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  • Writer's pictureJack Winston

Gen Z Knows Social Media is Causing the Mental Health Crisis. Academics Are Starting to Catch Up.

In honor of mental health awareness month, I wanted to address the elephant in the room: how social media has significantly contributed - if not outright caused - the mental health crisis we’re finding ourselves in.

This might be well-known for some people, but we’re currently in the midst of a massive mental health crisis. Since 2012, rates of serious mental health disorders in youths and adolescents - like anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide - have more than doubled.

Graph of % of US teens with major depression

Source: NSDUH data, graphed by Jonathan Haidt on p. 12 of his Adolescent Mood Disorder Collaborative Review Document

Graph of % of US adults with anxiety, broken down by age

Source: NSDUH data, graphed by Jonathan Haidt in his Adolescent Mood Disorder Collaborative Review Document

But what has caused this trend?

Over the past several years there have been many theories about what is the root cause of the mental health crisis, from economic malaise to an increase in self-reporting.

But as we gather more data and analyze different factors, the latest research points to one primary cause: the rise of the smartphone.

While a lot of the previous research around social media’s impact on mental health has been correlational, it’s becoming increasingly clear that smartphones and social media are most likely the driving force behind the massive uptick in mental health and mood disorders.

We’ve known for several years that increased screen time is linked to increased instances of mental health disorders. And last week, the US Surgeon General issued a new advisory that widespread social media use among kids and teens poses a significant mental health risk that needs to be addressed immediately.

If you remain unconvinced, Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge have put together an amazing Social Media and Mental Health Collaborative Review Doc that highlights hundreds of studies that look to answer this question.

But all of this is old news to me and the millions of others in my generation who were the first to grow up with these technologies. I'm one of the oldest members of Gen Z, and while the academic world is just starting to understand the causal link between excessive smartphone use and mental health disorders, this is something anyone who grew up with an iPhone knows intuitively.

That’s why you see kids and young adults taking drastic action to reduce their screen time, from high schoolers creating ‘Luddite Clubs’ to people even buying flip phones again!

We all know we spend too much time on our phones and that it’s impacting our lives. But here’s the problem: we can’t stop because our phones have been made intentionally addictive.

If you’ve watched the viral Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, then you’re well aware of what I’m talking about. Social media companies (and now all companies) use subtle psychological techniques to engineer our constant engagement. They use tactics like variable rewards, the infinite scroll, and social affirmation to keep us glued to our phones. It’s not because they’re evil, it’s just that their entire business model relies on optimizing our attention.

The result is that we can’t actually choose how much we use our phones. We're not in control of our behavior because our time and attention have been hijacked, and there has been very little we can do about it.

This is a problem that has deeply affected me. I grew up hooked on these platforms, first getting Facebook while I was in middle school. I didn’t know what I was signing up for then, but I’ve known for a long time now that how I used my phone was having a serious impact on my productivity, mental health, and overall quality of life. But no matter what I tried, I wasn’t able to effectively control it.

Eventually, I took drastic action by quitting all social media and taking a dopamine detox, not using my phone for several days, which was the only way to reset my dopamine levels after years of overstimulation. I saw the benefits immediately.

My anxiety became noticeably less pronounced. Suddenly, “hard” things I had always tried to do, like working out consistently, cooking healthy food, and meditating, became easy. I was finally allowed to be alone with my own thoughts, clarifying what I actually wanted to do with my days, weeks, and years.

The impacts were so pronounced that my brother and I decided to quit our jobs and work on this problem full-time. We’re building Present, where we’re giving power back to people to control how they use technology instead of letting Big Tech determine how we spend our time. Our mission isn’t zero phone use - far from it. Most of this blog has been around the negative impacts of social media and the iPhone, but there have been a lot of positives too.

Instead, our mission is to bring intentionality back to users. To allow everyone to harness technology for their own needs - human needs - instead of being passive consumers of a product that only prioritizes how their attention impacts their bottom line.

These mental health trends are terrible and will have widespread implications not just for the generation experiencing this problem, but for society as a whole. It impacts the friends and family who need to support those affected. It puts a burden on already underfunded schools. It impacts employers by exacerbating employee burnout, the major cause of the “Great Resignation.” And it impacts our culture and political system by promoting polarizing content and altering people’s outlook on life. We cannot build a stable society when the majority of people feel hopeless and think they don't have agency over their life.

A lot of this blog might seem doom and gloom, and I know these are some serious issues we’re discussing. But I’m extremely optimistic. The more I talk to people, especially the younger generation, the more I have hope. We all care about our mental health and we all want to solve this problem, and as I continue to explore the solutions, I become more confident that we can build a future where digital technology works for us again.


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