It is estimated that 1 in 6 young people struggle with their mental health. And our own research here at The Lily-Jo Project suggests that anxiety is the biggest mental health problem facing gen Z today.
We also know that compared to any other age group, research shows that young people are estimated to be 17% more likely to experience anxiety and panic attacks, with this figure rising to 20% in 2020.
So why are young people struggling?
One of the largest contributing factors comes down to academic pressure. This makes sense when we think about the many disruptions young people faced at school during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Two additional factors that I’d like to explore a bit further are the impact of cancel culture and cyberbullying.
Cancel culture is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as, “the practice or tendency of engaging in mass canceling as a way of expressing disapproval and exerting social pressure”.
Although we tend to see the term used in discussions surrounding public figures or companies, there exists a real fear among gen Z that if they get something wrong, they could be ‘cancelled’ for it. The consequences could involve their peers writing about them negatively online or refusing to ‘endorse’ or support them.
Personally, I have experienced cancel culture on a small scale. A couple of years ago, I opened Instagram to find that someone had set up a fan account to celebrate me… only for it to be changed to a hate account when I did not respond to the individual’s messages quickly enough.
I had gone from being celebrated to being ‘cancelled’, making me feel anxious about the impact this would have on my online presence, career, and ultimately my life. I can only imagine how distressing this experience would be for a child or teen.
In addition to cancel culture, fear of cyberbullying is another factor that contributes to anxiety among young people.
Gen Z is hyper-aware of the impact of ‘messing up’ online, and they tend to value digital privacy and anonymity to avoid online bullying and/or being ‘canceled’.
Compared to “in-person” bullying at home or at school, cyberbullying has the potential to never stop. As long as a young person has a phone connected to the internet, they can receive negative messages from their anonymous abuser. They can’t leave the room or go home; the place where they are being bullied continues to exist right inside their pocket.
Cyberbullying trends were particularly startling during the pandemic, when children and young people were spending even more time online than usual. In fact, studies show that there was a 70% rise in hate speech (cyberbullying) between children and young people during online chats and a 40% increase in toxicity on gaming platforms like Discord.
Alleviating pressures of anxiety and cancel culture
So what can we do to alleviate the pressures of anxiety and cancel culture within classrooms and at home? Here are two practical ways to address these challenges.
Create safe spaces
One of the best ways to alleviate online pressure is to create circumstances and spaces where it’s impossible to be cyber-bullied or canceled. This is what I call a ‘safe space’.
Creating safe spaces does not have to involve whole rooms; they could, potentially, be moments in the day. Perhaps on the drive to and from school or by going for a walk.
It’s a good idea to make this space a ‘no phone’ zone. This allows children to understand the purpose of the space and reassures them that they can open up and be themselves. In my home, our safe space is at the dinner table. We are not perfect and we don’t eat together at the dinner table every night, but when we do, we set a rule of ‘no phones at the table’ to create safety for each other.
Change “lacking” language to “listening” language
When we use listening language, we show children that we are not only hearing them but also understanding them. And when they reveal their anxiety about an online comment or what other people might think of them, we can choose to respond with listening language or lacking language.
‘Lacking language’ is language that is lacking in the care children and young people need. Let’s use a recent example of my son not wanting to wear his new coat that he had saved up for because someone said something mean about it.
Examples of lacking language in response to that might be:
- ‘What people say doesn’t matter.’
- ‘Nobody is going to say that.’
- ‘You’re being silly.’
- ‘It doesn’t matter what people think.’
- ‘You shouldn’t listen to them.’
All such responses have the potential to come across as untrue, dismissive, blaming, or lacking in perspective.
Instead, take a look at these examples of ‘listening language’:
- ‘Can you explain why you think that?’
- ‘What do you worry people might say to you?
- ‘How does that make you feel?’
- ‘Nothing anyone could say would change my opinion of you.’
All of these responses have the potential to engage the child in your care in a conversation about how they feel. When they feel heard and understood, their symptoms of anxiety are likely to be reduced and put at ease.
As parents, teachers, and carers, it’s important that we too reflect on our own mental health and get help when we need it. It is exhausting caring for someone who is struggling with anxiety – especially if we too are struggling.
Your school can also be an excellent source of information, along with the GP practice that you are registered with.
If you notice that your child or a child in your care is experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Angry outbursts
- Nightmares or sleep
- Tearier than usual
This should be an alarm bell to you to seek further assistance from a qualified counsellor, mental health nurse, or GP.
Finally, it’s also important that along the way you are kind to your own mind. This involves practicing good self-care so that you can set yourself up to be the very best version of yourself.
If you found this article helpful, please check out the following resources on anxiety, life online, and post-pandemic stress.
- My recent article, How to Talk to Children About Loneliness and Life Online
- The Lily-Jo Project’s article, Let’s Talk about our Feelings: Building Emotional Intelligence in our Children
- The Lily-Jo Project’s dedicated Parents Resource
- The Lily-Jo Project’s dedicated Self-Care Resource
Talking to Children About Mental Health
If you’d like to learn more about how to support the next generation of young people, check out my new book Talking to Children About Mental Health.
This book is a practical guide designed to help adults understand the unique mental health challenges facing children, teenagers, and students today.
Some of the key themes covered include:
- Anxiety and cancel culture
- Self-esteem and self-harm in the digital world
- Climate anxiety and global grief
- Post-pandemic stress disorder
- And more!
It’s suitable for parents, grandparents, teachers, youth workers and anyone in a position of care or interested in the future of mental health and supporting the next generation.
About the Author: Lily-Jo
Lily-Jo is a qualified mental health counsellor, counselling supervisor, and senior coach at Unstoppable Life Coaching. She is also the founder of mental health organisation, The Lily-Jo Project, which specialises in online digital wellbeing resources for children, teens and adults of all ages. Her brand new book Talking To Children About Mental Health, focuses on the unique challenges that gen z and gen alpha are facing, and how we as adults can help them.