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Narrating Growth Predicts College Students' Well-Being

Generation Z faces the dual challenges of technology and the pandemic.

Key points

  • Time spent online is related to the mental health crisis of Generation Z.
  • Gen Z also spent much of their college years in pandemic lockdown.
  • Personal growth stories across the college years are related to better mental health.

Young people are facing a mental health crisis. Talk to parents, teachers, and therapists, and they will tell you that adolescents and young adults are experiencing higher levels of depression and anxiety than ever before. The statistics bear this out: Rates of depression and suicide among young adults in Generation Z are substantially higher than in previous generations. Why and what can we do?

In his new book, The Anxious Generation, Jonathan Haidt blames life online. As smartphones became ubiquitous, teenagers and young adults spent more and more time on social media, scrolling and obsessing over online posts, ads, and apps. Haidt argues that this “natural experiment” of the explosion of technology has led to the “great rewiring” of adolescent and young adult minds.

There is good evidence that an obsessive online life contributes to increasing mental health concerns, and surely, we should monitor their—and our own—online time and presence.

Gen Z experienced yet another natural experiment: a worldwide pandemic that led to lockdowns and social and political turmoil. They are not only the anxious generation; they are also the COVID generation.

My colleagues and I began studying first-year college students within weeks of the lockdown. Across four universities, we studied several hundred students during the lockdown year and as they returned to in-person activities. We continued to study them through graduation.

We chose to begin our study with college students in their first year because we knew they would be especially vulnerable. At this age, young adults begin to engage in an intense exploration of their identity, questioning who they are and who they want to be: living away from home, negotiating new and diverse friendships and romantic relationships, exploring possible career trajectories, and trying on new ways of being in the world. Just as this process was starting, the rug was pulled out from under them. First-year college students were mostly sent home to spend the next year-and-a-half in their childhood bedrooms, taking classes online, socializing through Zoom, and struggling to figure out what happened.

Anxiety skyrocketed. Along with many other researchers, our research team confirmed that depression and anxiety were substantially higher during this first year of the pandemic than at similar ages within previous cohorts. In addition to collecting lots of standardized measures of their mental health and identity exploration, we also collected narratives from these students, asking them to tell us how the pandemic affected their lives. Initial responses expressed their deep anxiety and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

With the return to in-person life, we saw a decrease in depression and an increase in positive identity exploration—good signs for these young adults. And their narratives provided details about this process. Initial despair and fear were dampened, and many students expressed personal growth and lessons learned.

But the pandemic left its mark. Generalized anxiety, which was so high at the beginning of lockdown, remained very high even as in-person activities resumed and students completed their educations. Perhaps most disturbing, students continued to express a strong sense of not belonging, not feeling like they were accepted or respected by others. They continued to express a sense of isolation and feeling distant, even as they came back together.

The long isolation from normal social activities seems to have left them unable to feel connected to others in meaningful ways. Between the technological revolution leading to living life online and the pandemic, which only reinforced online life, this generation of young adults struggles with making social connections, leaving them anxious and adrift.

Our narrative findings also demonstrate the power of constructing stories of strength through adversity. Those college students who were able to find personal meaning and narrate personal growth across their college years persevered and even flourished. Many expressed that they had learned they were strong and resilient, that they enjoyed their own company, and were able to structure their own goals and meet them. This narrated growth was related to mental health rebounds, less depression, and more positive identity work.

Gen Z, the anxious generation, faces unprecedented challenges. Technology has created a different, perhaps wider, and more dangerous world. But it also allowed some connection during the social isolation enforced by the pandemic. Like everything else, there are pros and cons. We found that those students who were able to see the pros, draw positive lessons, and see hope through the despair better coped with the consequences of the pandemic. For these young adults, the way they told the stories of their lives mattered.

Stories help us connect. Perhaps sharing our stories of challenge and difficulty, of feelings of anxiety, can help us forge connections. Maybe encouraging young adults to tell their stories and sharing our own can help heal some of the sense of disconnection that technology and the pandemic have created.


Haidt, J. (2024). The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing and Epidemic of Mental Illness. NY: Penguin.

Booker, J.A., Fivush, R., Follmer Greenhoot, A., McLean, K.C., Wainryb, C., & Pasupathi, M. (in press). Emerging Adults’ Journeys out of the Shutdown: Longitudinal Narrative Patterns in a College Career Defined by COVID. Developmental Psychology.

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