Young people worldwide are using social media to boost their mental health

A report from McKinsey finds that social media has both positive and negative effects on mental health

3rd May 2023 about a 4 minute read
“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." Eriica Coe Andrew Doy, Kana Enomoto and Cheryl Healy, authors of Gen Z mental health: The impact of tech and social media

Members of Generation Z – young people born from 1997 on – are more likely to use social media to reduce feelings of loneliness, a survey by the consultant McKinsey has found.

McKinsey Health Institute’s (MHI’s) 2022 Global Gen Z Survey asked more than 42,000 respondents in 26 countries questions based on four dimensions of health: mental, physical, social, and spiritual. It then analysed differences and similarities between the generations and countries, hoping to inform the debate about Gen Z’s mental health.

The survey found a “nuanced” relationship between social media use and mental health. About one third of respondents reported that social media had a positive impact on their mental health. Many also reported negative impacts, however, but the generations differed in the type of negative impact reported.

The negative effects were most marked in the younger generations, with “particularly pronounced impacts” on those members of Generation Z who spent more than two hours a day on social media and those Gen Zers who had poor mental health. Gen Z respondents from high Europe and Oceania were most likely to report negative impacts from social media, and respondents from Asia were least likely (32% and 19% respectively).

Social media has a negative impact on women’s body image

There was a striking difference between young male and female respondents. Amongst Gen Zers, 32% of women, and 16% of men, said that social media had a negative impact on body image, while 24% of women and 13% of men said it had a negative impact on self-confidence.

Members of Generation Z were more likely than other generations to cite negative feelings about social media, and also more likely to report having poor mental health. McKinsey notes, however, that “correlation is not causation” and that the report data shows that the relationship between social media use and mental health is “complex”.

It notes that older generations’ engagement with social media platforms is on a par with that of younger people: baby boomers (those born between 1945 and 1964) reported spending as much time on social media as Gen Zers, with millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) most likely to post.

All the generational cohorts reported experiencing some negative impacts from social media. However, positive effects were even more common. More than half of all groups cited self-expression and social connectivity as positives from social media, ranging from 50% among baby boomers to 59% among Millennials.

Generation Z are more likely than other generations to use digital wellness apps and digital mental health programmes to access mental health support. Across all the generations, one in four reported using digital wellness apps, and one in five used digital mental health programmes. The numbers using digital mental health programmes were much higher in Asian and African countries than in European ones. In China, for example, 43% were using them, compared with 13% in the UK and 6% in Sweden.

Young refugees use social media to stay connected

A third (34%) of Gen Z respondents who use digital mental health programmes and apps say they found them on their own. This proportion increases to approximately 50% Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, and South Africa. In other countries, primary care physicians and healthcare payers (insurance plans) were listed as primary access points to digital mental health programmes.

Young refugees and asylum seekers are among those “most likely to cite social media as a tool to stay connected and decrease loneliness,” the report said.

The report’s authors argue that social media and technology “can be powerful tools in promoting well-being and offering scaled mental health support.” They suggest that “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.”

FCC Insight

We are often told that technology is harming the mental health of young people. This large-scale survey from McKinsey demonstrates that the reality is more complex. It is clear that some young people are experiencing adverse effects on their mental wellbeing from social media, particularly in the areas of body image and self-confidence. At the same time, many find that social media can connect them with others and reduce their sense of isolation. Some are turning to digital apps and mental health programmes to improve their mental wellbeing. We wholeheartedly agree that partnerships between digital mental health companies and community providers could be valuable in making sure that people experiencing mental health problems access the support they need.