Seated on the plush carpeted floor of the Inn at Virginia Tech, listening to the joyful shrieks of hundreds of other girls around me, I knew I was supposed to be similarly proclaiming my own happiness. Staring at the piece of cardstock clutched in my shaking hands, the strongest emotion I registered wasn’t excitement or elation — it was pure relief. It wasn’t that I was exhausted after the long week and endless rounds of talking, or that I was looking forward to returning to the real world of classes and obligations. No, my relief came from my sheer incredulity at the notion that a group of women I had liked could actually like me back.
Looking back on my memories of Panhellenic Bid Day, it’s sad to think that I ever felt that way. What is even more tragic is that there were likely dozens of other girls sharing those same emotions on Bid Day, and thousands of college students who think like I did on a daily basis. My generation, Generation Z, is under more pressure to perform for others than any generation prior thanks to our society’s love-hate relationship with social media and Gen Z’s specific battles with rising anxiety rates and crushing academic expectations.
On Instagram, a bad day can be posed and filtered away for hundreds of followers to “like” and comment on; Snapchat expects daily story updates of all the cool adventures you’re surely embarking upon over the summer break; and Facebook is full of relatives eager to hear about your latest academic pursuits and internships. Maybe adding that extra filter or forcing a smile for the sake of your followers won’t lead you to instant misery, no — but giving in to that culture may.
This social media insanity coincides with the sad reality that Generation Z is facing a mental health epidemic, with the American College Health Association reporting in 2018 that over 60% of college students had felt “overwhelming anxiety” over the past year. The American Psychological Association found that Gen Z is more likely than any other generation to report poor mental health, with 27% of those surveyed stating their mental health was only “fair or poor” compared to 15% of millennials, 13% of Gen Xers and 7% of boomers. Even worse, over nine in 10 Gen Zs surveyed reported experiencing at least one emotional or physical symptom as a result of stress over the past month, a shocking number given that only 75% of adults across all generations said the same.
Unfortunately, social media might be partially to blame for this drastic downturn. According to a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center, 90% of American adults ages 18 to 29 use social media. The madness is near inescapable. One recent study conducted by the University College of London found that consistent social media use could be linked to “online harassment, poor sleep, low self-esteem and poor body image.” With 45% of teens claiming to be online on a near-constant basis, the potential negative side effects of social media use are obvious cause for concern; in my experience, these side effects are only more amplified when Gen Zers reach college. The moment I moved into my tiny West Ambler-Johnston dorm room, my feeds filled with snapshots of my peers seemingly living their best lives, smiling wide at football games and throwing their arms around their new best friends at Friday-night outings. The pressure to do the same felt impossible, and the urge to throw myself into a new social circle and have guaranteed study buddies was almost crushing. It took me months to realize that scrolling through social media only made the weight on my chest worse.
I’m not saying it can all be blamed on social media, though I do believe that’s responsible for a large part of it. Our generation seems to be more fixated on identity and the way we are perceived by others than ever, in both good ways and bad. While it’s great that Gen Zers have thrown themselves behind supporting the LGBTQ+ community and activist movements, it’s not so great that so many of us struggle with the constant worry of how we come off to others and what they think of the image we portray. It’s as though our focus on identity has us feeling the pressure to know exactly who we are as soon as possible, even though most people don’t figure that out until well after college. In the meantime, because we don’t know exactly who we are, we rely on validation from others to tell us instead — which often doesn’t have the effect we’re looking for.
It’s natural to want to be liked by others, to crave praise and attention from those we admire. What isn’t natural is for this desire to consume our lives and make us fear the things we once enjoyed or fear doing what’s best for us. I say this because I’ve been there, praying to shrink into the background in class because giving a wrong answer would be worse than a low participation grade, fleeing from the Math Empo during the first week of classes because admitting I couldn’t figure out how to log in to the computer seemed like admitting I was bound to fail. At my academic pressure-cooker of a high school, I grew so embarrassed by my weaknesses in math that I buried my head in the sand and only barely passed trigonometry and precalculus. I was so focused on making sure everyone thought I was smart, capable and never in need of help that I actually sabotaged myself and had to work twice as hard.
The good news is that there’s always a chance to stand up to your fears and turn things around. In college, I haven’t let myself make the same mistakes I did in high school, though the temptation has been strong at times. I have forced myself to accept that getting to where I want to be in life sometimes means admitting that I need help, admitting that I am imperfect and more than capable of making mistakes — not just to myself, but to my peers as well. There have been difficult moments where I questioned if I was the only one feeling so miserable as a new student and if all my friends on Instagram were indeed insanely happy freshmen, but I got through them, and the rest of Generation Z can, too.
It’s as simple as this: Recognize that so much of what makes you feel the pressure to be perfect isn’t based in truth. Remind yourself that other people really aren’t that focused on you and what you are doing, and don’t let yourself live under the illusion that all eyes are on you the second you step into Owens or McBryde. Acknowledge that you will stumble, and probably stumble a lot, but that your peers will be stumbling right along with you, and they won’t like you any less for it. Recognize that it is okay that not everyone will want to be your buddy.
As a wise friend of mine often tells me, “Not everyone is going to like you, but if you like yourself, what everyone else thinks won’t matter as much. At the end of the day, you are the only person you have to deal with for all of your life, so why shouldn’t your opinion matter most?”
It took me a while to accept it, but you know what, Gen Z? She’s right.