Gen Z is battling deep brokenness.
It’s not hard to see. The ever-increasing reports of shootings enacted by disturbed teens points to dark and troubled minds. So does the upward surge of young people identifying as LGBTQ+. Then there are statistics revealing suicide to be the leading cause of death among 15–24 year olds and the fact that nearly 20 percent of high school students report having thoughts of suicide and 9 percent have made attempts at ending their lives. According to Pew Research Center, 70 percent of teens claim that anxiety and depression are significant problems among their peers.
Why is Gen Z such a depressed, suicidal, and hopeless generation? Maybe it’s just the natural struggles of growing up. Or maybe it’s all a result of negative news stories, conflicts around the world, and political upheaval. Other sources show the COVID-19 pandemic caused teens increased mental health issues and that they’re still experiencing the effects of lockdowns, isolation, and disrupted lives. And nearly everyone agrees that social media negatively impacts a teenager’s mental health.
Each of these reasons holds elements of truth, but they’re not the root of the problem. The root goes deeper, with each of the above issues as subsequent “offshoots.” I want to explore four foundations of today’s teenage mental health crisis. These four foundational issues have caused and are continuing to cause a host of problems for teens and I believe are at the root of Gen Z’s struggle and brokenness.
Foundation #1: Gen Z Lives in Virtual Worlds Instead of Engaging in the Real World
Gen Z is also known as the iGen, or the internet generation. We’re the generation who has grown up with screens in front of our faces and the World Wide Web at our fingertips. We’re the generation who thinks “play” means video games and not time outside. We’re the generation who could be considered the test case for virtual reality.
And guess what? The test case has flunked.
Nearly every expert agrees that social media, excessive screen time, and lack of personal interaction are detrimental to physical, mental, and emotional health. Screens are addictive and the addiction has dug its claws deep. And yet for many teens, screens feel safe.
We live in a turbulent and complex age. There’s no denying the political upheaval and worldwide turmoil unfolding around us. Throw into the mix stress at school, bullying, or unsettled home situations and many teens are desperate for some form of escapism. Screens provide the perfect outlet. Virtual worlds feel safer because they’re not real and provide a much needed distraction.
But what are teens being distracted by? The majority of teen content can be described by words like violent, pornographic, demonic, and all around dark. Many media forms portray self-harm, suicide, distorted sexuality, peer pressure, and unfettered violence. TikTok particularly has been credited with promoting the rise of transgender teenagers. The platform is addictive, persuasive, and agenda-driven. Even one former transgender influencer stated, “TikTok really is causing irreparable harm to a generation of young people.” The content teens escape to absorb into their souls and shape them until their inner reality becomes more terrifying than the outward reality they were attempting to forget.
The majority of teen content can be described by words like violent, pornographic, demonic, and all around dark
These forms of escapism can lead to deeply disturbed minds and emotions. We must never forget that humans are created to engage in the real world. Not only are the unhealthy ingredients being added, but the healthy ingredients are being withheld. We were created by God to live in the world he made, to work with our hands, and to engage in relationships with fellow image-bearers. Every single one of those things has become riddled with imperfection since the fall, but the distortion Gen Z often engages in is a complete cut-off from those things. Gen Z fails to engage in creation and nature and instead engages with screens. A healthy work ethic that involves sweat and muscle is often a foreign concept. Relationships usually look more like online followers and fans than dinner around the table with parents, siblings, and grandparents.
Foundation #2: Gen Z Has More Peer Influence and Less Adult Influence Than Any Generation
For much of Gen Z, old people are like dinosaurs—legends from the past that are completely irrelevant to life today. Have you ever watched a teen-centric movie where adults were portrayed as inept, outdated, and restrictive? The message is clear: Who needs adults? We know better and can pave our own way. Like King Solomon’s son Rehoboam in 1 Kings 12, adults are rejected for the company and advice of peers.
Just look at the spaces created for teens. School, sports, extracurricular activities, and even church programs are all peer-based. And the biggest area of concern is not simply institutional. The “institution” that has suffered the most damage is the family. Who are the most influential adults in a teen’s life? Our parents. Yet we have one of the worst breakdowns of the family society has ever seen.
Family is viciously attacked in our culture. The “nuclear family”—dad, mom, siblings, Lassie, and a white picket fence—is considered outdated, and the definition of “family” has been widened to accept any number of alternative family formations. The destruction of the family unit is nothing less than rebellion against God and his design for humanity, family, sexuality, and marriage. Parents are making choices based off of selfishness and the dismissive claim that “The kids will be fine.”
The destruction of the family unit is nothing less than rebellion against God and his design for humanity, family, sexuality, and marriage
Marriages demolished by divorce and split family homes? The kids will be fine.
Parents focused on careers who pass the training and care of their children into the hands of day cares and nannies? The kids will be fine.
Children conceived outside of marriage and raised by one parent or maybe a sympathetic relative or friend? The kids will be fine.
Same-sex “marriages” with two mommies or two daddies? The kids will be fine.
Well, the data is in and the results agree. The kids are not fine.
John Stonestreet says, “Children are the victims of our bad ideas.” The breakdown of the family unit as created by God causes countless problems for youth and will have a ripple effect in subsequent generations. God created family for a purpose. He reserved sex for marriage for a purpose. He created children to need both mommies and daddies for a purpose. That purpose is good and for the thriving of his creation. His design provides safe, loving environments for both parents and children to flourish. But humanity in rebellion looks at it and mocks, “Family? Marriage? Children? Let’s do it our own way.” “Our own way” leads to nothing but destruction. Consider teenagers who commit suicide, engage in self-harm, or land in jail. Unsettled family situations often lurk in their backgrounds. All the facts point to this truth: teens need engaged moms and dads. And teens need thriving relationships with older people too.
Foundation #3: Gen Z Believes They Can Live Outside of God’s Parameters of Truth and Reality
The lies contained in this foundation cemented themselves slowly with trickles of innocent sounding encouragement such as, “You do you!” “Follow your heart,” or “Only you can decide your destiny.” Gen Z has been conditioned to believe that they—their hearts, emotions, and desires—are the truest realities in the world.
Our world is one of parameters. Gravity causes objects to fall to the ground and helps us remain standing on our own two feet. Humans need food and water to survive. Men have certain biological attributes and women have others. It is, in short, the way God made things work.
Gen Z, however, believes that objective reality is…well, subjective. We’ve been taught that we are our own reality and how we feel about something determines whether or not it’s true. This is shown clearly in beliefs on transgenderism. But this idea is so pervasive that gender is not the only topic affected. Truths about morality and right and wrong are subjugated to one’s feelings about them. Objective truths over religion, the existence of God, and the creation of the world are laid bare to the gauntlet of emotional preference. Instead of the parameters, “Is this true?” and “Is this right?” the only parameter that matters is, “How do I feel about it?” Each of these issues is as objective as the existence of gravity. However, a denial of the existence of gravity would be called ludicrous, whereas the denial of these realities is called self-expression.
Objective truths over religion, the existence of God, and the creation of the world are laid bare to the gauntlet of emotional preference
These perspectives directly tie into matters of depression and anxiety. When someone is experiencing depressive or anxious thoughts, their emotions become incredibly powerful. Yet their emotions are often communicating things that are not true. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, for instance, works to identify cognitive distortions (untrue thoughts) and intentionally replace them with facts that are true. But in order to do so, we need a standard of objective truth. Are you beginning to see the inconsistency? We are told that how we feel is our objective truth. This mindset sends us into the downward spiral of our emotions where we are powerless to defeat our feelings…because feelings have become the truest thing to us.
Romans 1 calls this a distortion of worship: “worship[ing] and serv[ing] the creature rather than the Creator” and that it is the “suppress[ing] the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18, 25 NKJV). By rebelliously cutting ourselves off from the only source of objective truth (aka God), our thoughts become futile and our hearts become darkened (Romans 1:21). The only way to thrive is to submit ourselves to God and his reality. Living in our own non-reality leads to destruction.
Foundation #4: Gen Z Is the Least Christian Generation
More than a third of Gen Z identifies as religiously unaffiliated, which is a 5 percent increase from millennials and a 9 percent increase from Gen X. Gen Z is the deconstructing generation, a generation known for leaving the church and blazing their own path of spirituality or rejecting religion in its entirety. Every poll done on religion and Gen Z shows a marked decline in matters of faith from prior generations.
What difference does this make on Gen Z’s mental health? Every difference. We are spiritual beings who live in a spiritual world. We cannot pretend that mental health struggles are separate from spiritual matters. As humans created in God’s image for the express purpose of glorifying him, what happens when we rebel against the very purpose we were created for? Human flourishing depends upon right alignment with God and the purpose for which we were made. As the percentage of Christian Gen Zers goes down, the percentage of mentally struggling Gen Zers will go up.
Jesus gave a poignant command in Matthew 6:33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.” The interesting thing about this command was that it was given in the context of a conversation on worry. While worry as we define it may be on a different tier from Gen Z’s struggles with depression or anxiety, it shows that Jesus knows the human propensity toward such problems and gave us a directive to focus on instead: seeking God and his Kingdom. If seeking first the Kingdom of God can be considered an antidote to worry, it can also be assumed that not seeking first the Kingdom of God results in worry. As a generation, Gen Z primarily is shown to seek the kingdom of self. Our desires, emotions, and opinions are placed above anything else. Yet the futility of our self-based kingdoms leads us straight to depression and anxiety because we’ve separated ourselves from what ultimately gives life meaning and are, in the words of Romans 1, “given over” to the darkness and depravity of our own sinfulness.
If seeking first the Kingdom of God can be considered an antidote to worry, it can also be assumed that not seeking first the Kingdom of God results in worry
Struggles such as depression and anxiety are very real, but a dangerous assumption is that they can be solved apart from God. What Gen Z and every generation needs is a God who is bigger than our circumstances, stronger than our struggles, and whose truth is truer than our emotions. The solution to these four foundational issues can only be found by coming back to God and the design he created as good. Gen Z may be a deeply broken generation. But only Christ can mend the brokenness and provide the wholeness our hearts need.
Sara Starkey is the Editor-in-Chief of theRebelution.com and the author of Stand Up, Stand Strong: A Call to Bold Faith in a Confused Culture. Connect with her on her website SaraBarratt.com.