Connection matters for Gen Z, but they're not sure they deserve love

Global study emphasizes adolescents and young adults are so much more than the anxiety you hear about in news stories.

Global study emphasizes adolescents and young adults are so much more than the anxiety you hear about in news stories. (Zoë Petersen, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — More than 4 in 10 adolescents worldwide question whether they're worthy of love, although they deeply value person-to-person contact and relationships with family and friends, who are still the resources they most rely upon.

That's the finding of the first report from The Relate Project, by the nonprofit, nondenominational Christian organization Young Life, which surveyed more than 7,200 youths and young adults in eight countries to get a sense of what's happening to Generation Z and the younger Generation Alpha beyond headlines about their social media use and high levels of anxiety.

"We're all very aware of the anxiety and loneliness and isolation that Gen Z has felt, and other generations feel as well," Kimberly Nollan, director of research and evaluation for Young Life, told Deseret News. "That sometimes leaves us with the impression that might be their dominant story. We wanted to be able to tell the story of where we're seeing them thrive and where we're seeing relationships with adults in their lives — whether it's family or a trusted adult outside family that is helping their flourishing and well-being."

The research included both surveys and focus groups, the subjects all ages 13 to 24. The organization plans to release three more reports on different aspects of their flourishing or faltering in coming months.

"We initiated this project because we want to further understand the next generation and what makes them tick. We care deeply for them. As part of this, we want to empower young people to grow into the influential adults we know they can be, and we're excited to share these findings with others, so — together — we can help younger generations flourish," Newt Crenshaw, president and CEO of Young Life, said in a written statement.

He said the study revealed a "strong narrative of hopefulness. Young people face many obstacles, but they are learning resilience and bring a belief they can make our world better. Not only this, but as adults we are learning ways we can improve the self-concept and quality relationships of young people to help define this next generation."

The surveys were conducted in eight countries, including the United States, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and India.

According to the report, "Gen Z faces some unique challenges. In the U.S., social media is spreading high-risk stunts and misinformation; college tuition is leaving millions in debt. British youth are experiencing especially high levels of anxiety. And with global technology access, now that teens everywhere from Africa to India can 'do anything and be anything,' they can be overwhelmed with choice. But these challenges aren't slowing them down. Gen Z is stronger, more creative, and more invested in the world because of the hurdles they're experiencing."

Nollan said the researchers found three related issues impacting young people: self-concept, their sense of belonging and relationships. "As one rose, the others rose. As one fell, the others fell. High self-concept predicted the young person was flourishing.

"It shows that when we are able to create spaces of belonging, when we support and facilitate close relationships in the lives of Gen Z and they have an opportunity to influence the world and their community for good and feel they are worthy of being loved, those things together lead to flourishing," she added.

Impacting for good any part of that triangle in a young person's life improves all of them, Nollan said. "That's going to lead them to flourish and we want all adolescents to flourish."

Gathering the data

The surveys included a different number of participants from each country, starting with the U.S., where 1,994 young people were surveyed. The Mexico sample included 1,768, while in the U.K., 1,004 were included. In the Eastern African countries, a total of 1,498 young adults and teens participated, while the number in India was 997.

Per the report, "Quotas were set by age, gender, ethnicity and geographic region, and respondents were then weighted by gender to achieve statistical representation of the population in each country. Additionally, racial minority groups in the U.S. and U.K. were oversampled and then weighted back to their population proportions in order to allow for deeper analysis of these subgroups." The margin of error ranges from 2.2% to 3.1% per country.

The surveying was done in July and August 2023, recruiting from existing online consumer research panels and included two validated scales: Harvard's Human Flourishing Scale for adolescents and the Brief Resilience Scale.

Relationships count

The survey found that family relationships are the most influential, making a difference in how the young people face challenges, regulate their emotions, and in spiritual or religious beliefs. But a very high number of the young people also have at least one adult not related to them who cares about them and shows up for them. Among those ages 13-15, around three-fourths say they have both a non-family adult who cares about them and one they can count on when they need them. By the time study participants were 22-24, the number had dipped to 63% who have someone who cares and 56% with someone willing to show up when needed.

The number who have an unrelated adult who will show up when needed was higher in the U.S. than in the other countries: Among those ages 13-17, in the U.S., 78% had such a person, compared to 74% in both Africa and the U.K., 66% in Mexico, and 65% in India. For those ages 18-24, 71% had someone outside their family who would show up when needed, compared to 66% in Mexico, 65% in India, 64% in the UK and 49% in Africa.

The report said as they transition to adulthood, those with more education are more likely to have an older adult they can count on. "Pursuing education beyond high school — whether that's college, vocational training or something similar — expands people's relationship support network, providing them with an additional safety net and sense of security beyond family," the report said.

Significantly, the report said, having a lot of people in their lives was less important than having high-quality relationships.

The study also found 55% of the teens worldwide communicate most often with close friends face-to-face. Just 20% are more likely to use phone calls, FaceTime or WhatsApp. The other 25% use texts, emails, DMs or other digital means to stay in touch with pals.

Older teens struggling

One of the most striking findings in the report, the authors wrote, is the "dip in security, confidence and emotional connectedness among 16- to 19-year-olds."

The report found teens were at their most vulnerable between ages 16-19.

"For many parts of the world, that's the age range that you start driving, that you're having more independence, that you're taking on more adult responsibilities, that you're getting ready to either go on to college or into a job post-graduation. And that's a time of big insecurity for people," Nollan said.

That creates opportunity, though, she added, for adults to "lean in with adolescents even when they don't seem to be inviting that." Remain close, she counsels, "because showing up really matters."

The report said before age 16, teens confidently say they have people in their lives who love them a lot. That confidence drops among older teens, before bouncing back around age 19. By about age 22, it's back at a high confidence level. But older teens feel disconnected. "During transitions, a lot of Gen Zers are struggling with feelings of loneliness and loss of identity. They might grieve what they've left behind. The emotional toll can be significant. Even if, on the outside, they seem eager to pursue independence and autonomy, behind it all, they're also craving deeper connections and missing the old feelings of 'being known,'" the report said.

After a few months in college or on a job, that changes, right? Not necessarily, when it comes to friends. The study found that young adults struggle with forming strong friendship connections throughout their college years, or their early years of entering the workforce.

Parents and adults need to show up, said Nollan.

Of the finding that 40% overall aren't sure they're worthy of love — even higher in this age category — the report said: "Wow. This is a big one. If you take away only one thing from this study, please let it be this: Tell the teens in your life they are worthy of love. Not just your love, but God's love and their friends' love and romantic love and so much more. And they don't need to do anything to deserve it. They are innately and uniquely important, no matter who they are."

Who you gonna call?

Worldwide, young people turn first to family and friends when they need help. About two-thirds of them say they turn to their mother or a romantic partner as the primary trusted confidant. About half turn to fathers and siblings, followed by grandparents and faith leaders.

As they move into their early 20s, more begin to include spouses, partners, roommates and co-workers in their inner circle. But parents continue to be "an extremely important part of young adults's development," the report says.

It's normal, by the way, for teens to start pulling away from parents around age 16, as they start transitioning into adulthood and more independent lives. The report's recommendation is to encourage your children to find good mentoring relationships with other trusted adults "and give them space to be themselves outside of your relationship."

The bottom line for Nollan? For those who know members of Gen Z or Gen Alpha, "make sure we are giving those messages of you are worthy of being loved. And provide opportunities for Gen Z, Gen Alpha to experience significance, to be able to express their agency in the world by making the world a better place." Finally, she adds, "Be one of those people that they can count on to talk to about things that really matter."

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Lois M. Collins
Lois M. Collins covers policy and research impacting families for the Deseret News.


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