Much like many relationships a person might have between ages 18 and 24, the relationship a young person has with social media can be complicated. No matter where they live, respondents in a new global survey said social media usage can lead to a fear of missing out (FOMO) or poor body image, but it also can help with social connections and self-expression.
McKinsey Health Institute’s (MHI’s) 2022 Global Gen Z Survey asked more than 42,000 respondents in 26 countries across continents questions based on the four dimensions of health: mental, physical, social, and spiritual.1 MHI then analyzed differences and similarities across generations and countries, with a hope of informing the broader dialogue around Gen Z mental health.
Gen Zers, on average, are more likely than other generations to cite negative feelings about social media.2 They are also more likely to report having poor mental health. But correlation is not causation, and our data indicates that the relationship between social media use and mental health is complex. One surprise: Older generations’ engagement with these platforms is on par with Gen Zers. For example, baby boomers in eight of the 26 countries surveyed report spending as much time on social media as Gen Zers, with millennials being the most likely to post. And while negative impacts of social media were reported across cohorts, positive effects were even more common—more than 50 percent of all groups cited self-expression and social connectivity as positives from social media.
More than 50 percent of all groups cited self-expression and social connectivity as positives from social media.
There are also signs that technology provides access to supportive mental health resources for younger people. Gen Z respondents are more likely than other generations to use digital wellness apps and digital mental health programs.3 Additionally, respondents indicate that certain aspects of social media use can benefit their mental health, such as using social media for self-expression. Young refugees and asylum seekers are among those most likely to cite social media as a tool to stay connected and decrease loneliness.
In the six insights below, MHI delves deeper into the ways in which mental health, technology, and social media intersect for our respondents (see sidebar “Methodology” for further detail). This survey covered additional topics such as climate change and spiritual health (for selected insights, see sidebars “Climate change is a concern for many respondents” and “Gen Z and spiritual health: Insights”).
Gen Z respondents report challenges with health across most dimensions
Although many individuals around the world are struggling with their health, there are meaningful differences within groups.
Globally, one in seven baby boomers say their mental health has declined over the past three years, compared with one in four Gen Z respondents. Female Gen Zers were almost twice as likely to report poor mental health when compared with their male counterparts (21 percent versus 13 percent, respectively).
In most surveyed countries, a higher proportion of Gen Z respondents said their mental health was poor or very poor when compared with other dimensions of health (16 percent in Gen Z and 7 percent for baby boomers). However, in China, Egypt, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam, Gen Z respondents reported that they struggled most with their social health. Overall, mental health experiences varied by region, with Gen Z participants in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Nigeria rating their mental health as “very good” with the highest frequencies.
While Gen Z tends to report worse mental health, the underlying cause is not clear. There are several age-specific factors that may impact Gen Z’s mental health independent of their generational cohort, including developmental stage, level of engagement with healthcare, and familial or societal attitudes.
Almost everyone is using social media, but in different ways
More than 75 percent of respondents in all age groups said they use and check social media sites at least ten minutes a day.
Younger generations tend to engage with social media regularly, in both active and passive ways. Almost half of both millennial and Gen Z respondents check social media multiple times a day. Over one-third of Gen Z respondents say they spend more than two hours each day on social media sites; however, millennials are the most active social media users, with 32 percent stating they post either daily or multiple times a day.
Whether less active social media use by Gen Z respondents could be related to greater caution and self-awareness among youth, reluctance to commit, or more comfort with passive social media use remains up for debate. Studies have shown that passive social media use (for example, scrolling) could be linked to declines in subjective well-being over time.1
Gen Zers and millennials are more likely than other generations to say social media affects their mental health
Studies of young adults and their social media use have shown an inverse relationship between screen time and psychological well-being,1 with higher utilization associated with poorer well-being. Other research indicates the nature of the relationship individuals have with social media can have a greater impact on their mental health than time spent.2
Our findings show a nuanced relationship between social media use and mental health. While around one-third of respondents across cohorts report positive impacts of social media on mental health, generations differ in reported negative impacts.
Negative effects seem to be greatest for younger generations, with particularly pronounced impacts for Gen Zers who spend more than two hours a day on social media and Gen Zers with poor mental health. Gen Z respondents from Europe and Oceania were most likely to report negative impacts from social media, and respondents from Asia were least likely (32 percent and 19 percent, respectively).3
While the positive impact stays comparable, older generations report fewer negative effects
All generational cohorts in the survey said that social media use had the most positive impact on self-expression and social connectivity. Self-reported refugees and asylum seekers cite higher levels of positive impact than others across all aspects.
Across generations, there are more positive than negative impacts reported by respondents; however, the reported negative impact is higher for Gen Z. Respondents from high-income countries (as defined by World Bank) were twice as likely to report a negative impact of social media on their lives than respondents from lower-middle-income countries (13 percent compared with 7 percent).
When compared with their male counterparts, a higher proportion of female Gen Zers said social media had a negative impact on FOMO (32 percent versus 22 percent), body image (32 percent versus 16 percent), and self-confidence (24 percent versus 13 percent).
Positive aspects of technology may include increased access to health resources
Across generations, more than one in four respondents report using digital wellness apps as compared with one out of five using digital mental health programs (28 percent compared with 19 percent, respectively). Fifty percent more Gen Z respondents reported using digital mental health programs than Gen X or baby boomers (22 percent for Gen Z versus 15 percent for Gen X and baby boomers).
Among those respondents who report using digital mental health programs, most Gen Zers say they would likely keep using them (65 percent); other generations are even more committed, with 74 percent reporting that they would likely continue to use the programs. Four out of five respondents across all generations report that these programs benefit their mental health.
While evaluation of outcomes and effectiveness requires continued study, digital health resources may play an important role in supporting mental health globally, especially when in-person resources are limited or geographically inaccessible. For certain populations, digital health resources could be the preferred method of obtaining support.
Most find help on their own or by referral
Thirty-four percent of Gen Z respondents who use digital mental health programs and apps say they found them on their own. This proportion increases to approximately 50 percent in Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, and South Africa. In other countries, primary care physicians and healthcare payers (insurance plans) were listed as primary access points to digital mental health programs.
No matter the geography, employers have growing opportunities to promote workplace well-being and ensure employees have access to the evidence-based mental health resources they need.
At least a third of respondents in most countries and generational cohorts said physical, mental, social, and spiritual health resources were important or very important in choosing an employer, and Gen Z gave particular weight to mental health resources. Given that Gen Z is a growing percentage of the workforce, and that few Gen Z respondents cited employers as a primary access point for help, there may be room for employers to further engage around mental health in the future.
Technology and social media can be a part of the solution
Social media and technology, while part of the broader dialogue around youth mental health, can be powerful tools in promoting well-being and offering scaled mental health support. For example, developers might consider embedding algorithms that make it easier for youth expressing psychological distress to find support groups, crisis hotlines, or emergency mental health services. Additionally, digital mental health companies could consider partnering with virtual and community-based providers to connect people with high-acuity needs to timely and culturally-appropriate crisis services.
Around the world, communities are struggling to provide young people with someone to call, someone to respond, or a safe place to get help during mental health, substance use, and/or suicidal crises. The availability of crisis supports globally is varied, with the majority of countries having no national suicide or mental health crisis line. In addition, communities in every geography lack adequate community mental health services infrastructure to respond to the volume of crises young people experience each year, instead relying on schools, emergency rooms, hospitals, law enforcement, or families to bridge a gap that could save lives and livelihoods. Dispatching specially trained mobile teams or providing a safe place to go in crisis is even more rare—a gap that technology could bridge.
Collaboration between technology companies, mental health professionals, educators, employers, policy makers, and the wider community is necessary. By prioritizing mental health and utilizing technology in a positive way, young people are more likely to achieve and sustain better health. Other strategies that could be considered include using social media to build supportive online communities for affinity groups and promoting youth leaders to create and disseminate content that promotes mental health.4 Researchers and companies can explore evidence-based strategies such as mental health promotion and mindfulness programs to mitigate the negative effects of social media and to help young people use social media as a platform for authentic self-expression.5
A “precision prevention” approach to talking with young people about the role of technology in their lives may help create a more informed, supportive, and healthful environment. By providing parents, educators, and healthcare professionals with these tools, they can become actively engaged in promoting the health of Gen Z and beyond. While addressing these issues may seem overwhelming, it is essential that stakeholders work together to help improve the mental health of young people.
MHI is an enduring, non-profit-generating global entity within McKinsey. MHI strives to catalyze actions across continents, sectors, and communities to achieve material improvements in health, empowering people to lead their best possible lives. MHI sees supporting youth mental health as essential to adding years to life and life to years.
If you would like to learn more about the McKinsey Health Institute (MHI) 2022 Global Gen Z survey and the additional data and insights the McKinsey Health Institute has from the survey, please submit an inquiry via the MHI “contact us” form. The McKinsey Health Institute, as a non-profit-generating entity of McKinsey, is creating avenues for further research that can catalyze action.