The anxious realties of #GenNext
This connected global marketplace is changing fast. (Photo: AP)

Growing up, when I was stubborn and 'hard of hearing', my mother would remark, "Lisa, when you resist, it persists…" followed by a lecture I never understood, nor did I care about.

My mother was a new-age, positive, 'enlightened one' who believed there was power in the spoken word. Her idea of raising me was plastered with infusions she gleaned from the various 1970s motivational workshops she would attend in the United States.

But this was my mother then, and this is my mother now. She was the quintessential renaissance flower child who ensured she thrust me into every extracurricular activity known to the world and encouraged me to understand the power of my subconscious mind when I was an early teenager.

I still call her when I need an uplifting boost to my self-confidence, harkening back to my early teens.

Instagram is the fifth most visited website.

If there is one thing I've learned in my life, courage and self-confidence take practice. And unless you have someone or a support team constantly pushing you beyond your imaginable limits, an individual may often grow up fearful to try something new, take criticism, or get back on their feet from harsh rejection from another person.

Currently, our youth live in a competitive world. Unless they have strong networks, only the best 'all-rounders' will get their resumes through to the first round. Therefore, keeping them motivated and building self-discipline and competence are vital characteristics for them to navigate life's vicissitudes. For example, I just needed one round for a job interview when I graduated from university. Now there are close to eight rounds, all at various technical stages and degrees of difficulty. They seem challenging; definitely not for the faint-hearted, the insecure, or the anxious.

This connected global marketplace is changing fast. Just this week, META announced it was laying off 10,000 employees and closing 5,000 additional roles. At this pace it may be easy for new graduates to feel dejected, as if the world they've built up within their expectations is not materialising as fast as they take to do multiple tasks on their smartphones.

Now, more than ever, we must give our youth confidence through personal interaction and critical life skills in this era in which there are distractions, extreme external competition, and other influential activities that breed mental pressure for them to succeed or at least appear to be succeeding.

But, more importantly, we must teach them how to have interactive physical conversations. Unfortunately, too many of our youth are growing up socialising with digital/social media personalities rather than physical, interpersonal connections. Unless we take the time to prepare them seriously for an interview, job, or otherwise, they may not know what to wear, what to say, or how to say it. Furthermore, when questioned, they may be unfamiliar with responding or conveying how their presence could add value to a project or organisation.

"John, tell me something about yourself that's not on your resume on how you would add value to this job?"

One of the significant differences of my youth was the non-existence of digital media. Not so today. Many of our children use video games with headsets for playing with 'friends', social media for developing their social mores, direct messaging for reaching out to individuals, and dating apps for romantic hook-ups. Their reliance on these digital tools seems to fast-track their needs, which may alter their personal value proposition on determining how to build their internal validity and develop interpersonal relationships. Too many of them now suffer from deep social anxiety, which results in them presenting themselves for the 'likes', social acceptance, popularity, and general 'fitting in' responses to the influencers of their generation. They build up false ideals of reality based on the images on their timeline, which is why they sometimes feel helpless when confronted by the responsibilities of the real world.

Let us take Instagram, which is the fifth most visited website. There are approximately two billion active Instagram users and 500 million of them check their pages daily — not only once but multiple times throughout the day to check for how many little hearts appear under their photo or video. The heart icon and 'likes' are super important to over 60 per cent of its users between ages 18-34.

This little, heart-shaped button has also become a profitable tool for influencers, who use likes to attract advertisers who have had to recalibrate how they now market their products. There were over four million brand-made sponsored posts in 2018, and according to Insider Intelligence, the platform generated US$43.2 billion in advertising revenue in 2022.

Some researchers have cited these debilitating similarities between online interactions and addictions to other artificial substances, almost like a daily 'fix' for visual rewards about their self-worth.

"We're hardwired to find social interactions rewarding," said Dar Meshi, cognitive neuroscientist, Michigan State University. When someone receives a notification that one of their posts received an interaction their immediate reaction is to check on it as it triggers a sense of happiness within them. Researchers say that the notification activates the ventral striatum, the same section of our brain focusing on decision-making and reward-related behaviour. It's the same area that sizzles with moments of ecstatic experiences.

Ofir Turel from the Department of Information Systems and Decision Sciences at California State University Fullerton says that when people make postings they don't know how many likes they will get or when they will get them. Because they fear 'missing out', anxiety forces them to check their pages frequently. He described it as similar to the discovery made by behavioural psychologists Skinner & Ferster in pigeons, whereby randomly selected birds would receive rewards by pressing a button. After a while, they found that the pigeons would push the button thousands of times in hopes of receiving a reward.

Perhaps this is why Instagram (owned by META) last year began testing a new policy to remove visible likes from the platform. Head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, said that anxiety and social pressures that come from the app were "becoming more acute, particularly with young people, particularly in a mobile-first world. So the idea is to depressurise Instagram… to reduce anxiety [and] reduce social comparisons".

Already 45 per cent of our youth under 18 years experience symptoms of anxiety. But social media, with their chosen influencers and scientific marketing to sell polished versions of reality are a mainstay. And these websites will continue to create mental anxiety for many of our youth who seek work or other avenues for their instant gratification. So, too, are the other 'distractions' and daily challenges our youth must face. Therefore, our youth need constant reassuring advice and support that helps them to shape their self-worth from within, not from a screen designed with scientific algorithms to keep them hooked.

It's time to introduce and urgently scale up public national programmes to assist our youth who experience mental health or other social anxiety problems.

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