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OPINION | EDITORIAL: On being young in the modern era

August 9, 2022 at 4:33 a.m.

It's sometimes easy for us old-timers to look at today's Generation Z and resort to that trusty old idiom, "Kids today . . ." followed with a sigh. Or maybe a palm to the face.

And it's become generational orthodoxy, a time-honored tradition for those members of society ages 40 and up, to expound on the lost promise of the current rising cohort. But it works both ways. Want to witness a dramatic eye roll? Watch a teenager's reaction to a parent trying to do anything technical past maybe composing a text message.

Contemporary society has gone soft in many ways, sure. But as with each new generation, well, it's complicated. Each new generation walks its own path, different from the one before, outside influences and extenuating circumstances unique to it.

Gen Z--defined by Pew as starting with those born in 1997 or later--has lived in unique times. See the quickening advancement of technology and our reliance on it, terrorism, the global pandemic. (Some might add the continued secularization of society.) As The Spectator's Jesse Singal reminded us, the stress entailed in this experience is taking a toll on young folks.

Last December, the U.S. surgeon general's office shared data that revealed the share of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40 percent to more than one in three from 2009 to 2019. Suicidal behaviors increased as well with 19 percent of responding students reporting the consideration of attempted suicide, a 36 percent increase.

Starting in 2009, ER visits for self-inflicted injuries to kids ages 10 to 19 began to rise sharply, according to the CDC. All this, of course, was before covid hit.

It may seem easy, even instinctual to some, to simply say "Pull yourself together." But how would older generations have handled today's problems, beginning with social media? Which is all-encompassing today, with every teen and preteen holding a device powerful enough to have navigated The Enterprise.

As Mr. Singal writes, "Facebook accessed via a shared clunker of a desktop computer in the family room is one thing; Facebook on a smartphone is quite another."

Last year, The Wall Street Journal uncovered internal documents from Meta revealing the company's research that found the use of Instagram correlated to negative mental health outcomes for teenage girls. The validity of the research was questioned, but it's more than reasonable to assume "negative outcomes" could result from overuse of almost any social media platform.

Once, not that long ago, social comparisons were limited to the playground or maybe the arcade. Or the school dance. But now these social comparisons are 24/7 and everywhere.

Mr. Singal notes the inevitable competing takes on the source material for all of this. Conservatives, he said, see a link between unhappiness and the dissolution of traditional families. The left sees capitalism's "bottomless rapaciousness."

It's possible in today's 15-minutes-or-bust world that some are influenced into admitting feelings they might not actually possess. Ask someone enough leading questions enough times, and it can happen. (Just study the questions and results of almost any poll.)

But the bottom line is this: A big chunk of Gen Z is hurting. And this pain is manifesting itself in ways that used to be the stuff of nightmares: young people hurting themselves, and in the worst cases, filled with hate and committing mass murder.

Mr. Singal says suicide rates began to fall once the pandemic kicked in, down overall and flat among younger Americans. Could it be the lockdown eliminated certain stress factors related to work and school?

"All of which offers some hints about what matters most in life: If kids spend a lot of time on their phones, but they also have strong real-life social ties (even ties that are reinforced via online communication), a supportive family and meaningful things to do in their free time, then all else being equal, they are statistically unlikely to be at a particularly high risk for anxiety, depression or suicide," he writes.

"What's interesting about this is how intuitive it is: you probably didn't need to read any fancy regression tables to know that this is the case. Sometimes--not always, but sometimes--our gut instincts are correct."

Indeed they are. For many in older generations who grew up in church, the answer seems obvious. But for now, a strong family support system, in whatever form it takes, seems like a good start.

Print Headline: Social generation


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