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Don’t Let Social Media Replace Genuine Friendships

Don’t Let Social Media Replace Genuine Friendships

We are blessed, in many ways, to inhabit a cultural moment where mental health and mental illness are discussed freely and openly. But there is a downside to this discussion, particularly as it coincides with an unprecedented level of media saturation.

Gen Z — emerging adults and adolescents born between the years 1997 and 2012 — is the first generation to grow up surrounded by smart devices. You Gen Z’ers use social media around four hours a day and realize it’s bad for you. You’re also at risk for mental illness — though of course, I’m sure I don’t need to remind you of that.

And if you’re one of these young digital natives struggling to attain mental health and choose to turn to the internet for help, you will find apparently endless resources offering you conflicting and possibly unhelpful information. You will encounter page after page of possible diagnoses, complemented by hundreds of internet personalities trying to sell you a solution to the problem you think you might have.

In fact, there are strong links between precisely this relentless froth of information and mental illness itself.

Smartphone saturation and heavy social media use have diminished attention spans, increased body dysmorphia and depression, weakened in-person social skills and blurred the boundaries of our identities. Smartphones even disrupt our sleep. And all of us, without regard to age, are bombarded with news around the clock — much of it bad!

The same place many of you would seek answers is the very place where you could be the most deeply harmed. It can be discouraging and lonesome to try and heal alone, adrift in a sea of meaningless and contradictory digital noise.

In addition, mental health, just like mental illness, is a complicated and deeply personal phenomenon. None of the labels the internet might offer you can adequately describe any person’s mental illness or help people attain mental health without the relationships, stability, professional insight, and emotional integration humans need to truly flourish — particularly during adversity.

And your generational cohort has a lot to contend with at the moment.

You’re facing one of the most important transitions of your life, from childhood to adulthood. But you’re navigating it while burdened with more digital access than your still-developing brain could effectively handle. It’s natural to become anxious, lonely, depressed. Maladaptive coping behaviors often emerge.

Don’t blame yourself. You’re stuck trying to survive when you should be learning to thrive. Healthy, mentor-like relationships can help.

A recent Young Life study underscored the felt urgency of this need: Gen Z as a whole still values close relationships and face-to-face interactions above digitally centric ones. You’re digital natives, certainly, but you are still human. You need and want guidance, love, and security every bit as much or more than you did as children. Sometimes other generations need to be reminded of this, though I doubt you do.

After all, we humans need, and have always needed, healthy relationships to help us discover and understand ourselves. Gen Z is no exception — and the internet is no surrogate for community. The internet offers complexity and diversity where simplicity would serve us much better, at least to start.

Take the gendered differences we can observe in the expression of mental illness as an example. Men and boys tend to struggle with mental illness with externalizing types of behavior: Anger, aggression, and the like. Women and girls, on the other hand, tend to struggle with mental illness with more internalization; they withdraw, and become anxious and overly scrupulous.

But scrolling through even hundreds of articles on the internet can’t really help you dissect your mental health. The articles and research we often read as a form of diagnostic care don’t even account for things as simple as effective stress relief, let alone as complex as family dynamics, trauma, community stability, and innate talent or predisposition. So we can’t start with the internet when we want to heal.

We have to start by reaching out to those nearest and most important to us. We need to reflect on ourselves, as we are right here and now. More specifically, we can cultivate the trust, transparency, time, and talent we may or may not already have in our lives.

Cultivate authentic relationships with older mentors. Foster openness and genuine concern, in yourself and in your most important relationships. Allow yourself to trust people who are worthy of it.

Commit to transparent communication. Share your life experiences — both triumphs and challenges — no matter how difficult it might seem at first. Through transparency, you will develop both a richer community and greater self-awareness.

Invest your time in things that will nourish and support you. Don’t let distractions steal your days. Deliberately spend time with people and things that uplift, guide, and improve your heart and mind. Defend this time fiercely, no matter how easy it might seem to give it up in favor of work or distraction.

Learn how to accept yourself — particularly your talents. Learn to acknowledge, value, and nurture your unique talents and gifts. Seek out and rely on mentors who will provide opportunities for growth, development, and realization of your capabilities.

These four elements of trust, time, transparency, and talent will look completely different from one person to another. We’ve been made marvelously and each of us placed in different circumstances, with different adversities and advantages to contend with.

That’s why there are as many ways to find mental wholeness and healing as there are people. God made us unique, and He delights in our differences. He calls each of us to an unrepeatable journey of suffering, healing, grief, and joy.

Life is uncertain. You can feel uncertain about how God will show up. But you can be certain He always will.

Find the well-being and health He made you for through purposeful relationships and mentorship rooted in Christ.

Dr. Julie Yonker is a psychology professor and the public health program director at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

© 2023 RELEVANT Media Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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