Zs are coming of age in a culture where missteps have major repercussions — saying the wrong thing gets you cancelled and #epicfails go viral. It’s not an easy environment to be a teen. So Gen Zs are looking for ways to experience failure, try on mistakes and explore vulnerabilities, without real-world consequences.
Just think of some of the most buzzed-about shows and movies in recent years: Insecure, Grownish, 13 Reasons Why, Booksmart and Lady Bird, among others. The protagonists of these stories struggled through academic screw ups, professional malaise, romantic failure and mental health struggles — and proved to be an addictive form of entertainment. “Failure TV,” as this genre was dubbed in a recent Teen Vogue article, lays bare the personal and generational challenges Gen Zs face.
Psychologists say watching fictional characters make cringe worthy mistakes and even crash and burn on screen helps us grapple with our own personal struggles. There is a line that can be crossed, however, between celebrating the messiness of life and making light of true mental health struggles, and some networks and studios are breaking the fourth wall to destigmatize mental illness. For World Mental Health Day, HBO created a short series called “It’s OK,” which analyzes scenes from popular shows including Euphoria, Girls and The Sopranos to explain the real mental health challenges characters are going through. A24, the movie studio behind Midsommar, partnered with digital therapy company Talkspace to offer viewers three free months of couples therapy (a nod to the abusive relationship featured in the movie).
Violent first-person shooter video games make billions of dollars each year. While we don’t expect that to change, Gen Zs are increasingly flocking to “empathy games,” which embark on the hero’s journey of conquering emotional challenges like loneliness and depression. Take, for instance, the Kickstarter-funded indie game Night in the Woods, in which the game’s protagonist is a college dropout who returns to her hometown and struggles to reconnect with family and friends. In Celeste, the protagonist has a panic attack mid-game and players must control her breathing.
Electronic Arts, publisher of major titles including Madden and Battlefield, is taking note: it will soon release Sea of Solitude, which centers on a young woman navigating a partly submerged city and fighting to overcome loneliness. “As we grow up we learn to hide our emotions. Having a good cry is often the best way to release that pressure in a safe environment. That moment when an empathy game reaches its bittersweet climax is the perfect time to blubber like a baby,” wrote one player on the gaming blog, Plus Mana. For some game developers the big idea is that these games will teach players positive life skills, like confidence and empathy, which they can use in their real lives.
Kids who play empathy-building video games grow empathy-related neural connections within two weeks.
Great entertainment traditionally leaves you on the edge of your seat, but burnt out Zs tell us they crave content that allows them to just zone out. This has given rise to a new type of video, dubbed “contentless content,” which has no plot or narrative, centering instead on hypnotic repetitive visuals. Brands including Google and McDonald’s France jumped on the trend; the latter created a mesmerizing animated video of Egg McMuffins being made: bacon wiggles down stairs, buns roll into toasters and egg yolks float through the air.
Meanwhile, Gen Zs tell us that audio feels like a welcome dose of chill amid the visual overstimulation they face each day. Thirty percent of Gen Zs said they’ve watched an A.S.M.R. video in the past six months, that’s the auditory genre that creates a brain-tingling sensation in response to certain sounds (whispering, eating crunchy foods). The genre has become a YouTube phenomenon, launching a number of video trends, from shaving bars of soap to teen boys role-playing as a romantic partner tucking you into bed. A search for “blanket A.S.M.R.” on YouTube returns over 2.7 million results, ranging from videos of fingers on soft fabric to someone making the bed. Expect to see more audio and visual content that eschews drama and cliffhangers for content that grounds, soothes and relaxes.
Emo Rap & Hope Punk
For Gen Z males especially, music is serving as a channel for exploring feelings of loneliness, sadness and anger. Hip-hop artists including Post Malone, Lil Uzi Vert and Juice WRLD architected “emo rap,” a subgenre which puts mental health and trauma front and center with no shame. Their stories of personal struggle are raw and real: Juice WRLD recently passed away at 21 years old after battling an addiction to prescription pills. Meanwhile, rock fans are turning towards emotional tunes, like “Dead Boys” by 22-year-old singer Sam Fender, which is about the suicide of his close friend (it’s been streamed more than 3.5 million times on Spotify).
Music isn’t the only genre helping young men embrace all their feels. The “hope punk” literary movement — which frames difficult stories through a lens of love, kindness, and everyday magic — has young adult novelists trading superhero tropes for high-flying feelings. The popular title, Deposing Nathan, for example, is the love story of two bisexual teen boys. Awww.
The New Pledge
While Gen Z girls tell us they receive a good amount of “girl power”-style encouragement, Z males say they’re feeling a bit lost these days. TJ, 18, in Lubbock, TX, put it this way: “Men don’t really get the same level of empowerment as girls do. This is why a lot of guys in today’s society have problems finding themselves.” Theo, 19, in Los Angeles, CA, told us, “Being a guy today is scary. I never know how to act. ‘Am I being manly enough? Am I walking manly? Am I dressing right?’”
In their quest to find themselves, Gen Z males are searching for safe spaces to talk about what it means to be a man today — and finding it in the most unexpected places: fraternities. According to a recent academic study of Greek life, Gen Z‑led frats are embracing a more inclusive form of masculinity, which prioritizes equality for gay and trans men, gender and racial parity, and radical emotional intimacy. So, what does this look like in practice? Consent workshops, partnerships with sororities to understand women’s experiences on campuses and weekly meetings where members share their feelings with each other. At one Iowa frat, each sharing session ends with the pledge, “Love and respect.”
Gen Z girls are more likely than their male counterparts to agree with the statement,
“I can be whoever I want to be.”