Home Mental Health & Well-Being The Mystery of Gen Z’s Unhappiness – It’s Not Just Social Media

The Mystery of Gen Z’s Unhappiness – It’s Not Just Social Media

Reading Time: 2 minutes

For the first time since its publication, the World Happiness Report (WHR) provides a comprehensive analysis of happiness trends across generations, giving separate rankings by age group. Gen Z’s well-being is down in the Anglosphere, Western Europe, and South Asia but up in Central and Eastern Europe. Due to a significant decline in the happiness of Americans under the age of 30, the US has notable dropped out of the top 20 “happiest countries” for the first time, and now ranks 62nd in the world for young people. The UK ranks 20th, but its youth rank 32nd – why are young adults in the West so unhappy?

Social media has been publicised as the cause of the decline in Gen Z’s mental health and happiness, but it can’t be the only reason. For Mental Health Awareness Week, we looked into this drop and found it’s a mystery. 

Dr Michael Plant, Research Director at the Happier Lives Institute and Fellow at the Wellbeing Research Centre, Oxford University, points out the problem without laying all the blame on social media: “Over the past 20 years, we have seen young people become less happy in North America and Western Europe. But, over the same period, youth wellbeing in Central and Eastern Europe has gone up by more. Social media is everywhere. I expect it’s one cause of reduced wellbeing, but it’s hard to see how it could be the only culprit.”

What explains the drop in Western countries? Researchers aren’t sure.“There is no consensus among academics regarding the role of social media, at least from a global perspective. Interestingly, regions like Central and Eastern Europe, with similar levels of social media use, exhibit divergent wellbeing trends. In general, it is not clear yet what is driving negative and positive trends in different parts of the world, and this is partly due to limited data availability in non-Western countries,” says Dr Jose Marquez, a WHR chapter author on youth wellbeing.

Professor Lara Aknin, co-editor of the WHR, emphasises the multifaceted nature of the issue. “Pinpointing a single cause proves challenging. Yet, the data suggests that today’s North American youth face increased stress and anxiety, lower satisfaction with their living situation, diminished social support, and declining trust in governmental institutions,” she explains.

There are many possible explanations, but researchers haven’t yet analysed these factors to identify their importance. Some options include:

  • The pervasive influence of social media
  • The culture of comparison, amplified by digital platforms
  • Media portrayal, both traditional and social, contributes to negative perceptions
  • Societal polarisation and widening inequality
  • Diminishing prospects and quality of life
  • The rise of wealth disparity and resource monopolisation
  • Lingering anxieties about the future, fueled by climate concerns and economic uncertainties
  • A sense of disconnection and overwork culture
  • Declining religious affiliations affects communal bonds
  • A prevailing sense of disillusionment with politics and societal structures

As we navigate through plausible speculations and empirical realities, one thing is clear: the decline in Western well-being defies a simple explanation.

“Frankly, I don’t know why youth wellbeing has dropped so fast in Western countries – but not elsewhere. I’m not sure anyone does. While I want to see schools trial things like whole-day phone bans, given the terrifying, unexplained scale of the drop in Western youth wellbeing, researchers need to investigate the global picture, identify the causes, and work out what we need to do to restore happiness to Gen Z and those that come after,” says Dr Plant.

© Copyright 2014–2034 Psychreg Ltd