Stop Blaming Social Media Solely For Gen Z’s Mental Health Crisis

It’s easier to blame new forms of media than old forms of abuse.

two young girls taking selfie with phone Iryna Imago / Shutterstock

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According to certain psychologists, social media and the front-facing camera on smartphones increased Gen Z’s depression and anxiety to their current epidemic levels.

Yes, let’s blame the newfangled gizmos and gadgets while wringing our hands about kids these days, instead of recognizing and tackling the actual problems of moral panic and rape culture.


We’re Scapegoating Social Media for Gen Z’s Mental Health

Photo: Matheus Bertelli/Pexels

RELATED: Mental Illness Has Always Been Around, Our Generation Just Understands It Better

The moral panic over social media

Jonathan Haidt is a Yale-educated psychologist who wrote a fascinating book about the moral foundations of our political beliefs and then went crazy over college kids protesting a few speakers, resulting in “The Coddling of the American Mind.” He claims that the front-facing camera in smartphones caused a spike in teen depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. The constant comparisons and social pressures put extraordinary pressure on kids these days.


Haidt seems to miss the irony of claiming kids are “coddled” by parents, schools, and society and then claiming in the next breath that their mental health can be destroyed by taking and posting selfies.

Jean Twenge, another highly-educated psychologist, argues that the data points to social media as the only plausible cause of teen mental health issues. She says economic anxiety can’t explain Gen Z’s rising rates of anxiety and depression, since the economy began recovering from the Great Recession before Gen Z came of age. Climate anxiety can’t be causing existential dread, because polls show that environmental concern peaked in the 1990s. Only social media correlates with Gen Z’s mental health crisis.

Never mind that polling data and real life may be drastically different. Gen Z watched their parents and grandparents struggle through the Great Recession. That leaves an impression. Youth have more crises to care about than they did in the 1990s, pushing climate change down the list for some.

Haidt, Twenge, and others like to point to research showing a relationship between excessive social media use and a greater chance of depression. Yet the research shows a fairly weak and indeterminate relationship. One study states that using social media doesn’t impact teens’ mental health until they use it for 3+ hours daily.


This brings me to the issue with Haidt, Twenge, and everyone else who wants to blame social media for Gen Z’s mental health crisis: correlation is not causation.



​RELATED: Gen X Mom Shares What She Learned After Her Gen Z Son Gave Her An Ultimatum — Go To Therapy Or We Go No Contact

Correlation is not causation

Drownings and ice cream consumption are positively correlated. As the number of drownings goes up, the amount of ice cream consumed also increases.


What explains this relationship? Do drownings cause other people to eat ice cream? Does eating ice cream increase the risk of drowning? We were taught, after all, to wait 20–30 minutes after eating to jump in the pool.

No, and no. When it’s warmer, people tend to swim and eat ice cream. The rates of drowning and eating ice cream aren’t related to each other at all.

You can graph the growth of social media alongside the rise in mental health issues among Gen Z, but that does not mean one thing caused the other. A correlation is a relationship between variables, not a causal arrow telling you what caused what.

Social media and mental health may be completely unrelated. It might be that social media does degrade mental health, or it could be that people with degrading mental health flock to social media. Since the causal relationship is unclear, it doesn’t make sense to blame social media and push for policy solutions aimed at something that may or may not matter.


Not to mention, Gen Z may not be experiencing higher rates of mental health issues compared to previous generations. They may better understand and identify what they’re dealing with and report it at a higher rate, making it seem like society’s mental health issues suddenly spiked.

Gen Z lacks the same stigma around talking about mental health; this is due most likely, ironically, to celebrities and everyday people talking openly about mental health on their social media.



​RELATED: The Sad Reason Why Gen Zers Talk So Much Faster Than Millennials


Distracting from real causes of mental health problems

Of course, Gen-Z faces real issues and problems.

It’s far easier to blame new forms of media than to reckon with old forms of abuse — especially when you make huge sums of money selling books about how we ought to panic for our children and grandchildren.

A study found that 60% of teen girls feel “hopeless” and that rates of depression and suicidal ideation also went up for boys. Why?


Another study showed that 26% of teen boys and 51% of teen girls experience some form of unwanted sexual comments, leering, or groping at their schools. Yet the law requires them to attend school every day for most of the year.

Instead of blaming Instagram and TikTok, we should look at the much closer-to-home and more difficult problem of raising our children to respect each other’s full humanity and dignity.

​RELATED: New Study Finds Gen Z Is 'Not Thriving In Their Lives Compared To Other Generations'

Eric Sentell is a writer, teacher, and regular contributor to the Medium publications, The Backyard Church and An Injustice. He has published essays in The Good Men Project and Role Reboot, and his short fiction has appeared most recently in The Penmen Review, BODY Literature, and Hobart Online.