What Older People get Wrong about Social Media’s Impact on Gen-Z

Claims that the industry has ruined teens’ sociability and wellness may be rooted in generational bias more than reality.

Popular perception is that social media is in a tail-spin. From former executives deriding their own products to fears over foreign influence, coverage runs critical. This is especially true for the relationship between social media and gen-Z. The Atlantic goes so far as to argue the industry has plunged teens into the “worst mental health crisis in decades.” Yet, what many naysayers boast in re-tweets, they lack in nuance.

Upside Of Social Media

Our wellness research indicates that not only do individuals not hold nearly as negative opinions on social media; there are important nuances on how the platforms are perceived generationally.

We presented respondents with a forced-choice question asking them to indicate whether social media has made their lives better or worse. Roughly 60 percent of all generations contend that social media has improved their day-to-day. This increased to about two-thirds for gen-Z respondents.

The majority of people, contrary to media sources, think the often less-discussed benefits (keeping in touch, sharing, etc.) outweigh the cons.

Differences in Detractors

We then asked those social media detractors – those that agreed it “made their lives worse” to describe why. Based on respondents’ open-ended comments, we coded 70 thematic reasons why it is detrimental.

chart social media issues by generation

The youngest and oldest generations had very different rationales for their negativity.

  • Gen-Z primarily objected to the comparison: These are answers that discussed the comparative and jealousy provoking aspects of social media
  • Baby boomers+ primarily objected to interactions: That social media is ruining people’s ability to communicate

For gen-Z social media exacerbates an already an anxious and socially charged lifestage – especially given the photoshopped and curated images that dominate.

One gen-Z woman writes, “[The girls I see] are all tall and skinny and have the best bodies, [but] I can’t have the perfect body no matter how hard I try.”

However, older people decry what they see as technology’s crippling effect on teens’ verbal interaction. It is turning young people into “mindless zombies,” as one boomer+ stated.

While the young see it through a personal lens, older people see social media as a conduit to say how the entirety of the youngest generation is lacking. This generalization leads directly to broad misunderstandings and alarmist narratives.

This tendency to generational bias also illustrates the importance of rigorous research when seeking generational insight. Media conceptions are often hyperbolic. Only by examining generations in the context of lifestage can one avoid falling for clickbait titles about our wayward youth.

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