The 12th annual "Stress in America" Survey by the American Psychological Association has revealed some interesting trends among young Americans belonging to Generation Z. Those between the ages of 15 and 21 are apparently most stressed out by the issues that receive the most attention by news outlet. Top stressors in 2018 for Gen Z were the high-profile issues of gun violence and sexual harassment. Young Americans were also more likely to say their mental health is subpar and seek help. These, and other findings, make sense. Generation Z is, after all, thoroughly saturated in one form of media or another throughout most of the day thanks to smart phones and social media. As such, they are exposed to distressing events from around the world on a regular basis while they receive their news by the most personalized and immersive means possible. Although these findings are interesting, the reality that youths are more likely to express their feelings and seek out help is more important.
First of all, the reality that younger Americans say they feel more stressed out by national issues like gun violence and sexual harassment than older generations is not particularly disconcerting. After all, they also showed a greater willingness to seek help for their mental health issues. Those who are more willing to seek help for their mental health issues are also going to be more willing to discuss their mental health issues. Seeking help for mental health issues is difficult, because all people tend to avoid things that make them feel uncomfortable and mental health issues tend to leave people feeling extremely vulnerable/uncomfortable. Their reluctance to is somewhat analogous to rubbing aloe vera on an unbearable sunburn. As such, the fact that the youth are more willing to seek help for their mental health issues, even if they are minor issues, is a triumph for a decades-long campaign by mental health professionals. The real concern is how to teach Generation Z and everyone else how to cope with the stress of distressing issues.
News outlets have and will always fixate on unsettling stories, because these events tend to be the most pressing and tend to garner the most attention. The social media experiences of users will also be strongly shaped by “news” that goes viral. Consequently, those who are immersed in the various mediums of media will be exposed to the distressing issues that garner the greatest attention. It is, of course, the impulse of most parents and other caregivers to shield youngsters from troubling news, but doing so is counterproductive. There will also be some troubling issue that needs to be addressed. The fact that young people are bothered by these issues does not negate the need to pay attention to them. In general, people are stressed out by issues, because they are unable to cope with the impact of these issues or they leave them feeling helpless, i.e. insecure. It is easier to simply tell people to ignore national issues that trouble them and do not affect them personally, which is why it is the prevailing advice.
With that in mind, there are always issues to worry about and not all issues can be ignored. People must learn to cope with the stress of issues that they cannot control and/or learn to find ways to feel empowered in order to improve their mental health. Attempts to permanently shelter people only makes them more sensitive to unsettling news and less able to cope with stress. Conversely, it is easy to conclude that younger generations are just too “sensitive,” but gun violence and sexual harassment are potent issues by the virtue of their own nature. Both gun violence and sexual harassment leave those affected by them feeling insecure and powerless. The media simply acts as a magnifying glass when it focuses on stories involving violence and sexual harassment. Media cover becomes degenerative when an unhealthy obsession on the negativity of these stories creates an impression of helplessness. Media cover is constructive when it helps empower those who are impacted by issues like gun violence and sexual harassment, which is why these particular issues were some of the most predominantly covered issues in 2018.
Looking at news coverage featuring survivors of the Parkland School Shooting, as well as coverage of the “Me Too” Movement against sexual harassment, the media was largely being used to empower victims by offering them a platform to tell their stories. Unfortunately, much of the coverage was politicized then it degenerated into partisan bickering, which meant it had more of a negative impact on viewers than a positive one. It made observers feel unsafe and helpless, because the coverage was no longer driven by an effort to address the underlying social issues. Ideally, discussions of issues like gun violence and sexual harassment will empower people in two ways. First, it will unite communities against serious threats to the personal security of community members. Second, communities will empower victims and would-be victims by addressing threats to their personal security as a group. A healthy focus on these social issues allows the vulnerable to tap the power of the many. It allows the vulnerable to feel protected and supported by their communities. Problems arise when media coverage leaves the impression that there are no solutions to issues like gun violence and sexual harassment.
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