Gen Z’s mental health crisis – how smartphones are to blame

5 min read
Cecilia Robinson

6 June 2024

Opinion as featured in the New Zealand Herald.

Last weekend the Australian Sun reported that Australian teenagers are facing a major health crisis due to toxic social media. Rates of suicide, self-harm, and eating disorders among children under 19 have surged dramatically, with eating disorders up 200 per cent over the past 12 years.

Experts link this to the explosive rise of social media. A strong movement is now pushing the federal government to raise the social media access age limit to 16. This alarming situation in Australia should serve as a wake-up call for New Zealand, as we are witnessing the same troubling trends here. In New Zealand, anxiety diagnoses among young men increased by 131 per cent from 2011 to 2020, while among young women, they surged by 259 per cent over the same period.

Additionally, hospitalisations for intentional self-harm among males aged 15-19 rose by 115 per cent from 2010 to 2019, and among young women the increase was 138 per cent, according to American sociologist Dr Jonathan Haidt. So what happened? Haidt has researched this phenomenon and found rates of depression, anxiety, and self-harm among teenagers began skyrocketing around 2012-2013, after being stable for more than a decade before this period.

He states the “great rewiring of childhood” occurred between 2010 and 2015. This shift led away from a “play-based childhood” to a “phone-based childhood”, where teens spend most of their waking hours on their phones. By 2015, most teens had smartphones and were heavily using social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat.

As an employer, I’ve noticed a significant shift in Gen Z compared to millennials from just a decade ago. Many young people today are less accustomed to face-to-face interactions, preferring to message or text rather than converse or call. Additionally, anxiety is prevalent in this generation, impacting their communication preferences and interpersonal skills.

Many of the teenagers I encounter are glued to their phones, which Haidt discusses in his research. For girls, the main issue is social media, while for boys, it’s gaming, although the latter is generally less problematic. Opponents of Haidt’s theory argue the rise in teen mental health issues could be due to other factors, such as increased diagnosis rates, racism, poverty, or that the trends observed in the US do not apply globally.

However, Haidt’s extensive research counters these points with compelling evidence. He demonstrates the surge in rates of depression, anxiety, and self-harm around 2012-2013 coincided with the widespread adoption of smartphones and social media. These trends are consistent across multiple countries, indicating an international issue linked to the “great rewiring of childhood” between 2010 and 2015, when smartphones became prevalent.

The evidence, encompassing correlational, longitudinal, and experimental studies, along with eyewitness testimony, overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that the increase in mental health problems among teens is tied to the rise of social media and smartphone use, not other socio-economic factors. While research in New Zealand is limited, Dr Samantha Marsh recently published a study on children’s screen use in Aotearoa. Parents report extensive screen use by their adolescents, which often occurs through the night, impacting their sleep.

Parents reported witnessing addict-like behaviour in their kids, and worried about exposure to harmful and trivial content. Other concerns included their children increasingly living in a virtual world, and the negative impacts of screens on their teen’s physical, mental, and cognitive wellbeing. Parents in the study also reported barriers to managing screens. These included wanting to avoid conflict with their children, difficulties with consistency or follow-through on rules, and a lack of parental technical knowledge.

So what is the solution? While some argue further education for parents is needed to reduce or prevent smartphone usage among children, the potential for harm makes this situation similar to the regulation of alcohol, tobacco, and driving. Therefore, I believe smartphones should be banned for individuals under 16 years old. By implementing such a ban, we can protect the mental health and cognitive development of adolescents during these crucial years. Sixteen may sound arbitrary but between the ages of 10 and 16, children experience significant brain development.

This measure would help mitigate the negative effects of excessive screen time and social media use, ensuring young people have the opportunity to develop essential life skills without the constant distractions and pressures of the digital world. With mounting evidence, governments worldwide will likely begin enforcing bans on smartphones and social media for adolescents within the next decade. The spiralling societal costs will necessitate action.

Marsh supports a ban, stating: “Barriers to getting kids off screens were also included, and I think these are important because if we banned these devices, it would remove a lot of conflict in the home.” With the strong movement to push the federal government in Australia for legislative change, it seems as if Australia may get ahead of us again. So the question is, will New Zealand be a follower or a leader? I hope for the latter.