In 2009, in the early years of social media, I conducted a ground breaking netnographic study on teen mental health online. This was done with Dr. Stan Kutcher, now a Canadian senator and at the time the head of teen mental health at the world renowned IWK Children’s Hospital in Nova Scotia, Canada. Among the many findings was how teenagers at the time (Millennials) dealt with depression. The oft used term to describe their feelings of sadness or being depressed? “I’m feeling Bella today” a reference to the hit film series at the time The Twilight Saga, based on the books of the same name. Youth were developing, as they’ve always done, ways of labelling and socializing their feelings amongst each other. But now this was taking place in digital worlds, spilling at times into the real world.

Today, we must all navigate our lives in the digital and real worlds. For some demographic groups, such as Millennials, this is complex, difficult and impacting mental health. For Gen X, they’re navigating it differently while trying to help Millennials and Gen Z are navigating it somewhat easier, yet they too are left dealing with mental health issues. While this sounds quite depressing, it isn’t entirely. Good things happen. The thing is, its just far more complex than we’re acknowledging and in part it is because we have, as a species, never had to navigate living between two worlds.

Humans and technology have always coexisted. It’s called technogenesis and it is how technology shapes us and we shape technology. The debate as to who controls whom will rage for decades to come.

Right now, four generational groups are deeply impacted. Millennials, Gen X, Boomers and Gen Z. These are the generations that are betwixt and between these worlds. Boomers are on the very fringe, far less living between these worlds. Gen X are the parents of Millennials and the children of Boomers and they’re often called the sandwich generation. Looking after their kids and their ageing parents. Gen Z may also be children of Gen X and Gen Z are often grandkids of Gen X. It’s all terribly muddled, but the point is, each generation sees, uses and engages with technology differently.

Gen X and Boomers also have different views on mental health and how it is discussed and treated as well as social norms and behaviours. Boomers are more prone to bury mental health issues, while Gen X is confronted with the Millennials who openly talk about depression, anxiety and other issues related to mental health. And very often Millennials do this online, sharing their anxiety or other issues openly and with people they may never meet or barely know even online. For many Gen Xers, this goes against a sense that such matters should remain private.

For Gen Z, while they’re far better and moving through a digital world, they’re more prone to being psychologically damaged by negative online experiences. Both Gen Z and Millennials have been driven to suicide by cyberbullies and trolls who use a variety of tactics to hurt others. But Gen Z folks are also more cognizant of privacy and what they share. That is an interesting dichotomy, but indicates how humans are adapting to living in two worlds.

Gen X and Boomers engage quite differently in many aspects, in their digital worlds. They tend to spend less time there and are most active around a primary interest such as fishing or scrapbooking. They’ll tend towards closed or hobby-based online communities, rarely straying outside their interest. They’ve learned to stay away from more open spaces where trolls lurk and get ready to pounce. Gen X will cross over into other areas online such as for news via social media channels or to communicate with friends and family networks. Because they behave in this way, they are less likely to struggle as much moving between digital and physical worlds. Having grown up socializing in the real-world, they much prefer keeping their social activities real.

Millennials on the other hand, engage socially more in digital worlds than they do the physical world. They form relationships digitally with people they may never even meet, or very rarely. They’re quite fine watching Netflix at home and discussing a show via text messages or tweets with digital friends. Although still highly social in the real-world, they have social anxieties and will engage differently. Post-pandemic, this may change.

Gen Z forms more fluid digital relationships. They may engage with a digital group for a few weeks or months, but will slip away from these groups more easily. Digital friendships have little or no ties to the real-world and so there are less real-world bonding activities and relationships are short and shallow. This impacts their real-world relationships as well and can lead to social anxieties and difficulties navigating work and education lives in the real-world.

I note these social behaviours through many netnographic studies for marketing, public policy and diaspora communities research. My approach of course, is as an anthropologist, not a psychologist or psychiatrist, but it is an area that does bear deeper study. How these groups interact and how we navigate our digital and real-world lives by generations.

This is a pivotal time in society where we are learning how to navigate as a global and highly local set of societies globally.

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