Stress, Smartphones and Social Media: What the Gen Z Index Tells Us About Teenage Wellbeing
By Rachel Collier, CEO and Co-Founder of Young Social Innovators
This article was first published in the NAPD Leader Magazine, Autumn Edition 2019.
Generation Z, those born between 1995 and 2009, live in an 'always on', 'always mobile' world that allows instant connection to anyone, anywhere, anytime. This generation doesn't remember a time before smartphones and they were the first to be born into social media.
It is clear to those of us who work with young people that the smartphone has become an extension of this generation and the vast amount of time they report spending on their phones reflects this reality. But how much damage is this actually likely to cause in the long run to the wellbeing of Irish teens?
A US study published in Clinical Psychological Science monitored smartphone usage of 2,000 teenagers over three years. The young people came from economically and culturally diverse backgrounds and ranged in age from ten to fifteen years old. The study concluded that young people who spend more time on their phones were not, in fact, any more likely to experience mental health problems such as depression than those who did not. Perhaps even more surprisingly, young people who spent more time on their phones reported that they felt more connected to the world around them and less depressed.
The same study found that young people who spent more time connecting with friends through text messaging also reported lower levels of distress, but these teens were also the ones who were more likely to have stronger social connections in the offline world.
This positive attitude towards technology is reflected in the opinions of Irish teenagers. Research conducted by Young Social Innovators and Amárach Research as part of the Gen Z Index shows that young people spend an average of four hours per day on their smartphones, with a high proportion spending six or more hours on their phone. Only 3% spend one hour or less on their smartphones daily.
Sixty per cent said that they believe that social media has positively impacted on their lives. Nevertheless, scrutiny, peer pressure and unrealistic beauty and life satisfaction -perpetuated through social media -are contributing to a feeling of anxiety amongst this generation. The research found that three in ten young people blame ‘unrealistic beauty and life satisfaction’ perpetuated by social media for making life as a teenager today more difficult, while almost a third of teens said that constant peer pressure and scrutiny from social media is also a contributing factor.
Commenting on the report, Associate Director with Amárach Research, Sarah Rooney said, “Interestingly, while young people feel social media has made their lives more difficult by creating this culture of scrutiny, the majority of them also see it as a force for good. This research highlights the conflicting relationship that young people have with social media. As the first generation born into social media, they view it as contributing positively to their lives. However, they also appear to be struggling with the pressures stemming from it.
The Economist described this generation as “stressed, depressed and exam-obsessed” – an observation that correlates with Young Social Innovators’ findings. One-third of Irish teens describe the mood of their generation as ‘stressed’, while an overwhelming 93% of them reported that they feel that life as a teenager is more difficult today than it was for their parents. In addition to the challenges presented by social media, the study showed that pressures such as getting good exam results to go to college and securing a good job are major factors in this belief.
There is no doubt that young people are feeling increasingly pressurised by both online and offline factors, and all of us involved in guiding young people from teens to adulthood need to be aware of this. The role of education in nurturing and maintaining positive wellbeing in young people is more important than ever before; the introduction of the Wellbeing Programme at Junior Cycle is therefore both timely and much needed.
Young Social Innovators, as a national youth organisation, is delighted to bring new data into the public sphere representing the voice of young people and the issues impacting them and to contribute to the national conversation on how we can best support our young people and their mental health and wellbeing.
We are also delighted at how our programme at Junior Cycle has been received in this regard, with principals reporting that it meets the requirements of Junior Wellbeing. Promoting skills development, confidence and connection to community, the programme is designed to meet many of the indicators of wellbeing and has been recommended by the NCCA as an important wellbeing resource.
Student-led, project-based programmes such as Young Social Innovators’ allow educators to guide learning that promotes resilience, builds confidence and fosters wellbeing. By nurturing creativity and placing students at the centre of learning, such programmes can give teenagers an important sense of control in an increasingly pressurised world.