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How Social Media, Drugs, and the Changing Landscape of Sexuality Are Challenging Younger Generations’ Mental Health 17 Sep 2021

In an era of expanding sexual norms, legalization of marijuana, and lives lived online, today’s teens and young adults are facing a new set of life questions and stressors compared to previous generations — all amidst a global pandemic. This is how they're dealing.

When Simone Biles withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics gymnastics team finals in July, she catapulted a conversation into the mainstream that had been gaining steam like her run-ups to the vault: Even the most accomplished among us sometimes have to take a step back to take care of our mental health. And for people in the 24-year-old gold medalist’s age group who are living under pressures like no generation before, recognizing when you’re not okay and in need of support and self-care is more important than ever.

“Today’s adolescents and young adults are growing up in an age of anxiety,” says Patrice Harris, MD, a psychiatrist and Everyday Health's medical editor in chief at large. "They're living in an age of active shooter drills at school, bullying, ‘fear of missing out,’ and success measured by the number of likes — along with pressure, often from peers — that comes with social media use. And when your peers are not just your classmates, but millions of people, as with Olympians, there's even greater pressure."

Today’s adolescents and young adults are growing up in an age of anxiety. — Patrice Harris, MD

Indeed while the pressures of being the gymnastics GOAT are largely in a category of their own (Biles told Hota Kotb on Today that the sexual abuse she and hundreds of others suffered under former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar may have been a trigger during the Games), today’s teens and young adults ages 16 to 26 don’t have to be in the international spotlight to experience a new set of stressors beyond previous generations’ traditional expectations to succeed in sports, academics, performing arts, and careers.

This group, ranging from the youngest millennials (starting at age 24) to Generation Z (up to age 24), is coming of age in an era of tumultuous sociopolitical issues — including constant pandemic uncertainty, gun violence, climate change, rapidly shifting social norms, and a reckoning with systemic racism and sexual assault — that are proven to take a toll on mental health, according to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) “Stress in America: Generation Z” report. As a result, symptoms of anxiety and depression in this generation are on the rise and have been reported by more than half of 18- to 29-year-olds, as reported in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in April 2021.

Particularly with the surge of symptoms in this demographic, it’s important that they get support as soon as they start to struggle. And with Biles and fellow superstar athletes like Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps sharing their stories on the world stage, understanding of the issues grows. “It is important that we raise the level of awareness around mental health and increase our advocacy for equitable, accessible, available treatment opportunities,” Dr. Harris says. “I am hopeful that the awareness raised by Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and others will encourage people to seek help when they need it.”

One of the biggest differences between this and past generations is the ubiquitousness of social media in our lives. While today’s social media culture can provide a source of connection, it can also magnify everyday pressures for young adults.

“Youth are growing up under a microscope in a way that’s never happened before,” says Anne Marie Albano, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders in New York City who specializes in anxiety and mood disorders in children, adolescents, and young adults. “From birth, parents are sharing pictures and videos of their kids on Instagram, YouTube, you name it. Kids’ lives are now public.”

The Pew Research Center reports that 48 percent of young adults ages 18 to 29 are online almost constantly, and a study published in Creative Education in July 2021 showed that gadget addiction among Gen Z can be a contributor to mental health issues. In addition, those who use social media often are more likely to be involved in cyber-bullying, which is linked to depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts, according to research published in 2019 by the APA in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

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“There’s tremendous pressure on how kids appear to others on social media,” says Dr. Albano. “On one hand, they’ve got to be the coolest and get the most likes from their friends. At the same time, they have to balance not crossing a line for parents and other adults who are saying, ‘Colleges and future employers will see what you post on TikTok.’” This all adds up to a stressful and confusing picture to navigate for an age group that’s already grappling with other pressures such as exploring their identities.

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