Generation Z and their internet childhood — The Threefold Advocate

The phrase “Gen Z struggles with mental health” comes as no surprise to members of all generations. In fact, they have often been nicknamed “the depressed generation” by their elders. According to the American Psychological Association, only 45% of Generation Z reports their mental health to be either very good or excellent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that one in five children aged 3 to 17 struggle with a diagnosable mental, emotional or behavioral disorder. Pew Research Center data suggests that 70% of all teens see anxiety and depression as serious problems amidst their peers.

Everyone seems to have their own theories as to why Gen Z is so mentally troubled. Older generations prefer to point to social media as the culprit, blaming platforms like Instagram and Twitter. Researchers have also brought forward the possibility that this generation is troubled by external stressors present in American current events. Issues like school shootings, American politics and student debt have all been noted as potential contributing factors to depression, anxiety and suicide in this age group. However, I think we’re all missing an essential aspect to understanding and subsequently diagnosing my generation. In my opinion, one of the greatest factors driving Gen Z’s mental struggles is the collective trauma garnered from their childhoods on the internet.

Older generations can hardly be held at fault for failing to recognize this, though. They can never have a true understanding of what it meant to be a free-range kid on the internet in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Besides, they didn’t have the time to understand. In 2008, most adults were occupied with the repercussions of the Great American Recession. According to the National Bureau of Research, the Recession was characterized by “a general slowdown in economic activity, a downturn in the business cycle, and a reduction in the amount of goods and services produced and sold.” As a result, unemployment rates grew higher. In December of 2007, the national unemployment rate was 5%. Unemployment reached its peak at 10% in October 2009. Along with the unemployment crisis came another in the housing sector, as a previously unprecedented peak in housing prices in 2007 led to a mortgage increase. According to the Federal Reserve, “home prices fell by over a fifth on average across the nation from the first quarter of 2007 to the second quarter of 2011.” From 2008-2011, most parents were far more concerned with socioeconomic stability and the physical wellbeing of their families to pay close attention to what their kids were doing on the computer.

If a parent were to take a glance at the screen, they likely saw something altogether harmless. Even families with stricter internet access had few clues as to what they were letting their kids into. The pathways to the deep, dark and utterly disturbing corners of the internet, in which Gen Z found themselves, were through children’s content. Kids would get on the family computer to look up their favorite characters, play computer games, laugh at funny image boards or just watch YouTube videos. However, children’s characters often received unorthodox spotlight on Deviantart, the home of numerous adult fetish artists. Upon looking up their cartoon heroes, kids were often exposed to erotica and pornographic content on fanfiction websites like Wattpad and Archive of Our Own and even on the blogsite Tumblr. Innocent kids’ computer games, like Roblox, often contained images and links to disturbing internet horror legends known under the term, “Creepypasta.” YouTube was also the home of numerous “Creepypasta” content and other unsettling, gruesome videos. These odd videos were often associated with children’s characters or even completed in the style of a children’s TV show. Perhaps the most troubling of all were image boards such as iFunny, Reddit and 4chan. All three platforms were notorious for their graphic displays of gore. These sites were also connected with LiveLeak, a British video sharing platform that hosted a variety of extremely violent footage, including executions, beheadings and torture. Even this extensive list is incomplete, as it fails to mention the numerous children who fell victim to grooming on messaging platforms like Kik in this period.

It is unclear just how much of Gen Z fell into these pipelines and was affected by this content. There is no official, academic research on this subject. As aforementioned, older generations have paid little heed to this phenomenon, if they were aware of its presence at all. For those who are illiterate in the culture of internet, not only is this difficult to understand, but finding any trace of its existence is an arduous task. In general, traces are few and far in between, as the internet is no longer structured in the same way it was in 2012. My research for this article was primarily conducted through microtrends on TikTok and their subsequent comment sections, in which users collectively shared their trauma. Anything further on my end would require me to jump into the remnants of these pipelines myself. What my imagination gathered from TikTok was more than enough for me.

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