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What’s Gone Terribly Wrong with Gen Z?

Alarming rates of anxiety, depression, hopelessness, suicide have come to characterize the young generation of Americans colloquially called Generation Z or Gen Z, defined as those born between 1997 and 2012, now in their teens to early twenties.

The pandemic, which kept youths home from school deprived of in-person contact with their peers, certainly contributed, but only partly. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health had already reported a 69% rise of depression among 16 to 17-year-olds in the pre-Covid years of 2009 to 2017. And in a 2009 through 2021 study that spanned two Covid years the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that high school students feeling "persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness" jumped to an unheard of 44% from 26%. Such subjective article illustration
criteria need be addressed with some degree of circumspection, though, given that we are in era when it is fashionable for teens to claim some level of despondency. Nevertheless, there is the hard fact that suicide has become the second leading cause of death for children 10 to 14, says the CDC.

Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist of some renown at New York University with many books to his credit. “We have a whole generation that’s doing terribly,” he said in a Wall Street Journal interview. He is especially troubled by what has happened to America's teenage girls. His research has found that "they have extraordinarily high rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide and fragility” that started to rise “all of a sudden” around 2013, and for only Gen Z, not the generations before.

That was a year after Facebook acquired Instagram and teen girls began using self-facing cameras on their smartphones to post their best selves online only to sink into misery upon finding other girls there who were prettier, slimmer, sexier. "Compare and despair”, Haidt calls it. They're "bombarded with messages…that erode their sense of self-worth", U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote in a 2021 report. Facebook's internal research showed that a third of teen girls said Instagram "made them feel worse." Haidt told a Senate subcommittee in May that in the past decade online life "transformed childhood activity, attention, social relationships, and consciousness."

Oddly, Haidt does not mention in the interview that social media has created a cesspool where teens can team up to victimize and drive to despair and too often suicide a classmate more intensely than the gaggle of mean girls in the schoolyard.

a different childhood

Gen Z teens were already experiencing different lives than of previous generations, their contacts with peers having shifted to an indoor life of social media and WhatsApp messaging rather than personal contact. Coddled by so-called helicopter parents who ran interference for them, they weren't toughened by exposure to an outside world — outside meant literally. Kids who used to be permitted to roam free out of doors at ages 7 or 8 — "Come home when it gets dark" — now were not allowed out until 10 to 12. They hadn't learned to deal with adversity, “hadn’t practiced the skills of adulthood in a low-stakes environment” of other children, as Haidt aptly puts it. Readers will be horrified, but your writer had taught his son now decades ago how to navigate the New York City subway system on his own by age 10. Instead, today's kids live in their phones and video games "beckoning them 24/7 with features engineered to be addictive", as a summary of Gen Z in The Week magazine adroitly phrased it.

Haidt says the data provides an unmistakable correlation between vastly different child-raising and the immersion in social media with the phenomenon of over 25% of young females experiencing a "major depression" by 2020 compared to fewer than 9% for boys. For the millennial generation that preceded Gen Z, for whom there was no Instagram, and Facebook had barely begun, the numbers were about 13% for girls and 5% for boys.

Boys form social groups to play sports or compete in video games without psychic upset in losing is one hypothesized reason for lower depression incidence, but they have their own set of problems. That's a concern of Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who explores them in his book "Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why it Matters and What to Do about It."

Boys mature later than girls and lag well behind them at school, most showing little interest, to the extent that Reeves thinks they should be "red shirted" — start school a year later. They drift and find themselves with a lack of education and competence which leads to drugs and alcohol to a far greater degree than among girls. This in turn results in three times the likelihood of what Reeves calls a "death of despair" than with young women. The problem is not limited to the U.S. A study of male suicides by Fiona Shand and colleagues, she a professor at the University of New South Wales, found that the words that men most used to describe themselves just before committing or attempting suicide were "useless" and "worthless".

This is a total reversal of the male self-concept as the hard-working self-reliant family provider and role model for his children. That is, if they can find a mate, having made of themselves such poor husband material.

dropping out

Having failed to prepare themselves, young men find that 60% of college students are now women, a stunning development. Partly that is because Gen Z has decided not to go to college. An article titled "Are Universities Doomed?" by commentator Victor Davis Hanson tells us that while the population of the U.S. increases by two million a year, undergraduate enrollment plunged by over 650,000 between spring 2021 and 2022. Gen Z's males account for 71% of that 4% decline, which contributes to a 14% drop over the last decade.

Reeves worries about the added burden this places on the women of this new generation who must bear the children, probably do the most in caring for them, and now must be the chief economic provider.

David French, commentator and writer for The Atlantic also frets for what that means for men in an online piece titled, "There’s No Way to Repair Marriage Without Repairing Men". He leads with these statistics from the Current Population Survey which show that…

"95% of upper-income moms are married, 76% of middle-income moms are married, and only 35% of lower-income moms are married".

That translates to tens of millions of children growing up without live-in fathers. That status goes beyond Gen Z but it is a condition that Gen Z is in line to perpetuate in an America that "contains millions of young men who aren’t truly 'marriageable' in the classic sense", says French, thanks to their falling behind in education, abusing drugs, getting in trouble with law enforcement, acquiring prison records. "It’s a fact that fatherlessness harms boys", he writes, partly for young boys having no role models to show them how to be a husband and father. How many of those unmarried moms are simply not attracted to men who failed to prepare themselves for life and cannot hold up their end economically?

Looking for solutions, French considers child support programs to assist families to gain a better economic footing and programs to "help boys excel in school" but offers no ideas how to do that and says, "every policy proposal I’ve ever read feels like nibbling at the edges of the problem" anyway. For him the answer lies in "relationships and community".

"Non-college-educated Americans have fewer friends than their college-educated counterparts. They’re also less likely to be active in their communities, less likely to belong to a church or synagogue, and less likely to belong to sports teams, community groups, or other civic associations."

Surveys tell us that both sexes report having fewer friends than 20 years ago. Again the pandemic has added to the damage, keeping us apart, with people saying they have "no close friends" multiplying fivefold from 3% to 15% of us over that span. Loneliness is an increasing plight. "Meanwhile, countless young men are alone in their rooms, playing Call of Duty and watching porn, in desperate need of friends and mentors". French leaves it up to us, for all of us to ask what we can do in our own communities to head off a dismal prognosis of the coming years.

Haidt doesn't have much hope for Gen Z denizens but he calls millennials "amazing". He finds no one to compare with Sweden's Greta Thunberg, who began agitating for action to counter climate change at the age of 15, and Pakistan's Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai, also 15 when shot for advocating for female education, and Mark Zuckerberg who started Facebook when 20, an achievement we might better have done without. Haidt's critique is premature; the median Gen Z is 17 years old.

Perhaps there's hope that the government will ban Chinese-owned TikTok, which has largely taken over from Instagram and where Gen Z is spending its time trying for Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame shrunk to 15 second bursts. The U.S. is concerned for national security breaches, that the Chinese-owned company could be scarfing up data about U.S. citizens. In fact, shutdown would bolster national security by turning young Americans away from silliness to prepare for their future as generations before them have done.

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