Generations differ on causes of declining youth mental health – survey

Different generations in the UK agree young people’s mental health is worse than in the past but they have contrasting opinions on the cause of the decline, a survey has found.

Baby Boomers are much more likely than younger generations to put a potential rise in youth mental health problems down to increased use of drugs and alcohol, and less likely to attribute it to the increased cost of living or worse economic prospects, the research by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and the Orygen Institute in Australia, found.

The survey, of 2,516 UK adults aged 18 and over, placed people born in the following years into different generations: Gen Z 1997–2009, millennials 1981–1996, Gen X 1965–1980 and baby boomers 1946–1964.

About half of millennials, Gen X and baby boomers believe mental health problems were just as common among young people in the past, but they just were not identified as mental health problems then – higher than the four in 10 Gen Z who feel this way, the survey suggests.

UK generations – baby boomers (65%), Gen X (70%), millennials (73%) and Gen Z (74%) – are largely in agreement on mental health, with two-thirds or more saying it is worse for today’s youth.

Among those who believe there has been a real increase, 57% of those surveyed say it is because of tougher circumstances and 36% report that young people are less resilient than the youth of the past.

Baby boomers (19%) and Gen X (19%) are less likely than Gen Z (30%) and millennials (27%) to think tougher circumstances are a cause of greater youth mental health issues, the results suggest.

Increased use of social media is the only potential cause of rising youth mental health problems selected by a majority of the UK public, with two-thirds (65%) believing this is a key driver – higher than the share of Australians (58%) who think the same.

A view of the Twitter, Instagram and Facebook Apps on an iPhone screen.
Increased use of social media is widely seen as a cause of mental health problems in the young (Matthew Vincent/PA)

About 51% of Gen Z say in the survey it is because of increased use of social media – far lower than the two-thirds or more of older generations who hold this view. And 27% of Gen Z blame the emergence of new tech, compared with around four in 10 who belong to other generations.

Baby boomers (50%) stand out as around twice as likely or more than Gen X (27%), millennials (21%) and Gen Z (20%) to attribute this change to increased use of drugs and alcohol among young people.

Baby boomers (25%) are half as likely as Gen Z (49%) and millennials (50%) to say it is down to the increased cost of living. And while a quarter of baby boomers (24%) and Gen X (25%) blame worse economic or employment prospects, this rises to a third of Gen Z (36%) and millennials (36%).

The survey suggests the UK public is nearly seven times as likely to say social media and smartphones have a negative (67%) rather than positive (10%) impact on young people’s mental health.

Though the young themselves have a more favourable view, with half (51%) of Gen Z feeling they have a negative impact – far below the seven in 10 of other generations who say the same.

Older generations blame alcohol and drug use for poor youth mental health but alcohol consumption has declined substantially among younger generations and there is no trend of significant drug use increases (Alamy/PA)

But policies focused on potential structural drivers of mental health, such as sexism, racism and discrimination (13%) and youth employment (13%) are seen as a priority by far fewer.

Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said: “We see a lot of cliches and stereotypes when we talk about the attitudes of different generations, often pitting one generation against the other, but this new study shows there is a lot of consistency in attitudes across most issues and acceptance that we face a serious issue with young people’s mental health.”

He added that one aspect where the older generations do have a more cliched view is their greater tendency to blame increased drug and alcohol use among young people for worse mental health outcomes – but alcohol consumption has declined substantially among younger generations, and there is no trend of significant drug use increases over the long term.

This reflects a tendency to “generalise from eye-catching but relatively rare instances of risky behaviour among young people, and to forget the risks we ourselves took when we were young”, Professor Duffy said.

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