According to new analysis, Covid-19 has permanently altered the way Gen Z is consuming online media, leading to a marked increase in time spent online. Compared to pre-pandemic habits, young people are consuming substantially more podcasts, online videos and video games, while the relative popularity of traditional broadcast TV and radio has declined. This strong shift toward the online sphere is dominated by a demand for entertainment, and for social networking in particular. Aged 18 to 25, Gen Z is the first real generation of “social natives,” with individuals often more at home in the online sphere than the physical realm.
However, while social media’s power as a tool for mobilization for shared social causes became apparent early on, but most starkly so at the height of Black Lives Matter and now in the fight for LGBT rights, the adverse effects on Gen Z’s mental health after close to two decades of screen time are becoming ever more apparent as well – and should cause a rethink of the dynamics governing interactions between users on social media outlets like Twitter, Instagram, Yubo, SnapChat and other popular apps.
Social media takes its toll
At a time where the number of likes, retweets and followers has become a currency in itself, it’s no surprise that those following highly curated content are feeling the pressure of emulating influencers. And according to a 2019 study, the effects of this are harrowing: almost half of Gen Z individuals surveyed said social media made them feel anxious, sad or depressed. Some 27% of respondents reported experiencing a negative impact on body image, up from 17% in 2017.
It’s only natural, explains Federation University Australia psychology professor Danielle Leigh Wagstaff, that users find themselves comparing their image, intelligence and accomplishments to the carefully curated feeds of the influencers they follow. Compared to this sea of idealized images, it’s little wonder that most members of Gen Z find themselves coming up painfully short.
On the other hand, content creators are under constant and intense pressure to provide content in order for their posts to be liked, their appearance to be perfect or being exemplary in any other way. Many are struggling to manage the demand for new content, increased scrutiny and criticism that comes with online fame. Take entertainer Lilly Singh, for example, who stepped away from YouTube in 2018, after almost a decade of performing, to focus on her mental health. “I came home one day and I remember lying on my kitchen floor and just crying,” Singh explained a year later, “I turned into such a machine. I was feeling that I was completely losing what it means to be human.”
This trend is exacerbated by the fact that Gen Z are spending at least three hours longer on social media than their Millennial counterparts. Pre-Covid, millennials in the UK spent 8.5 hours consuming online content, compared to almost 11 hours among Gen Z users, who is also far more likely to follow online celebrities and content creators. Thanks to the loneliness and boredom wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, social media has cemented itself as a main entertainment source for Gen Z, and there’s no going back.
Yubo: creating safe spaces for Gen Z
In light of this growing awareness of a fully commercialized creator and follower dynamic, some platforms are evolving to ensure their user bases’ mental well-being. Case in point is friend-making and streaming app Yubo, which has launched a “friends, not followers” campaign to completely transform social media. Geared towards a Gen Z audience, the app’s leading livestream technology is instead focused on facilitating authentic socializing with peers in a safe environment free of the need to for constant validation.
This means that Yubo users are given the space to engage in genuine online interactions without experiencing the pressure to increase the number of followers, likes or shares that their online presence may garner. Indeed, this pressure free online environment appears to be resonating with Gen Z: in the first two months of this year, daily streaming on Yubo increased by more than 8 percent.
In providing a platform for the creation of authentic relationships among its users, Yubo is taking the lead in assuming responsibility for its young audience and actively working to abolish the idea that their self-worth is dependent on constant validation online. Moreover, the social media company took this ethos a step further earlier this month when it added 35 additional gender identities and 50 pronouns to the platform. With 1 in 6 Gen Z adults now identifying as LGBT, the move is a bound in the right direction for this diverse group of young people.
An urgent need for change
Other social media platforms have reacted as well, if perhaps on a more superficial level. In May, this year, photo-sharing platform Instagram, for instance, has given users the choice to hide the number of likes their posts receive in an attempt to avert criticism of creating a like-based reward system and creating a toxic environment in the process. Facebook, the owner of Instagram, is implementing a similar change, but critics point out that “the new features do not represent a major change in how these social networks actually work”, instead serving “to deflect responsibility for its platforms’ worst impulses and impacts onto users while making promises of more ‘choice’.
Some experts believe the changes are a step in the right direction, but warn that its effects could be less pronounced than might be expected, given that young users are less likely to use the feature. And as long as likes remain a key source of data for marketers and hence the digital economy, these platforms have little interest in tackling the issue on a deep, structural level.
Even so, Yubo’s push for authenticity online, in addition to changes made on other social media platforms, proves that social media use does not need to lead to depression. In fact, it’s a realization that requires further investigation into responsible social media use across the board. While anti-bullying initiatives and attempted fake news crackdowns have been underway for years, it is high time we began to factor mental health issues into the equation as well.