Opinion | Gen Z stars are taking over culture. But their impact is bigger than that.

Opinion | Gen Z stars are taking over culture. But their impact is bigger than that.

This year’s Time100 list of the world’s most influential people suggests the kids really are all right. The list was full of young stars like Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X, who were honored alongside change-makers and icons two and three times their age. The Gen Zers, it seems, have an ironclad grip on our culture.

But this generation’s stars are also distinguishing themselves for what they champion outside of their art. For many of Time’s youngest honorees, mental health has become their most important cause.

Members of Gen Z — those born in 1997 and after — seem more comfortable discussing their mental well-being, and getting help for it, than previous generations.

By and large, members of Gen Z — those born in 1997 and after — seem more comfortable discussing their mental well-being, and getting help for it, than previous generations. A 2018 study by the American Psychological Association found that 37 percent of Gen Zers have gotten professional mental health treatment or therapy, compared to 26 percent percent of Gen Xers, 22 percent of boomers and just 15 percent of people in older age brackets.

It’s clear why they’re seeking help: With climate change threatening their future and school shootings happening with regularity, Gen Zers have more than enough reasons to feel anxious or depressed. Another factor may be a growing understanding of the effects of not speaking out; when you witness the consequences of your parents’ and grandparents’ untreated mental issues, that may encourage a different approach personally.

Then there’s social media, perhaps the biggest factor of all. Unlike members of earlier generations, Gen Zers have grown up in a world where widely sharing intimate details about yourself — from your hair color to your gender identity — is not only doable, but expected. Unfortunately, there are downsides to a life lived publicly. Insecurity thrives on platforms like Instagram, which encourage users to share curated, airbrushed versions of their lives that can quickly fuel a perfectionist weapons race.

These negative effects aren’t specific to Gen Z, of course, but young adults’ still-developing identities (not to mention brains) make them particularly susceptible. A recent, disturbing Wall Street Journal report said researchers at Facebook found 32 percent of teenage girls blame Instagram for making them feel badly about their bodies, while a poll of teenagers who’ve experienced suicidal thoughts noted that 13 percent of British Instagram users and 6 percent of American users counted the platform as a cause.

As damaging as social media can be for young people struggling with their mental health, however, it can also be a source of much-needed inspiration. Seeing others — especially those with large platforms, like Eilish or Lil Nas X — be open about the issues they experience can encourage a teen quietly suffering to instead speak out and, if needed, get help. Emotional honesty is powerful. A live video of a superstar crying during a panic attack or a tweet thread from a young athlete explaining why they stepped away from a competition to focus on their well-being is raw and resonant, especially for a generation that values authenticity.

Take 23-year-old tennis star Naomi Osaka, a Time honoree. Osaka’s willingness to talk publicly about her mental health struggles — and even walk away from major tournament titles to prioritize her self-care — has both inspired others and started crucial conversations about the pressure we put on young adults. “She shows you can be among the best in the world at what you do, and still fight for justice and be open about the challenges you face,” NFL star Russell Wilson wrote in his tribute to the tennis player.

Or look at Osaka’s fellow young athlete and honoree Simone Biles. When the 24-year-old gymnast announced her decision to drop out of several Olympic events to take care of her mental health, there was plenty of criticism, but also a massive amount of support. As Serena Williams wrote in her tribute to Biles, “I wish I had her to look up to when I was younger and trying to realize my dreams.”

Then there’s Lil Nas X, whose refusal to conform to expectations around race or gender and defiant responses to critics have inspired his followers. “To have a gay man in hip-hop doing his thing, crushing records — that is huge for us and for Black excellence,” Kid Cudi wrote in his Time tribute to the 22-year-old. “The way he’s unafraid to make people uncomfortable is so rock ’n’ roll.”

Willow Smith, 20, earned honors from the magazine for her work (alongside her mom and grandmother) on the talk show “Red Table Talk,” which frequently discusses issues like self-harm and suicide.

And of course, there’s Eilish, 19, whose honesty about her difficult, ongoing mental health journey has been widely documented. From opening up about her past suicidal thoughts to Gayle King to making a short film (and, later, a song) about body dysmorphia, Eilish has never shied away from showing the darker sides of adolescence — and that vulnerability has endeared her to fans in a big way.

The fact that Eilish and Lil Nas X live extremely privileged lives doesn’t take away from their influence here. Rather, it adds to it. Someone like Eilish, say, who has all the elements of a seemingly perfect life (e.g., money, fame, awards) and yet faces the same mental illness symptoms as her followers models a welcome relatability. There is power in revealing those cracks in the facade. Fans recognize themselves in her struggles, and they admire her for, not despite, them.

The stigma around talking about mental health has existed for generations, and it certainly won’t disappear overnight. But each time a young person in the spotlight uses their platform to say it’s OK to not be OK, it matters. So when they’re recognized for their influence, like with the Time list, it’s because their impact goes so much deeper than just the money they’ve made or the work they’ve produced.

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