McKinsey Health Institute

Gen Z mental health: The impact of tech and social media

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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

Almost everyone is using social media, but in different ways

Everybody uses social media, but most Gen Z respondents spend at least one hour a day.

Gen Zers and millennials are more likely than other generations to say social media affects their mental health

While social media and tech have a consistent positive impact across all age cohorts, the negative impact increases substantially for younger ages.

While the positive impact stays comparable, older generations report fewer negative effects

Respondents’ assessment of the impact of social media ranges substantially depending on the dimension.

Positive aspects of technology may include increased access to health resources

Respondents’ use of digital mental-health programs varies widely.

Most find help on their own or by referral

While respondents nd digital wellness apps mostly on their own, referrals remain important for digital mental-health programs.

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.

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