There comes a point in life when you stop adopting new technologies – instead, you let them zoom past you like Mack Trucks on life’s great highway, perhaps splashing mud on your face.
I bowed out at the inception of the video-sharing social media app TikTok, which depresses me because it seems to be replacing reading for young people.
It also appears to be shattering the attention span of the very generation that we need to be smarter than previous ones, so they can solve all the problems their predecessors have caused.
I realise how old that makes me sound – that’s the point.
I am led to believe it’s uncool to get your TikToks via Instagram (although perhaps marginally more cool than getting them via Facebook), but that’s the only time I come across them.
And despite my dismay at the medium, I have to admit, Gen Z are very funny on TikTok.
A recent favourite involved a girl role-playing Jane Eyre explaining to her therapist why she is “still seeing that guy” who keeps his wife locked in an “attic-adjacent” room.
“He explained it to me,” she says, “sooo … we’re getting married?”
There is so much to admire about Zoomers, not least their sense of humour in the face of a global environment which feels far less certain than it did in the 1990s, when I came of age.
It seems extraordinary that Gen Xers (and some geriatric Millennials) are the last generation who will ever know what it’s like to be young without a smartphone.
That means we are the last generation who were able to make youthful mistakes, party, travel and love without the internal surveillance of wondering how we should package an experience to serve to an audience later.
We experienced the glories of true solitude and real adventure in a way that seems impossible now.
The body fascism of the ’90s was real, and we will be forever marked by it. But for Gen X, taking a photo of yourself, or any display of rank narcissism, was unthinkable – you would have been mocked for it.
The smartphone and the Kardashiani started a revolution there, and it is impossible not to notice the link between the advent of the forward-facing camera on smartphones and the mental health crisis engulfing young people, particularly girls.
It is common sense that a device which gives you access to thousands of digitally altered images of impossible body ideals will cause depression and anxiety in girls.
This is compounded by the very currency of social media, where your beauty and your worth can be quantified and tracked in real time, through a simple thumb-push on the “like” button.
It is difficult to write about this topic without sounding like you’re condemning young people, or engaging in the kind of moral panic that every older generation throughout history has engaged in – lamenting the lapse in values among young people these days.
But the evidence is undeniably in, and it demands a response: there is a mental health crisis in young people, particularly girls, that stretches across the developed world.
The uptick in anxiety and depression among pre-teen and teen girls pre-dates Covid, and while there is no doubt the lockdowns exacerbated mental illness for many, the trend is quite separate to the pandemic.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing, released last year, found nearly half of Australian young women aged 16 to 24 years old suffered from an anxiety, depression or substance abuse disorder in the preceding year.
For young men in the same age bracket, the figure was about one in three.
Two other studies published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry showed alarming levels of mental illness among young people, particularly teenage girls, who are increasingly presenting at emergency departments in mental distress or having self harmed. One of the studies covered girls as young as 10.
Dr Ruth Vine, the deputy chief medical officer for mental health, said the surge in mental health problems among the young was “something happening in many countries at the moment” and that it was “clearly a major concern for mental health reform and service planning”.
Dr Vine said social media could be harmful to young people, but one American researcher is more definitive – he has conducted a comprehensive review of all the available scientific research and concluded that social media is dangerous for teenage girls.
“There is now a great deal of evidence that social media is a substantial cause – not just a tiny correlate – of depression and anxiety, and therefore of related behaviours, including self-harm and suicide,” says Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business.
He is most famous for a 2018 book he co-wrote with Greg Lukianoff, called The Coddling of the American Mind, which argued that overprotective parenting and educative methods have weakened resilience in American students.
The authors posited that the campus culture of trigger warnings, “safe spaces” and callings-out of “problematic” people was impeding the social and moral development of college students.
Haidt cites one set of UK data that showed mood disorders were more closely associated with social media use than with marijuana or binge-drinking, and points out that “few parents would knowingly let their daughters become heavy users of anything shown to correlate with mental illness at this level”. And yet here we are, with very little policy response.
There was a huge focus on the health of the elderly during the pandemic but the young were neglected, then and since. The tax system is weighted against them. Their hopes of homeownership are vanishing into the horizon. And they are essentially on their own when it comes to dealing with a revolution in human society and communication; defenceless against technology they are dependent on, but which is harming them.
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