Three teenage girls sit on the other side of my zoom screen. The first is Phoebe Savage from North Carolina, whose room is immaculately decorated with colorful posters, ivy garlands and LED lights, reminiscent of an aesthetic that belongs on a Pinterest board. She’s in her senior year of high school, where her favorite class is creative writing. The second is Sunday Brown, a 16 year old photographer and poet, who I zoomed with at two in the morning to make up for the time difference between New Haven and Melbourne, Australia. And finally Em Fortner, a high school senior from Chicago, with dyed hair and a butterfly decal on the wall behind her head. Em is a singer and a writer, currently teaching herself to crochet. One by one, they each told me that their screen times can hit 10 hours a day.
Gen Z is a generation characterized by our familiarity with digital communication. Today, 98 percent of Gen Z own a smartphone, and 70 percent are active on some form of social media. But Gen Z is distinguished by another essential quality: our plummeting mental health. According to Pew Research, 70 percent of people ages 13-17 consider anxiety and depression to be a major problem within their age group, and just 45 percent of Gen Z report a generally positive mental state. It’s counterintuitive, but today’s online hyper-connection can often lead to an increased sense of isolation. As outlined in Olivia Rodrigo’s song “jealousy, jealousy,” constant exposure to the carefully self-curated galleries of photo-sharing apps can lead to feelings of detachment, even when you’re aware that what you’re seeing online isn’t a reflection of reality.
Over the past two years, Gen Z experienced a screen time spike and a mental health spiral. When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, social media was the easiest way for many to remain engaged in one another’s lives.
“I think [the pandemic] has made me a bit more addicted to be honest. With online learning, it’s so easy to hop back onto Instagram once class is over and scroll endlessly for hours, so I think it’s definitely made my attention span shorter,” Sunday Brown said.
There has been a lot of variation in how young people handled the isolation periods of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many turned to social media apps to remain engaged, but teenagers also seemed to be aware of the amount of time they were spending online. Sunday Brown deleted social media apps several times over the course of quarantine, when she felt she needed a break from the distressing news circulating on these platforms. She said the apps helped her stay connected to her friends, but taking breaks helped her stay connected to herself and allowed her the space to check in with her mental health.
Savage told me she once took a year-long hiatus from Instagram and noticed a change in her mental health and self-image. “I think my mental health did improve a little bit, but obviously not enough to keep me off of it,” she said. Yet her social media engagement also increased over the course of the pandemic, when she felt it was important to remain engaged and connected to her friends while unable to see them in person.
“Quarantine made my hours go up a lot,” Fortner agreed. But unlike Savage and Sunday Brown, Fortner said the only time she’s gone without social media was when she lost her phone for several days. “I did notice a change in my mental health. Positive change, definitely,” she confirmed, but seemed hesitant at the idea of another break anytime soon. “I would consider maybe cutting back. But probably not a full break.”
The design of social media itself relies upon more than just its ability to provide entertainment; it simultaneously encourages comparison among its users.
Sunday Brown said that social media often feels like a competition: “I think Spotify might include likes and followers and all that just so users can compete more.” Many platforms are designed with this in mind, whether the app’s purpose is social or not. Snapchat allows each user to track their “Snapscore,” which “increases with each Snap you send and receive!” Venmo includes a “friends” feature, as well as a feed where users can see who their acquaintances are paying. Duolingo, the educational language-learning app, sends users updates when their friends complete certain achievements or earn experience points. Even Snackpass, a mobile order app available at several college campuses, lets users send their friends “gifts” of restaurant credit back and forth while displaying recent transactions on a “friend feed.”
Sunday Brown agreed that it’s impossible not to notice the cynicism that proliferates some parts of the internet. “There’s a lot of negativity online. If someone posts something, they’re vulnerable with their audience, but then in the comments people will say whatever they want. And I think a lot of people tend to go to extreme lengths when they disagree with someone,” she said.
Why does negativity circulate so persistently online? Killian McLoughlin, a second year social psychology PhD student at Yale, pointed to the interaction between the design of social media platforms and the brain’s cognitive learning mechanisms.
“If people continually get rewarded for particular behavior, over time they express that behavior more and more,” McLoughlin said. “My collaborators and I were interested in whether that was playing out in online spaces. We wanted to see if likes and retweets and so on were encouraging behavioral patterns, and we were particularly interested in negative behaviors, and even more specifically, outrage.”
He continued, “One of the things we have found is that expressions of moral outrage are highly susceptible to this reinforcement learning process, such that people, when they get feedback for expressing moral outrage, they are encouraged to express outrage more frequently. So what we see is this snowballing effect of outrage expression over time as a function of this basic psychological process of reinforcement learning.”
In online spaces, anger is rewarded with attention, contributing to a culture of vitriol. Seika Brown, an undergraduate sophomore researching mental health at Cornell College and winner of Mental Health America’s 2021 mPower Award for her work in mental health education, echoes these sentiments: “If everyone around you seems like they’re going through something really hard, that will take an emotional toll on you,” she said. “There’s a lot of overexposure to negativity online, and it can be really overwhelming.”
Many social media users tend to focus a lot of attention toward how we can achieve validation in a digital landscape where people seem so devoted to tearing others down. Instagram’s layout endorses aesthetics as a means of users’ online representation, which can be damaging when combined with this sense of social competition.
For young women, this feeling of competition can be particularly harmful as it relates to body consciousness. Sunday Brown said she first began feeling self-conscious about her body at the age of nine. She wasn’t on Instagram at that age, but she mentioned that joining social media negatively affected her body image as she got older. “I definitely think if you’re scrolling sometimes and you see, like, a model or something, that can bring you down a bit,” she said. Both Savage and Fortner agreed that photo and video sharing platforms had a tendency to negatively affect their sense of self-worth.
Social media’s effect on women’s body image is a problem that’s only worsened since the rise of photo-sharing apps like Instagram. According to the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health, 78 percent of young women experience body image issues by the time they are 17. Researchers suggest social media’s emphasis on physical appearance is dismissive and damaging. Four percent of people ages 13-18 suffer from disordered eating, and 90 percent of teenagers struggling with anorexia are women. And by the time they’re 17, 89 percent of women have dieted.
Open Communication and Advocacy
While social media is often blamed for Gen Z’s increased anxiety levels, platforms like Instagram and TikTok can also facilitate dialogue and provide spaces for communication and outreach about important issues and movements related to body consciousness.
Sunday Brown said, “My mom actually showed me this body positivity account on Instagram and that really helped me, so I think there’s lots of positives, there’s lots of accounts that help with body image.”
The body positivity movement was created in response to the media’s glorification of a thin and eurocentric beauty standard for women, and body positivity activists have fought to make social media platforms more welcoming for a diversity of body types. Body positivity focuses on an attitude of always loving the appearance of one’s body no matter what, and began a conversation around self-love in mainstream media.
But Seika Brown brought up the more toxic aspects of body positivity movements, such as the online pressure to always love your body. “If all you see is people who don’t look like you, then obviously you’re going to wonder ‘What’s wrong with me?’” she said. “You don’t have to love everything about you all the time. That’s just not real, that’s not human.”
Several celebrities including Lizzo and Jameela Jamil have also called out the “toxic positivity” the body positivity movement sometimes promotes. As an alternative, Lizzo has turned to body neutrality, a practice that removes all focus from appearance and instead emphasizes gratitude and rejects the idea that a person’s physical appearance needs to be discussed at all.
Social media has sparked conversation on the toxicity of such movements. Seika Brown commented on the dialogue, “And that’s one aspect where social media can be good, because that toxicity exists, but people are also calling out that toxicity around positivity.”
In addition to sparking conversations about toxic positivity, social media has provided a space for advocacy groups, educators and individuals to advance conversations on destigmatizing mental health. In 2017, actor and writer Chris Wood founded IDONTMIND (@idontmind), a campaign that aims to decrease the stigma surrounding mental health. IDONTMIND is a platform intended to inspire and inform conversations about mental wellbeing, but it’s also a community for those struggling to begin discussions around their own mental health. Conflicted about the campaign’s social media presence, Wood said, “IDONTMIND is on social media. It’s something I’m at war with all the time. We have to meet people where they are. And hope to bring some good content and helpfulness to what so often can just be a vacuum of negativity … The positive here is that mental health is more openly talked about. The downside is that the vehicle partly responsible for driving that conversation is unleashing havoc on our collective mental health.”
The good news is that IDONTMIND has been successful in “meet[ing] people where they are.” The campaign has 164K followers on Instagram, and they recently streamed a mental health summit that featured conversations about mental health and intersectionality with Rainn Wilson, Zaire Franklin, Zelda Williams and several therapists, advocates and artists.
It isn’t entirely fair to write social media off as toxic and unhealthy, not when people have found positive and community-focused ways to utilize it. There will always be the negative, influencer, body-image destroying and anxiety-inducing sides of social media, but users themselves get to determine what takes up most of their feed. While we cannot control the negativity uploaded to these platforms, or the words of strangers, or discourse on current events, we can control our response. We can choose who we follow and we can be intentional with the parts of social media we invest our time and energy in.
I asked each person I interviewed for this piece the same final question. “My advice to anyone struggling with mental health would be to find a healthy creative outlet,” Fortner answered, “and remind yourself that you deserve to have a future.”
“I think my own advice would be to talk to someone you really trust, who you know will take your feelings seriously,” Sunday Brown told me. “And also to contact a professional, because I think therapy is truly great and helps a lot of people!”
“Be who you want to be, do what you want to do, and don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you need it,” said Savage.
“One of my favorite books is Atomic Habits by James Clear,” Seika Brown added. “I highly recommend that to anyone who’s an avid reader. I think the best thing you can do to take care of yourself is to set realistic goals. With self-care, you often see people online waking up at 5 in the morning and working out and cleaning their room, and it’s satisfying, but it’s really difficult when 5AM rolls around. So being realistic is important, pick a few things that you want to see change in your life, and start with the one that is easiest to address.”
Chris Wood said, “Talk about it. Tell somebody. Once you open the door for a conversation, you open the door for healing. Be thoughtful about who you choose to share with, but know that most of the time people are really willing to listen. If someone isn’t, move on and find someone else. Healing is possible and you’re not alone.”
If you or someone you know needs help, the following mental health resources are available.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255
Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline: (800) 662-4357
SAMHSA’s national hotline: 1-800-662-HELP
The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386
Text IDM to 741741