It is late one night early in lockdown. I look out of the window of my parents’ house, where I am waiting out the pandemic, and see an orb of ghostly light hanging in the misty air. It’s my sister Rosie, her face lit up by her phone, standing statue-still in the cold night, texting.
While I was on boozy Zoom calls, she spent much of lockdown like this. Neck craned down, oblivious to the outside world as she texted.
Our behaviour is predicted with spooky accuracy by our ages: I am a 25-year-old Millennial, part of a generation of supposed narcissists that allegedly prefers avocado toast to saving for a house deposit. She is part of Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2010, who are characterised as more hardworking, abstemious and glued to their devices.
Every generation is shaped by historical markers. The Baby Boomers grew up in a time of unrivalled economic growth and happiness; Generation X were the jaded entrepreneurs that fed the Dot-Com Boom; Millennials graduated into the Great Recession.
Gen Z can’t remember a time without widespread internet usage, and have now lost a lump of their education in lockdown.
They are also the unhappiest generation. One in four girls in the UK is depressed by the time they are 14, according to UCL research. More than half of Gen Z-ers say anxiety is a barrier to them finding a job.
This growing unhappiness has come despite lower levels of drinking, drug-taking, teenage pregnancy and antisocial behaviour, some typical indicators of troubled mental health in adolescents.
So what is going wrong for these kids? Technology is often held up as the key culprit. For Generation Z, it has been embedded in their lives since childhood. “Millennials have adapted to the smartphone and social media, but for Gen Z-ers they’ve never known anything different”, says Kim Parker, director of social trends research at US think tank the Pew Research Center.
My sister’s phone use records show she is looking at her screen for an average of five hours a day. This is 35 hours a week, making it almost a full-time job. This much time online is pretty terrible for mental health, says Jean Twenge, author of iGen.
“Characteristics like self-confidence and optimism had been building from Boomers through to Millennials”, she says. But that all changed around 2012, when there was a “sudden break” in these trends, something that Twenge had “never really seen in 25 years of work”.
Twenge feels sure that 2012 was a tipping point. For the first time a majority of adults had smartphones, and she says, “social media moved from optional to mandatory among teens”. This led to an explosion in the time that teens spent looking at screens, and now the average British 13-15 year old spends between one and three hours on social media every day.
Even if being online had no effect whatsoever on your mood, Twenge says this heavy use would still be detrimental: “It’s not just more time on your phone, it’s what that has replaced”, she says. “[Teens] stopped hanging out with each other in person as much, and started to sleep less, and we know from decades of research these are good for you.”
Evidence suggests that positive online interactions can actually be good for wellbeing. But other research demonstrates that if real-life interaction is limited the risk of depression nearly doubles. Gen Z are doing exactly this: limiting their in-person socialising while doing lots online instead.
Even when they do meet in person, their devices are still very present. Rosie describes how Gen Z goes for drinks: “One friend makes us do all these poses so she can take pictures, which can take up to an hour. It’s like going to a wedding.”
Consequently Gen Z are often looking at a screen instead of each other. They’re screen-gazing when they should be sleeping. Four in 10 adolescents get fewer than seven hours a night, falling far short of the recommended nine hours, and those who spend more time online are significantly more likely to be sleep deprived. I was a teen in 2009, a time when you could boast about having a phone with a camera. We were half as likely to be this sleep deprived, so less likely to suffer the consequent feelings of irritability, anxiety, and reduced concentration.
If teens have long-lasting sleep loss, it can lead to “impaired brain development, neuronal damage and permanent loss of developmental potentials”, as one study puts it.
During the daytime, chronically groggy members of Gen Z are also facing more mental health concerns than previous generations.
The enormous increase in time spent online is feeding a dangerous culture of perfectionism.
“It’s on the rise, particularly socially-prescribed perfectionism – the expectation that others expect me to be perfect and if I’m not I’ll be judged,” says Dr Thomas Curran, an assistant professor of psychology at the London School of Economics. “That is correlated with mental health struggles a lot.”
He says that seeing an idealised version of life online can lead adolescents to constantly think they don’t match up to expected standards, which can damage self esteem.
This sense of pressure and judgement from social media has felt more acute for some during lockdown. “If I stick to the rules and invite a small number of people to do something you have to be exclusive, which you can feel judged for”, says Fabienne, 20. “But then if I invite everyone, people will see it on social media and judge me too.”
These pressures extend into schools and universities. Dr Curran teaches undergraduates and believes his students have become increasingly focused not just on their own grade, but on how well they did compared to others. “Even some students who were scoring into the 70s and getting a first felt like a failure because two or three people did better”, he says.
Sam, 21, knows well the effect that pressure at school can have on your mental health. Pressure at college, combined with the sudden death of her grandmother, led her to severe anxiety and depression from the age of 16. For her, worrying thoughts caused by the illness led to self-harm and panic attacks. At her lowest, she would only rarely be able to go into college.
“At college there was lots of pressure…You want to do well, and then you have lots of work and social stuff as well. It can get overwhelming.”
She was able to access medical help and turn to the support of her mother and close friends. “I still get affected by anxiety but I’m in a much happier place in my life and I can control my emotions”, she says.
As well as pressure to achieve good grades, Gen Z must also contend with an onslaught of imagery which can lead to insecurity about appearance. Dr Praveetha Patalay, associate professor at the UCL Institute of Education, has studied the self-image of teens over the last 30 years, and found that Gen Z are less confident about their looks than Millennials. She is keen to stress that this cannot simply be chalked up to technology alone, but the link is felt by the Gen Z-ers I talk to.
By 16 my sister had deleted Instagram, feeling it had already played enough tricks on her mind. The particular problem for her was seeing social media stars with lip fillers, hair extensions and plastic surgery. “It’s the people who are rich and can afford those treatments who are seen as beautiful”, she says, a sentiment that wouldn’t be out of place in Elizabethan times, when women used white make-up to ensure they didn’t appear tanned and were mistaken for manual labourers.
Filters and editing tools can alter photos to show smoother skin, enlarged lips, narrower noses. They are in wide use among younger people. “If I send a selfie to someone I would use a filter if I wasn’t wearing makeup” says Rosie. “When you see your real face afterwards it’s a real shock, and you compare it to what they think your face ‘should’ look like.”
The many difficulties facing Gen Z seem tough to solve. Social media isn’t going away any time soon. In fact, Gen Z-ers may find themselves even more ensnared in it as they reach professional age and go into careers which require a lot of time spent on phones.
This is part of my sister’s excuse, at least. A chunk of the hours she spends on her phone are making videos and infographics for a summer job in social media, a role she easily slipped into with no training, other than her experience of constant internet use.
For Gen Z, everything happens on their phone . “I never watch TV on a laptop, I watch it all on a phone”, says Fabienne, 20, not even considering that TV could be watched on, well, a TV.
They are also being hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s students are graduating into one of the most challenging job markets in recent history: just one in five final-year university students have a job lined up. That number is usually three times as high.
For those who are still studying, there is massive disruption too. Gen Z-ers have had their GCSEs and A-Levels cancelled, not just a lost rite of passage but potentially a blow for university prospects if predicted grades do not pan out well for them.
For those at university lockdown has covered a huge chunk of the time when students often have new experiences, make life-long friends and find a partner. “I think it will be difficult to meet new people [when we go back in September], it will be a bit worrying, like ‘does this stranger have Covid?’” says Fabienne.
It didn’t take a pandemic for Gen Z to feel pessimistic about the world that they are growing up in.
Half of young people say they worried about the future in 2016, according to the Young Women’s Trust. Some of these worries are being expressed politically, as seen at last year’s school strikes, when tens of thousands of students campaigned for an end to global warming.
Oddly, concern for the future doesn’t always extend to Gen Z’s idea of their own personal prospects, which a majority feel optimistic about. There is perhaps an individualistic idea of success: even if the external environment is tough, hard work will bring rewards.
Dr Curran worries about this mentality, which could encourage young people to blame themselves when things don’t go to plan. “You get a really competitive, individualistic and highly pressurised culture, and people will struggle with that for good reason”, he says.
There are some chinks of light. Generation Z are smoking, drinking and using drugs far less than those before them: almost a third of 16-24 year olds abstained entirely from alcohol in 2015, and those who do drink are less likely to binge, according to a UCL study. “We drink at a later age and don’t do drugs”, says Fabienne. “I think it’s because we have phones, so we have enough entertainment without them.”
Some stereotypical teenage behaviours have not vanished but merely moved online. Generation Z are keen on sexting, or sending explicit text messages. Half have received a sext, and a third say they have sent one.
Just because this activity doesn’t lead to unplanned pregnancies or STIs doesn’t mean it’s risk-free. Nearly half of young people say there is pressure to send a sext, and there is the added danger of these being passed on without consent. These can be used maliciously for leverage, like the case of an 18-year-old woman who sent a naked picture of a man to his family and employer after he failed to pay rent. She was sentenced to community service last year.
So how will Generation Z fare in the future? Unfortunately the worrying mental health seeds sown now may well take root. There is a “strong correlation between child and adolescent mental health difficulties and mental health problems in adulthood”, says the Mental Health Foundation: three-quarters of adults with mental health problems first notice symptoms before they were 18.
Some of the characteristics being developed by Gen Z teens won’t set them up well for future success, either. Striving for perfection will hold them back when they enter the workplace of the future, which will increasingly demand creativity, innovation, and an ability to make mistakes and move on from them, says Dr Curran.
But society and laws adapt to new behaviour. In 2015, revenge porn was classified as a sexual offence that carries a sentence of up to two years. Instagram has made images related to self-harm harder to find, following the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who killed herself after viewing graphic images on the social network. A Parliamentary report published after Molly’s death recommended that social media companies pay a tax that would fund research into mental health research and establish a duty of care for users under 24. The Telegraph has been campaigning along similar lines for two years. “Scroll-free September” is becoming the new Dry January.
There are no solid statistics yet, but Gen Z do seem to be better than previous generations at talking about mental health and getting the help they need. “If I’m feeling sad I’ll tell people”, says Fabienne. “One friend had depression and we talked about it all the time together.”
They may also be dealing with their feelings in a healthy way, rather than turning to alcohol or drugs. During lockdown, 88 per cent of 14-24 year olds say that following creative pursuits has helped them feel less anxious, according to a survey by photography app VSCO.
This is something Sam knows well. “If I feel down I’ll write it down or do some drawings”, she says. She also turns to dance, which is “a great way to express feelings you can’t get out otherwise”.
That could mean better news for Gen Z in the long-run. But for now, my sister is still sitting in her bedroom, missing her university education and locked down without her friends while tapping away on her phone.
The Future Of… is a longread series published on Thursdays at 8am. Previous chapters explored the future of skyscrapers, the future of meat, and the future of female friendship. Return to Telegraph.co.uk next Thursday for the next instalment
Should we be worried for Gen Z, or does every generation ultimately rise to the challenges it faces? What do you think are the defining characteristics of your own generation? How much time do you spend on your phone? Let us know in the comments below