The Education Policy Institute (EPI) and The Prince’s Trust have published a study on the mental health and wellbeing of young people in Generation Z. Gen Z is the newest generation, born between 1997 and 2012/15. They are currently between 6 and mid 20s years old
Based on data from the Millennium Cohort Study, the report reveals new insights into the determinants of young people’s wellbeing. This includes how it is affected by their relationships, background and use of social media.
The study examines the personal experiences of young people in England at age 11, 14 and 17. This is supplemented by focus group responses from November 2020.
Wellbeing of young people decline
The research shows that while the wellbeing of all young people declines by the end of their teenage years, there is a strong gender divide. Girls see far lower levels of wellbeing and self-esteem than boys – driven by a sharp fall of both during mid-adolescence.
Girls experience more depressive symptoms than boys – such as feeling worthless or hopeless. They are also more likely to feel unhappy about their physical appearance. The proportion of girls that feel unhappy about their appearance rises considerably between age 11 and 14, from 1 in 7 to around 1 in 3.
Social media also plays a key role for the generation of “digital natives”. The report shows that very frequent use has an adverse effect on the wellbeing of boys and girls, along with the self-esteem of girls.
Based on the new findings, researchers determine that the experience of the pandemic is likely to continue to exacerbate existing mental health and wellbeing problems among young people. National estimates show that 1 in 6 young people now have a probable mental illness – up from 1 in 9.
While school closures were necessary to ensure the safety of pupils, However, positive mental health outcomes closely linked to relationships and social experiences in the school environment. Researchers fear that the increased isolation seen over the last year risks causing long-term damage to the wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of young people.
The factors having an impact
The following factors had independent and statistically significant effects on young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
- There is an association between family income and young people’s mental health. Those from low-income families are more likely to have lower levels of wellbeing and self-esteem, and more depressive symptoms. Evidence suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated existing social inequalities, putting additional pressure on young people’s mental health.
- Heavy use of social media is shown to negatively affect girls’ wellbeing and self-esteem at ages 14 and 17, regardless of pre-existing levels. It also negatively affects boys’ wellbeing at age 14, regardless of their previous state of mental health.
- Being bullied in childhood has strong and enduring effects on both boys’ and girls’ mental and emotional health into their teenage years. This is particularly the case for wellbeing. The more often a child was bullied in childhood, the higher their risk of low wellbeing by age 14.
- Frequent physical exercise plays a positive role in young people’s wellbeing and self-esteem and in limiting depressive symptoms. This is especially for boys at age 14. At age 17. Frequency of exercise had a positive impact on both boys and girls. Participation in activities and sports will have fallen considerably due to school closures and lockdown. This is likely adversely affecting mental health and wellbeing.
- Frequent arguing with parents is linked to lower wellbeing at age 1. At age 14 it is associated with both worse wellbeing and an increase in depressive symptoms.
- Being placed in the bottom stream in primary school is associated with lower self-esteem for boys later on at age 14. Supporting existing evidence of the stigmatising effect of being placed in low performance streams.
- Poor maternal health leads to lower wellbeing and self-esteem. It also increases depressive symptoms in both girls and boys at age 14. Maternal depression in infancy is associated with a rise in depressive symptoms in girls at age 17.
- Across all ages of adolescence, girls who feel unsafe in their neighbourhood are at increased risk of worse wellbeing and having more depressive symptoms.
Needing Government support
According to Whitney Crenna-Jennings, report author and Senior Researcher at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), "This research shows that the mental health of young people in Generation Z deteriorates markedly as they enter their teenage years. Girls in particular seeing a big drop in their personal wellbeing and self-esteem from around the age of 14.
"Poverty, heavy use of social media and lack of physical exercise are just some of the factors that we find are directly linked to poor mental health outcomes.
"Young people already face significant challenges at this stage in their lives. However, this generation have also had to deal with a pandemic that will have starved them of the vital relationships and experiences needed to support their journey through adolescence.
"The government has provided extra academic support for pupils but there is now a compelling case for it to consider emergency funding to support young people’s mental health and wellbeing. If we fail to counter the ill-effects of this crisis on young people’s health and development, there is a real risk that it inflicts irreversible damage on their later life chances."
Click here to read the full report here