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Are the Kids Alright?: Gen Z and Social Media

Social media as we know it today first came around in the late ’90s with the first site of its kind, the now defunct Six Degrees. Since the early 2000s with the advent of the far more successful Facebook, social media has exponentially increased in popularity and pervasiveness. Early forms of sites like Twitter and Instagram are virtually unrecognizable from what we see on our screens today, and we find ourselves more and more entrenched in the digital world with the passing of each year as algorithms become more and more intrusive. As the landscape of these sites trespasses upon our minds, what impact does it have on our mental health?

While social media can facilitate social connectiveness, especially when used actively (using sites to post and communicate with others instead of just scrolling and lurking), it can also have negative effects. In the last 30 years, depression worldwide has been on the rise; in 1990, 172 million people were suffering from depression. In 2017, that number rose by almost 50 percent to 258 million. Generation Z, the generation most colloquially associated with social media — with the oldest of them being born in the late ’90s and entirely growing up in the digital age — is twice as likely as Americans over 25 to battle depression and feelings of hopelessness, according to research from the Walton Family Foundation.

While the rise in depression is only correlational to the rise in social media, queer members of Gen Z believe their mental health suffers from social media mostly due to the hypervisibility of other people’s lives and the comparison and subsequent self-loathing that can cause.

“I feel like social media has been a blessing and a burden simultaneously,” Megan Dunn, a queer member of Gen Z, told Georgia Voice. “On the one hand, I’ve been able to stay in touch with people who I otherwise would probably never see again in person. I watch them get new jobs, move to new cities, get married, and have kids, and cheering them on through all of that has been really cool. But at the same time everything I consume on [social media], whether it’s from people I personally know or if it’s content from a stranger, is going to be a sanitized version of real life … [T]here are times that it can be overwhelming to feel like I’m somehow ‘behind’ in life compared to others. I get so wrapped up in wondering if I have enough friends or if I’m where I’m supposed to be career-wise or if I look like someone that other people would find desirable, and I start to forget that it isn’t my job to be any of those things in order to be deserving of love and respect.”

Victoria Cortes, a younger nonbinary member of Gen Z, echoed these sentiments, specifically saying that this level of comparison can exacerbate their gender dysphoria.

“I personally hate seeing other non-binary/genderfluid people looking exactly how I want, it kills me a little inside,” they told Georgia Voice. “I love to see them happy, but I’m sad I don’t look like them. It makes me feel not genderqueer enough, especially seeing people who take hormones … I’ve already felt this while going woman mode and now I experience it on a deeper level wanting to be perceived not as a woman. I guess it’s because it’s so easy for me to portray myself as a woman. It’s harder to portray myself as non-woman, and it’s harder coming to terms with that observing all these genderqueer people looking so good.”

Both Dunn and Cortes expressed some guilt at the fact that they weren’t just happy for the other people on their feeds.

“There’s the added guilt of, ‘I shouldn’t be so upset by this, and I should be happy for them,’ because I never want people to feel as though they shouldn’t share their wins out of fear that others will compare themselves,” Dunn said.

This guilt may exacerbate the negative effects of self-comparison; clinical psychologist Dr. Jennifer Ho told Everyday Health that guilt can affect self-esteem and self-worth and lead to maladaptive behaviors if unaddressed.

The peak of negative outcomes when it comes to social media happens when daily use transforms into addiction. According to California State University, an estimated 10 percent of Americans are addicted to social media, and Cortes expressed being addicted themselves. Signs of social media addiction include withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, irritability, and restlessness when not online; neglecting responsibilities; spending more time on social media than with friends or family; and loss of interest in other hobbies or activities.

To combat social media addiction or overuse, turn off push notifications for the apps you use most often, turn your phone to grayscale to eliminate hyperstimulation while you scroll, or use apps that track and limit social media usage.