Since a low in 2007, the 15-24 cohort suicide rate has risen by almost 50 percent. This finding fits with a generation which reports poor mental health as the state of the majority, symptoms of anxiety to be almost universally present, and mass violence a major concern. Our generation was to grow up empowered by technology and a changing, globalizing society, but that picture has darkened; we are destroying ourselves with our minds.
Every generation has faced stress. Humanity has persevered through unchecked plagues, famines, and natural disasters with which we residents of a modernizing planet do not have to reckon. This reflection is not meant to demean the set of stressors we face, but it suggests more at play in our generation than a simple reaction to circumstance. We, of course, have good reasons to experience stress; our generation is faced with an immediate set of social and environmental crises. Underpinning and aggravating these “primary” stressors are changes in the way we communicate, which serve to worsen — universalize, even — feelings of anxiety among us. The 21st century’s great technological promise has become one of its greatest risks; its capability to destroy barriers has turned on us and wreaked havoc on the systems we use to keep our minds safe.
With the advent of the smartphone, social media, and the 24/7 news cycle, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain any level of compartmentalization in our lives and in our subjects of attention. The technological deluge is reducing our individual agency; an act as simple as checking the time incurs the risk of disruption by a rude text or unsettling news. Our newspapers have become our clocks and our notepads, our clubs have become our workplaces and therapists, our friends and bullies and worries now follow us home. Every time we look at our phones, we brace ourselves. The baselining of these little moments of risk into our lives is, on a definitional level, stressful. As a species, we do not react well to uncertainty, and barring some major shift in socioeconomic direction in the next few decades, uncertainty is sure to persist.
Social media’s power provides an excellent case study in technologically delivered stress. Bullying, feelings of exclusion and difference, and the need to be an “individual” have existed to some degree since our species became sentient. Social media has weaponized these feelings through its power to follow us everywhere. We are constantly being assaulted with visions of our friends’ and our idols’ lives – lives that have frequently been curated to suit the vision of themselves people wish to put forth. Personal experience and “instagrammable” realities have become so divorced that people now frequently keep two Instagram accounts: a private account for only the closest of friends (finsta) where one’s true feelings are exposed and a public, generally more "presentable" account available to the body politic (rinsta). This dichotomy, and constant contact with it, reinforces the schism between a “happy” society and the troubled self, with only you being different.
Technology is an effective delivery system through which the pressures of the world are carried to my generation, and my generation faces many pressures. Gun violence, climate change, growing economic inequalities, increasing educational costs, rampant sexual, racial and economic discrimination, and a globalizing (and therefore increasingly competitive) planet create multiple strains of anxiety, carried to us as never before by our digital paraphernalia. Structural injustices can now be apprehended almost without effort — despite our secret wish to remain in a state of ignorance. The pathologies of a broken society are being amplified by our digital spaces, where all is accessible and arguable.
The effect of this rifting and bombardment is, of course, most pronounced among those who use technology the most and those who are in developmental stages of life – Generation Z, in both cases. Whereas other cohorts experienced life before this deluge, we are being shaped by it; our formative years are those of the technological revolution, a concurrence that seems to be imbuing us with anxiety on deeper levels than before.
Where does the cycle end? Is the end point a state of anomie, where the bombardment of information and the fractured relation between the self and the world creeps toward nihilism? Late at night as I drift off to sleep, the gentle glow and occasional buzzing sounds of my smartphone remain in the background. Check now, or wait until morning to know what lies behind? The question keeps me awake.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "Suicide Statistics." https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/.
American Psychological Association. Stress in America: Generation Z. Stress in America™ Survey, October 2018. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2018/stress-gen-z.pdf.
Uday Schultz is a senior at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York. He enjoys looking at and editing maps, reading, hiking, and debating.
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