druss, social media may also play a role in increasing conversations about mental health.

“Social media has helped facilitate more openness in discussing mental health problems among young people. That may help reduce stigma and get more people into treatment,” he says.

Where Do We Go from Here?

To improve youth mental health outcomes, especially as they relate to social media and internet usage, it is important to build a strong base of evidence about the impacts and potential solutions. However, there are currently several gaps in our knowledge.

“Many people have the sense that social media can be bad. And there has been some research, particularly around body image and girls that shows this to be true, but there is a lot of research that hasn’t been done,” says Fallin. “The [Surgeon General’s] report highlighted that some of the major social media companies have not been cooperative in sharing data with researchers, so it is very hard to do this research when you are limited by access. While we can work on that front to push for data access, we need also to think of other ways to get this kind of research done, because we simply don’t have a strong evidence base.”

There is also a need for research about what interventions may be the most effective in combatting the negative effects of social media. For Cummings, that means focusing on education and strategies to improve digital literacy.

“If this issue is going to be tackled, there needs to be an education component, and it needs to start young,” says Cummings. “We need an evidence base about how to do it well.”