Are today’s students snowflakes?

The other day I asked an experienced university tutor whether the nature of undergraduates had changed in the past ten years.  Without hesitation she replied ‘Yes, they are much more needy.  They ask for, and expect to get, help with simple academic tasks.  What is more, half of them feel they have mental health issues and our university counsellors are overwhelmed.’

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff published The Coddling of the American Mind in 2018, which detailed the crisis facing Gen Z in the USA.  They found that their university students had come to believe three untruths:

*that they themselves are fragile and easily damaged.  This is why they need trigger warnings if they are about to read something a bit upsetting, like Dickens. This is why they seem angry if another adult refers to them by the ‘wrong’ pronoun.  This is why university speakers are regularly uninvited if a few students feel they may be upset by the talk.

Haidt and Lukianoff define safetyism as a culture or belief system in which safety (which includes “emotional safety”) has become a sacred value.

*that their own feelings are a reasonable guide to reality…no one is allowed to disagree.

*that life is a constant struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor.  Anyone in power tends to be evil and all minorities are right.

Haidt’s thesis is that smartphones are partly to blame because they have displaced other healthier activities and encourage introspection.   And parents are to blame for over-protecting their children even when they are at school or university – helicopter parents.  ‘Fearful parenting’ and the decline of unsupervised play has created a generation of children unable to entertain or look after themselves.

Jean Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego University, has documented the rapid rise in depression and self-harm amongst those aged 18-25 which she attributes to the internet creating loneliness and narcissism.  Depression leads to a pessimistic view of life (things have never been worse) which is miles from reality; Twenge shows that Gen Z in America think they live in the most misogynistic and racist time in history.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a survey of over a million 15- and 16-year-old students every three years across 37 countries.  School loneliness increased 2012–2018 in 36 out of the 37 countries. Worldwide, nearly twice as many adolescents in 2018 vs. 2012 had elevated levels of school loneliness. Increases in loneliness were larger among girls than among boys.  School loneliness was highest when smartphone access and internet use were high.

Social media encourages people to connect of course, but often in ways which are cruel and upsetting.  Twenge has teenage daughters and they are allowed mobile phones but no social media.  They can text and call, nothing else.

All the data shows an increase in mental ill-health in recent years – especially since 2012 when smartphones came out, especially amongst teenage girls.


Professor Susan Greenfield has shown that social networking in the UK is enabling teenagers to create a fantasy image of themselves. Our identity used to be generated internally; now identity is constructed externally as the product of the continuous interaction with social network ‘friends’.

Social networking feeds into the natural narcissism of adolescents but interestingly, it is also linked to low self-esteem (Tiggemann and Miller 2010). Social networking helps children to create identities which allow them to be more rude, more sexy, more adventurous and indulge in inappropriate behaviour. Sherry Turkle explains in her book Alone Together that the more connected you are online the more isolated you feel (Turkle, 2012). Social media provides an unparalleled platform for social comparison and envy (Krasnova et al, 2013).

A recent UK survey of night-time use of digital devices was carried out by the online safety organisation Digital Awareness UK in partnership with the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC). It found that children as young as nine are being woken up more than ten times a night by constant message notifications from their phones. Children are so addicted to social media that they cannot bear to turn their devices off at night so they sleep with them in their beds. This is causing sleep deprivation in both primary and secondary school pupils, meaning they are unable to concentrate and work well in class. One in ten youngsters aged 11 to 18 spend more than an hour on their mobile device after going to bed.

A universities survey by HESA in 2017 found that mental health issues were growing in universities.  Catherine McAteer, the head of University College London’s student psychological services, said: “When I went to university I got a 2.1 and was perfectly happy and if I got a first I would be singing from the roof, but the pressure for them today means many think anything less than a first is a failure.”

The rise in mental ill-health could also be a sign of people having greater awareness of services, and there being less of a taboo about discussing mental health.  In the HESA survey 26 of the 90 universities were able to provide the reasons students gave for requesting support. Most young people asked for help because of anxiety; the numbers doing so rose by 43% over three years. So the rise in mental health health issues in universities may be in some measure because anxiety is now classified as a mental health problem when it wasn’t before.

So these issues afflict both school-age and university students.  Parents should not on the whole buy their children smartphones until they turn 16.  Universities need to encourage greater resilience as well as providing support.

By Professor Barnaby Lenon
Dean of Education, University of Buckingham

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