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Digital Life and its Discontents

Gen Z’s brewing mental health crisis is fueled by social media.

For those paying attention to the increasingly alarming statistics, the kids are not alright. By the numbers, Gen Z are more anxious and depressed than their predecessors: 42% have a diagnosed mental health condition, and they are as a whole more likely than other generations to rate their mental health as poor. They are dating less, drinking less, seeing friends less, and driving less – in short, they are lonelier and disengaging from life by just about every measure.

Academics and talking heads have offered a dazzling array of explanations for the plight of Gen Z, which psychologist Jean Twenge addresses and refutes in her book iGen. Decreased stigma around mental health cannot fully explain the crisis: the data is gathered from anonymous surveys of the whole population, not just those who seek treatment, and teen self-harm and suicide rates have skyrocketed, indicating that the increased rate of diagnosis is tracking real distress. The pandemic surely did not help, but these trends began as early as the 2010s -- long before COVID-19. Economic factors are not explanatory either, since rates of teen depression rose between 2012-2019 even as the economy improved by all metrics. Crises like the rise in school shootings or the opioid epidemic can be ruled out as well, since these are largely regional trends (e.g., specific to the US) whereas teen loneliness and anxiety are accelerating around the world. Many parrot the claim that teenagers today face increased academic pressure, but this idea has been debunked – students today spend less time on homework than they did in the 1990s. Finally, there is the theory that today’s youth are reacting to the horrors of climate change. But research indicates that today’s worries about the environment are not substantially more debilitating than they were a decade or two ago.

This process of elimination led Twenge to one explanation: teens are spending too much time online. According to a Gallup poll, 77% of teenagers spend two or more hours on social media, a figure that dwarfs the proportion who spend the same amount of time on homework (29%), television (27%), video games (26%), or other hobbies (18%). 

Of course, there has been moral panic over the technological innovations of every generation dating back to the printing press. But the data suggests that social media has a demonstrable negative impact on the mental health of Gen Z. A two-year survey of over 5,000 Americans found a correlation between increased Facebook activity and future decreases in reported mental health. A host of psychological and neuroscientific studies have further proven that social media is addictive, that it rewires our reward pathways and demolishes our capacity to pay attention, socialize with others, or otherwise navigate the real world. 

In fact, Gen Z is increasingly opting out of the real world altogether – as Jessica Winter writes in The New Yorker, “Using your mind and body to interact extemporaneously with other minds and bodies…can be boring, or frustrating, or distressing; it demands time, compromise, and accommodation.” Compare this to the frictionless experience of social media, algorithmically tailored so as not to challenge your preferences and beliefs, and it is no surprise that young people are choosing to go online instead. Hence, they are dating less, drinking less, seeing friends less, etc. 

Those seductive algorithms are incentivized to ensnare vulnerable users in the darkest nooks and crannies of the digital world. Hate speech, conspiracy theories, and extremist ideology have become more prevalent online than ever and are threatening hard-won social progress. For instance, male members of Gen Z are more likely than baby boomers to oppose feminism, due at least in part to the rise of influencers like Andrew Tate who tell millions of followers that “women belong to men in marriage.” While girls are less likely to suffer social media addiction, they face higher risk of online sexual harassment and developing poor body image. And, occasionally, these lead to frightening rabbit holes – take, for example, the surge in predominantly female “pro-ana” online communities that glamorize and encourage eating disorders. 

Even at its most benign, social media drives poor mental health outcomes. In a survey by the Royal Society for Public Health, adolescents reported social media “exacerbated anxiety and depression, deprived them of sleep, exposed them to bullying and created worries about their body image and FOMO (‘fear of missing out’).” In his book Filterworld, cultural critic Kyle Chayka argues that this digital malaise is driven partially by the fact that social media platforms are essentially black boxes: “Algorithmic anxiety describes the burgeoning awareness that we must constantly contend with automated technological processes beyond our understanding and control…we end up both overstimulated and numb, much like a glassy-eyed slots player waiting for matching symbols to come up.” 

Our evolutionary psychology predisposes us to pay attention to negative signals amidst this sea of stimulation – and the internet caters to these impulses. Researchers have found that negative emotions such as outrage are most likely to be shared by users, resulting in a relentless drumbeat of pessimism as fatalistic news and inflammatory arguments garner more engagement and float to the top of our feeds. As Naomi Klein writes in Doppleganger, faux online activists resort to “turning minor language infractions into major crimes, while adopting a discourse that is so complex and jargon-laden that people outside university settings often find it off-puting – or straight-up absurd.” The state of the world might be no worse than what earlier generations experienced, but there is no denying that young people today are more exposed than ever to toxic debate about every crisis facing humanity: COVID-19, dwindling economic indicators, climate change, geopolitical tensions in the Middle East, doom and gloom about the 2024 election, and the displacement of human creativity by artificial intelligence, to name just a few. Is it any wonder they are depressed?

What can we do? As business leaders who will no doubt go on to exert real influence over social media companies, there are a variety of promising policy proposals to consider. The House of Representatives introduced the Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act (JAMA) in October 2021, which would impose liability on social media platforms who recommend content which “materially contributes to physical or severe emotional injury.” Daphne Keller, the director of the Program on Platform Regulation at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center, suggests a system of content neutral “circuit breakers” to aid algorithmic regulation. In this system, any viral content would be limited instead of promoted, serving to “bring us back to a less globalized media ecosystem, when pieces of content stayed more firmly within their original contexts,” according to Chayka. The EU has recently gone a step further by introducing the Digital Services Act, which mandates that platforms not only provide transparency into the variables used by algorithms to prioritize content for users, but also allow users to change those parameters. 

There are potential drawbacks to these solutions however, which Chayka elucidates: “Changing the balance to emphasize linear, opt-in content over automated recommendations might be a good thing, if it can limit the possible exposure of harmful material online. But this would be a much more sanitized, and by necessity slower, Internet.” And ultimately, regulation can only protect users from the most pernicious content – to combat the less flashy harms of social media addiction, the burden ultimately falls on us as individuals. For Chayka, this requires “the daily labor of determining a new way of living online.” 

What might this task demand of us? As members of Gen Z (which many at HBS now are, given the age cut-off of 27 is roughly the median age of an incoming class), there is one deceptively simple answer: use our phones less, especially social media. Using social media for only half an hour a day results in a significant reduction in negative mental health outcomes, and given the term FOMO was supposedly coined by HBS students, we would likely reap the benefits of a digital cleanse more than most. If the case for our spiritual flourishing is not enough, powering off our devices can also pay dividends in the workplace – according to the Harvard Business Review, “in one study of more than 12,000 white-collar employees, those who turned away from work every 90 minutes reported 30% higher level of focus, 50% greater capacity to think creatively and 46% higher level of health compared with peers who took no breaks or just one during the workday.” 

Of course, the admonition to use our phones less is one we have likely ignored from our parents for years – sound advice, sure, but difficult to abide by in our virtual age. There are a variety of tactical tools to consider, ranging from using apps that limit social media use to deleting social media apps altogether. Personally, I have taken a page out of The Odyssey by using a timed lock box for my phone, the modern day equivalent of tying myself to the mast to resist the hypnotizing siren song of my beloved apps. The most effective tactics, however, address the root of our desire for digital escape by reacquainting ourselves with the wonderful world outside the sleek contours of our iPhones. Setting goals for the use of our reclaimed time – whether that be reading, creating, or spending time with friends – can provide a powerful alternative to getting sucked into the latest round of fleeting Twitter discourse. 

As we become parents, we can also help inculcate the next generation against the worst of social media addiction by enforcing a simple policy that is backed by research: no smart phones or social media before high school, since the early years of puberty are demonstrated to have the highest correlation between social media use and poor mental health. In place of Instagram and TikTok, we can encourage in-person interaction and analog hobbies. This is easier said than done, of course, given that 95% of teenagers have smartphones – but it is still a commensurately small price to pay for the wellbeing of our children. In an article for The Atlantic, author of The Anxious Generation Jonathan Haidt argues that phone-free school policies “improve the culture, making students more attentive in class and more interactive with one another.” Perhaps the HBS policy of no technology has its merits, though we might be loath to admit it. 

As we seek to untangle Gen Z from its web of digital dependencies, the path forward requires not only innovative regulations and personal commitments but also a cultural shift that values real-world engagement and mental health over the digital rat race. By fostering environments that promote less screen time and more face-to-face interaction, we may just find the keys to a healthier, more connected future for our youth. Despite the direness of the situation, there is room for optimism – the youth are already taking promising steps in the right direction by increasingly demanding low-tech phones and reading more than any other generation. Maybe the kids will be alright after all. 

Danielle Mitalipov (MBA '25) is an RC interested in scaling climate technology and renewable energy generation. She is a Student Sustainability Associate (SSA), and helped organize the HBS Climate Symposium. Prior to HBS, she studied philosophy at Stanford University, and led merchandising for a global brand at adidas. Outside of school, she is usually writing or watching the latest release at the Coolidge Corner Theater.

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