- For Gen Z, excessive consumption of social media is linked to adverse mental health consequences.
- Punitive measures do not usually resolve the problem of Gen Z’s social media usage.
- Parents’ awareness, emotional support, and open communication will help mitigate risks faced by Gen Z.
By Ivy Song, MD, Eunice Y. Yuen, MD, PhD, and the Child Committee at the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry
Hunter is a 17-year-old high school senior. He struggles with social anxiety, low self-esteem, excessive worries about his ability to graduate, limited job opportunities, and geopolitical stress. He has no plan other than to live at home with his parents.
Hunter, who identifies as gay, was the target of homophobic bullying throughout high school. He has no friends at school, feels unable to share how he feels with his family, and secretly turned to online relationships.
Hunter initially chatted with one online friend, and those chats gradually developed into multiple virtual relationships with both men and women. Although he did not know their actual ages or backgrounds, he was asked to perform sexualized acts on camera to maintain those relationships.
One day, several online “friends” proposed a suicide pact at a time when Hunter already felt emotionally distressed with nowhere to turn. He started cutting himself when feeling ignored on social media.
His mother, having discovered his text messages, felt terrified, enraged, and devastated. She responded by taking away all of Hunter’s electronic devices, believing this would keep him grounded and safe. However, this increased Hunter’s feelings of self-harm, his fantasies about hurting himself, and his emotional ups and downs.
Generation Z (Gen Z), the cohort succeeding Millennials (Gen Y, born 1981-1996) was born between 1997-2013. Members of this generation are considered the first to have grown up entirely in the digital age, making them highly proficient in navigating digital devices and online platforms.
Gen Zers prefer visual and short-form content and platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat. Social media influencers also play a significant role in shaping Gen Zers’ opinions, trends, and decision-making.
However, Gen Zers’ social media usage carries with it a set of challenges and concerns. Studies have shown excessive consumption of social media can lead to mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and negative body image. These psychiatric symptoms likely stem from the sense of fear of missing out (FOMO) and seeking connection and external validation. Cyberbullying, as well as content demonstrating self-harm and substance use, pose additional risks to the safety of young social media users.
Consequently, promoting parental awareness, more open communication with their children, and supporting adolescents’ emotional well-being can mitigate some risks faced by this digitally savvy generation. While Hunter’s fictionalized case may be an extreme one, it offers examples of concerning behaviors and recommendations for action to help a struggling teen.
Social Anxiety, Low Self-esteem, and Excessive Worry
These are common issues faced by high school students struggling with academic stress, a desire for peer acceptance, and identity exploration.
- Being aware of changes in behavior, mood, weight, and activities of the teen.
- Not Helpful:
- Brushing these feelings off as “just being a teenager.”
- Expressing frustration to the teen for not wanting to share or engage.
Poor School Performance and Dwindling Future Perspectives
Hunter’s difficulties keeping up with his work are likely due to mental health issues. However, not all teens with anxiety and low self-esteem have Hunter’s level of functional impairment.
- Parents should seek professional mental health help if and when severe depression and anxiety interfere with a teen’s ability to function. Family doctors, pediatricians, and even school officials may connect families with appropriate mental health resources.
- Not Helpful:
- Shaming or criticizing the teen for low motivation, low energy, and not making enough of an effort.
- Negatively comparing one’s adolescent to peers at school or higher functioning siblings.
Bullying in high school is prevalent, sometimes out of sight or awareness of teachers and parents, particularly when it comes to cyberbullying. Some common risk factors for being bullied include sexual orientation, gender identity, and body image.
- Creating a safe and non-judgmental environment at home where a teen can feel comfortable discussing experiences and concerns at school.
- Routinely asking how a teen’s day went. Sometimes asking about the “best” and “worst” things that happened that day can get a conversation going.
- A teen might not feel comfortable talking with a parent at first as it takes consistent effort. Sometimes teens may open up to another trusted adult, i.e. school counselor, teacher, coach, relative, pediatrician, etc.
- Not Helpful:
- Dismissing or ignoring a teen’s experiences.
- Suggesting the teen is at fault for being bullied.
- Directly confronting a bully's parents.
- Encouraging a teen to handle bullying on their own.
Socially Isolating from Friends and Family. Engaging in Risky Online Friendships and Relationships.
Social isolation can be a warning sign. Humans are wired for connection, especially teenagers. A young person unable to find support and friendships in real life may turn elsewhere, particularly to the internet, to fulfill that need.
- Learning about online platforms their teen frequents.
- Educating adolescents about online safety, including the importance of privacy settings, avoiding sharing of personal information with strangers, and recognizing potential risks associated with online relationships.
- Encouraging one’s teen to report and block individuals who engage in harmful or abusive behavior.
- Explaining the importance of seeking help when faced with threats or dangerous situations.
- Not Helpful:
- Invading a teen’s online space without consent.
- Forbidding all online relationships completely will further isolate a teen.
Engaging in illegal activities with groups of friends is not uncommon among teenagers. They may be coerced into age-inappropriate sexual behaviors by online friends that could potentially lead to engaging in sex work and even sex trafficking. A socially isolated teen may be encouraged to engage in other illegal activities such as dealing or using substances, stealing, and vandalism.
- Help the adolescent understand the severity of their actions and the potentially dangerous consequences of breaking the law.
- Although parents might feel fearful or even shameful about reporting online sexual activity, it is important to understand that a child’s safety is the ultimate priority. After a shared discussion with a teen, parents should report illegal activities to the police. Additional reports to local or state authorities may be suggested by the police department. For example, the Department of Child and Family’s (DCF) and/or Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) involvement would provide additional resources and investigation in Hunter’s case.
- Parents should provide reassurance that they will support the teen through the above process.
- Not Helpful:
- Parents trying to handle this on their own.
- Casting blame or shaming the teen for their actions.
- Parents attempting to hide or dismiss illegal behaviors out of concern they might lead to similar behaviors in the future.
Self-harm and Suicide
Teenagers are often influenced by peers in decision-making. Hunter’s group of online friends became a significant influence on him given his lack of real-life connections. Hunter did not want to engage in a suicide pact but his real-life social isolation exacerbated his emotional distress. When teens lack proper coping mechanisms, they may act out emotions impulsively, engaging in self-harm to “feel something” or “alleviate pain.”
- Parents, therapists, and school counselors can educate adolescents on coping mechanisms like reframing the message, journaling, mindfulness of emotions, and engaging in activities that boost confidence.
- Hunter, given his multiple risk factors, is at high risk for self-harm. He would benefit from parents and therapists formulating a safety plan that includes distracting activities and identifying people he can turn to when he is in crisis.
- Removing access to means for self-harm or suicide, such as unlocked medications, sharps, and guns.
- Placing immediate help resources on a phone or kitchen counter, like the suicide hotline 988, the state mobile crisis hotline, and contact info for the teen’s mental health provider.
- Not Helpful:
- Ignoring red flags. Teenagers often exhibit signs they are struggling before reaching the point of crisis.
- Ignoring abnormal behaviors at school, teens staying in their rooms for prolonged periods, hoarding pills, not eating, not showering, and making comments like “people would be better off without me.”
Parental Control May Exacerbate Behaviors
Teenagers often view their phone as a vital connection to the rest of the world, and frequently, to “people who care about me,” such as friends and trusted adults. Parents may feel obligated to take away a teen’s phone to keep them safe. However, this action severs the teen’s connection to “everything that matters” and may worsen depression, anxiety, impulsive behavior, and self-harm.
- Establish boundaries around social media but work with the teen to find a balance promoting healthy social media use. This includes setting limits on usage time, using the phone in shared family spaces instead of their own room, and parental control apps that track social media usage.
- Designate periods for activities promoting offline interactions, self-care, and pursuing personal interests.
- Not Helpful:
- Rigid, punitive measures to enforce social media rules such as cutting off Wi-Fi completely, taking away phones, or grounding.
After many months, Hunter and his mother made progress together. They found professional help and started family therapy. Together, they discussed the challenges Hunter faces at school and identified alternative coping mechanisms for him when things get overwhelming.
Hunter’s mother locked away all prescription medications, knives, and guns in dedicated cabinets. She made appropriate steps to report to the school and police to ensure Hunter’s imminent personal safety. She also attended a local class on “social media for parents.”
Together, the family researched helpful safety protection tips on the internet, as well as communication skills to determine the appropriate usage of electronic devices. Working with his school’s social worker, Hunter gradually made some new friends through the LGBTQ support groups at school.
It can be alarming for parents to witness social media adversely affecting their child's life, and for some, it may seem natural to resort to reactive and punitive measures. However, it’s important to remember that many parents and families struggle with these issues. Most importantly, help is available. One should not hesitate to consult a family pediatrician or mental health professional.
Being a Gen Zer can be challenging, but parental support and understanding can go far in alleviating their worries and building resilience.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Directory
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