Borrok: Generation Z is lonely; social media is to blame

Ben Borrok, Op-Ed Contributor

Growing up in the age of social media, I often thought of Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter as beacons of hope that connected the world tighter than ever before. The idea perpetuated by our parents, that we “should stop staring endlessly at screens,” was comical. After all, I wasn’t just staring at a keypad, I was texting people and partaking in online social experiences, which were powered by people. It wasn’t antisocial to be on Instagram. It was the normal thing to do for an average Generation Z kid.

Since the earliest iterations of social platforms, the industry has become all-consuming, curating everything from the order of posts to the ads that appear in one’s feed by violating our privacy. New features, such as Stories, are created every day in order to keep us online. Yet with all of these opportunities to interact with others, the social landscape feels overwhelmingly empty.

A recent study conducted by Cigna, a health insurance company, revealed that Generation Z is the loneliest generation and claims to have worse mental health than any other generation surveyed. In short, the kids aren’t alright. Though the study doesn’t claim social media to be the direct driving force behind this trend. It says it’s hard to ignore its effect on the youngest minds in our nation.

Despite this, I didn’t truly understand the association between social media and loneliness until a rough patch last year. Relying on social media to stay connected with friends and family, I fell into a spiral. Social media only displays the positives in everyone’s life. There is a feeling of inadequacy that arises when you only see others’ lives through heavily edited snippets on social media. Logically, it makes sense that people wouldn’t project their struggles, but when all you have are struggles, social media increases the feeling of isolation.

We seem to generate our self-worth from these apps, which conveniently have a built-in ranking system. Likes, retweets and shares are the lifeblood of social media and the main motivator for many to post in the first place. It is not surprising to see friends post on their Instagram Stories, asking their followers to like their posts. It calls into question the reason for posting in the first place. Posting has evolved from a way to share special moments into a popularity contest. It is a competition that will undoubtedly leave many questioning their place in school and other social environments.

As a camp counselor, I have also witnessed how the younger sector of Generation Z has coped with social media. The phenomenon has been around for their entire lives — their parents posted their baby pictures on Facebook, and they made social media accounts significantly earlier than any prior generation. Fully literate in Internet-related lingo, they have been posting and sharing for as long as they could use an iPod Touch. As a result, they can’t sit alone with their thoughts and interact face-to-face.

As Instagram and Snapchat introduced anonymous messaging features, similar to launched in 2010, young people can now send and receive a barrage of negative and hurtful messages. These features create a toxic culture around these anonymous questions. Yet so many young people would rather answer these invasive questions in front of a public audience than sit with their own thoughts. It’s easier for them to be present online than to be comfortable alone.

My campers followed these trends and, unsurprisingly, came into the summer riddled with anxieties about school, their social status and their futures. It is heartbreaking to think that kids as young as 11 now share the worries of adults. Yet that seems to be the reality.

Social media has been the catalyst for so many great things in recent years. It has been key in organizing and proliferating information about protests, marches and many other forms of activism. It has reunited old friends, shared memorable videos and even led to marriages. But this perspective seems to be gilded. Hiding under these wholesome stories and useful strategies is a cesspool of isolation, depression and anxiety. If we continue down this road, what will become of Generation Z?

Ben Borrok is a Weinberg sophomore. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.