Dr. Amy Young, Ph.D.,University of Michigan Ross School of Business and Dr. Blake Faulkner. Ph.D. , The Pacific Group
Entry into the 21st century brought a rapid evolution in how people communicate and interact with each other. We are just now starting to see the first generation to have grown up only knowing this new world of iPhones, social media, and virtual social interactions. Born between 1997 and 2012, Gen Z has just begun to enter higher education. How will this generation differ from Millennials and how can we increase their chances of succeeding at college?
Recent research suggests that we should expect a dramatic shift in the needs of students that will occur just as rapidly as new technological advances have infiltrated our lives. Cohort studies of Gen Z indicate alarmingly high rates of psychological distress and loneliness along with low rates of time spent in face-to-face interactions. These findings suggest that Gen Z will enter college with a different set of needs than students of previous generational cohorts. In addition to ramping up psychological support services and incorporating the development of a positive mindset into academic and co-curricular programming, we need to consider how best to address a whole generation of students who need help building meaningful and quality connections with others.
The Psychological and Relational Lives of Gen Z
There has been an increase in the rates of psychological distress, mental health diagnoses, and mental health service utilization among students in higher education during the 2010s. These rates likely represent a growing trend that will continue over the next decade as the Gen Z cohort enters higher education.
According to two nationally representative surveys of US high school students, the rate of depressive symptoms rose by 33% between 2010 and 2015; similarly the rate of deaths by suicide rose by 31% in this time period. The yearly rate of change in these data was twice that of previous generational cohorts; the compounding effect over the past five years means that we are seeing alarmingly higher rates of psychological distress than ever before. Jonathan Haidt, a leading expert in the field, has referred to the rapid uptick in adolescent depression, anxiety, and suicide rates as the next health care crisis. As Gen Z continues to enter higher education, there will be an increasing need for supportive services to help them succeed at college.
What we know about the relational lives of Gen Z may help explain the dramatic shifts in their psychological distress. As adolescents, Gen Z has been significantly less likely than previous generations to spend time in face-to-face social interactions with peers. Moreover, it is this lack of face-to-face social interactions (rather than social media use per se) that has coincided with the sharp increase in loneliness reported by this generation. What this means is that students now entering higher education have had fewer opportunities to develop relational skills during the key developmental period of adolescence. They are lonelier than previous generations and less knowledgeable and practiced at developing strong meaningful relationships with their peers.
Importance of Relationships to Psychological Well-Being
What happens when the norms of society shift so dramatically that we fail to realize that the social environments of our youth are deprived of the key nutrients needed for their psychological wellbeing? While the emerging trends are not conclusive, student service leaders will likely be facing this question in the coming decade.
The need to belong and develop strong positive interpersonal attachments is widely recognized as a fundamental human need. Relationships are so essential to our existence that we often overlook their importance. Our lives are immersed within relationships as we live, work and play. Our early relationships shape how we come to understand who we are and how we fit within society. We rely on relationships for support, care, joy, and companionship.
The importance of relationships to our well-being should be no surprise as we are hardwired with a need to connect with others. As a social species, our survival has been dependent upon the building of strong emotional bonds, living in communities, and working together.
What is important to recognize is that online social interactions may still provide opportunities to connect with each other, but they are unable to replace face-to-face social encounters in their ability to provide the key nutrients needed to sustain our psychological wellbeing.
Addressing the Growing Crisis in Students’ Well-Being
Assuming that the trends emerging in recent cohort studies continue, we need to adopt a more comprehensive approach to addressing the alarming rates of psychological distress among college students. Student support and health services are already taxed by the current number of students seeking help. Instead of seeing psychological distress as a “deviant” experience that occurs because of unfavorable, atypical circumstances, we now need to think of it as a normative experience. A generation grew up in a social context with fewer opportunities for face-to-face interactions; a generation will need help addressing the impact. Our approaches need to speak to all students, not just the few who seek professional help. Recognizing that all students may benefit from curricular and co-curricular learning experiences on healthy relationships may help decrease the high rates of loneliness and psychological distress experienced by this group.
Fortunately, we now have a much better understanding of the key nutrients of relationships that sustain us psychologically. For example, faculty affiliated with University of Michigan Center for Positive Organizations have developed college courses that teach students how to develop ‘high quality connections,’ a term coined by Jane Dutton and her colleagues to refer to social ties that promote wellbeing and flourishing. What makes high quality connections different from most social interactions is that they involve people being genuine, authentic and “fully present” during the encounter. These classes educate students on the science of high-quality connections and their importance to wellbeing, while also teaching students the tactical skills and practice needed to create these meaningful connections. Students experience the health benefits of these practices firsthand in the classroom and develop the confidence that they can create a social context that nourishes them during college and for the rest of their lives.
As Gen Z continues to enter higher education, it is critical that we recognize that we need new, systemic solutions to effectively address the alarmingly high rates of psychological distress among our students. Educating all students on the why and how of building strong meaningful connections provides an additional strategy to addressing the exceptionally high rates of loneliness and psychological distress that are anticipated in the coming decade.
For those that are interested in incorporating new solutions to help students build high quality connections, we would love to collaborate with you in this important endeavor. Please feel free to reach out to us at either email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
i Dimock, M. (2019). Defining generations: Where Millennials end and Generation Z begins. Pew Research Center.
ii Eisenberg, D. et al., College Student Mental Health: The National Landscape. In D. Cimini, & E.M. Rivero (Eds). Promoting Behavioral Health and Reducing Risk among College Students: A Comprehensive Approach.
iii Twenge, J.M., Joiner, T.E., Rogers, M.L., & Martin, G.N. (2018). Increases in depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates among US adolescents after 2010 and Links to increased new media screen time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6, 3-17.
iv Haidt, J. (2019). The Coddling of the Anglo-American Mind: The Disastrous Consequences of Ignoring Basic Insights from Positive Psychology. 6th World Congress of International Positive Psychology Association, Melbourne, Australia.
v Twenge, J.M.; Spitzberg, B.J., Campbell, W.K. (2019). Less in-person social interaction with peers among US adolescents in the 21st century and links to loneliness. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36, 1892-1913.
vi Baumeister & Leary, (1995)
vii See Center for Positive Organizations Learning Programs, https://positiveorgs.bus.umich.edu/learning-programs/
viii Stephens, J. P., Heaphy, E., & Dutton, J. E. (2012). High quality connections. The Oxford handbook of positive organizational scholarship, 385-399.