Magazine Feature

The Kids Are (Not) Alright

Gen Z is facing unprecedented struggles on campus and in life

By Marilyn Cooper

Winter 2024

Seven years ago, Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of Generations, predicted an impending mental health crisis for iGen, commonly known as Gen Z. Born from 1995 to roughly 2012, iGen includes current college and university students and those soon to arrive on campus. Twenge, who has spent her career researching generational trends, hypothesized that an increase in the use of smartphones and the concurrent ascent of social media were the leading cause of rising rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness among teens. “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health,” Twenge wrote in a 2017 Atlantic article.

Many of her colleagues were skeptical back then, but recent data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health backs up Twenge’s claims: Between 2011 and 2021, the number of teens and young adults with clinical depression more than doubled. Between 2007 and 2019, the suicide rate for people in their early twenties rose by 41 percent. During the same time period, the suicide rate for ten- to fourteen-year-olds tripled overall and nearly quadrupled for girls. Screen time, especially on smartphones, simultaneously skyrocketed for teens and young adults, with social media use also soaring.

Twenge’s most recent research indicates that smartphone and social media use are now having a detrimental effect on young adults’ mental health. Heavy smartphone use (four-plus hours a day) negatively affects cognitive control and socio-emotional functioning, and social media content often normalizes self-harm and can damage young adults’ self-esteem. Twenge says it’s as if a “nuclear bomb” has been dropped on the lives of teens and young adults. Although she’s quick to point out the cohort’s overall commitment to social justice and their comfort with diversity, Twenge’s research largely depicts a generation in crisis.

In the following conversation with Liberal Education, Twenge reflects on this generation’s defining characteristics, the problems they face, and how understanding generational trends can help college and universities support their students.

Why do you call this cohort iGen rather than the more common moniker of Gen Z?

I call them iGen because they’re the first generation to spend their entire adolescence in the age of the smartphone. Gen Z has become the accepted term, but I think it’s better to use a label that relates to this generation’s experiences.

IBM introduced the first smartphone in 1992, Apple debuted the first iPhone in 2007, and the majority of US citizens owned a smartphone by the end of 2012. That’s right when the oldest iGeners were teenagers—they started spending a lot of time on their phones and online. Concurrently, social media use became prevalent. Simultaneously, how teenagers socialized completely changed. Rather than going to parties or hanging out with friends at the mall, they instead began to spend huge amounts of time online.

The early 2010s is also when teen depression rates started to rise, doubling between 2011 and 2019. When people discuss the current adolescent mental health crisis, they often say it’s due to the
pandemic—but it started almost a decade before COVID hit. I contend that it relates to the change in how teens spend their time outside of school. More time online and less time exercising, sleeping, and hanging out with friends is a bad formula for mental health.

Broadly speaking, what are the defining characteristics of iGen?

Every generation has its strengths and weaknesses. For iGen, one of their biggest strengths is their desire to help others and contribute to society. In surveys of high school seniors, iGen is more likely than millennials [born between 1981 and 1996] and Gen X [born between 1965 and 1980] to say they want a job where they can directly help other people or contribute to society. Surveys of iGen college students have found that they’re more likely than previous generations to prioritize helping people who are experiencing difficulties. They are also comfortable with diversity and assume that their schools and workplaces will include people from a variety of races, ethnicities, religions, gender identities, and sexual orientations.

What are the main challenges facing iGen?

Their very high rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and related issues are their biggest challenges. It’s important to remember that depression isn’t just about emotions—it also affects cognition. It affects how you think and how you view the world. Unlike the more optimistic millennials who preceded them, members of iGen tend to be pessimistic. Pessimism can lead to the desire to change things for the better, but it can also result in cynicism and apathy. Ultimately, this generational characteristic could create issues for society and the health of our democracy.

Besides smart phone and device usage, what’s driving the change from millennials’ overall optimism to iGen’s overall pessimism?

Social media is also having an impact. Many studies have shown that social media posts that focus on negative emotions like anger are liked and shared more often. Negativity gets rewarded online.

We often hear about smartphone addictions. Is the term “addiction” appropriate in this context?

There are some ways in which it’s an applicable term. It’s noticeable how often people use the language of addiction when discussing their social media or smartphone use. While there’s a difference between a substance addiction like alcoholism and a behavior addiction like gambling, both light up the dopamine pathway. That also happens with smartphone usage. It feels good when someone likes your post, but it’s a problem when that feeling leads to a compulsive use of devices or an unhealthy reliance on virtual relationships.


What are the specific problems with smartphone overuse for this age cohort?

Smartphone overuse interferes with learning and with socializing. If a student wants to constantly check their smartphone during class, how well are they going to focus on the lesson? If they’re continuously looking at things on their phone, how well will they pay attention to what a friend is trying to say? Smartphone use can also take up an enormous amount of time. My research shows that 22 percent of tenth-grade girls say that they use social media seven or more hours a day. That’s almost like a full-time job.

What’s caused this to be such a socially conscious generation?

Honestly, it’s a bit of a mystery. Some of it is that they grew up in the shadow of the Great Recession. The 2007–09 economic crisis brought a lot of attention to income inequality and the struggles it causes. The pandemic may have also demonstrated the importance of caring for other people and the need to think about vulnerable populations.

It seems that we hear that every new generation is in more trouble and has more problems than any other in US history. Is this any truer of iGen?

It depends on how you define problems. They have fewer problems when it comes to alcohol use or too much sexuality at an early age. The teen pregnancy rate is way down. Even the rate of teens dying in car accidents is down. In these ways, this generation has fewer problems. Conversely, they have many more mental health problems.

iGen’s high school experiences are different from those of previous generations. They are less likely to have obtained a driver’s license, held a paid job, consumed alcohol, or dated during high school. iGen also reads a lot less than previous generations. The percentage of high school seniors who read a book, magazine, or newspaper every day that’s not assigned for school went from approximately 60 percent in the late 1970s to around 15 percent in the late 2010s.

Jean Twenge discusses social media and iGen's mental health. (Hannah Turner Harts/

How’s that affecting them once they reach college?

Although there are some upsides to these trends, the downside is students graduate from high school with less experience with independence and with decision-making. In general, they are having trouble adulting.

What are some examples of how this is manifesting on campuses?

Student affairs staff report that they’re seeing an increasing number of students who can’t make simple decisions without texting their parents. Likewise, parents rather than students are often now the ones to contact colleges over a roommate problem or to dispute a grade. That was unheard of twenty years ago. Even ten years ago it was unusual—but now it’s a regular occurrence.

Why is this delay with adulting and independent decision-making and behavior occurring?

It’s part of something called the “slow life” strategy: namely at times and places when people live longer and when education takes longer to finish, the whole life trajectory slows down. Young adults take longer to marry, have children, and settle into careers; middle-aged people look and feel younger than their parents or grandparents did at the same age; and people in their seventies and eighties live longer and are healthier than was the case a few decades ago.

What can colleges and universities do to proactively respond when students are having trouble with adulting?

I am a big fan of first-year experience courses that instill life skills and coping strategies to help students smoothly transition from high school to college. On-campus counseling centers also need more therapists. Therapy works, but it’s often hard for college students to access it because counseling centers are frequently overwhelmed.


Much has been written and said about the tendency of today’s college students to see ideas as literally threatening and traumatizing. What’s behind this tendency?

There are various factors behind this trend. One is the high depression rates. Depressive thinking often has an “us versus them” focus and assumes bad intent. Another factor relates to the ways we’ve nurtured and protected young people. We’ve done a good job protecting them from physical harm in recent decades, but we’ve also crossed over into sometimes protecting them from important experiences. This includes having conversations with people with whom you disagree. In addition, because young adults now spend less face-to-face time with other people, they are more likely to find in-person encounters nerve-racking.

How can college and university faculty usefully respond when students express emotional discomfort with the academic content of a class?

When students are uncomfortable with disagreements about ideas or the content of course materials, it’s helpful to explain that once they’re in the workplace, they’ll need to interact with people from many backgrounds with a variety of beliefs and values. Wrestling with ideas and learning how to have respectful and productive conversations with other people prepares students for life after college. In a lot of ways, that’s what college should be about.

What advice do you have for college and university faculty who want to support struggling iGen students while also maintaining healthy boundaries?

You don’t have to be a full-blown therapist to express empathy and commiserate when bad or challenging things happen in a student’s life. But when that discussion gets to a certain point, you may want to provide the number for the counseling center and suggest that the student consider meeting with a therapist.

What’s the lasting effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on today's college and university students?

The pandemic continued and exacerbated existing trends in both mental health and social skills. Teens were already spending a lot less time with each other in person. The pandemic took that to the next level. Because they’ve had less experience with in-person socializing, today’s students are more likely to feel uncomfortable interacting with friends, faculty members, and other students. I predict that another long-term effect will be learning deficits, but that’s further from my expertise.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of viewing a group of people through a generational lens?

The advantage is that understanding generational changes can increase empathy. This is especially true for faculty members who are trying to understand undergraduates. The downside is you can’t assume that any one student conforms to a generation’s norm. People criticize generational research for generalizing, but that happens any time you study group differences. It’s also a generalization when a researcher says that they found differences between people from the Midwest and people from the West Coast.

Beyond what you’ve already said, what else can colleges and universities do to meet the unique needs of iGen?

We must meet students where they are. Without lowering standards, professors can present educational materials in ways that align with how this generation takes in information. Electronic textbooks, for example, tend to break materials into short chunks so students don’t have to read for long periods of time. And rather than completely banning the use of technology in the classroom, professors can embrace more collective and interactive forms of technology over individual devices like smartphones and tablets. For instance, they can ask each student to make a video about an educational concept and then show the best one in class. Basically, we must accept who this generation is and how they learn.

Lead photo: Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University (Laguna Blanca School)


  • Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper

    Marilyn Cooper is the associate editor of Liberal Education.