Staying ‘Inside’ with Bo Burnham: Generation Z, the internet and the mental health crisis

Staying ‘Inside’ with Bo Burnham: Generation Z, the internet and the mental health crisis

“Are you feeling nervous?
Are you having fun?
It’s almost over,
It’s just begun.”
“All Eyes On Me” — Bo Burnham

In 2018, a Pew Research Center report claimed 45% of Generation Z was online “almost constantly.” In the same year, Cigna released a report on the loneliness epidemic in America, citing Gen Z as the loneliest generation.

Neither report states that one is the cause of the other; as a matter of fact, Cigna’s report specifically affirms that social media use alone is not an arbiter of loneliness. But the report also shares insight that “meaningful, in-person interactions” seemed to indicate less loneliness.

For years, researchers and psychologists have been pointing to a shift in how Generation Z spends their time compared to previous generations. These young adults and teens are having less sex, drinking less alcohol and simply leaving their homes less than their predecessors. According to Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of “iGen,” “12th-graders in 2015 were going out less often than eighth-graders did as recently as 2009.”

What are they doing instead? The consensus points to the same time-vortex: the internet.

For those born before 1996, whose childhoods were either completely void of personal devices or who might have only shared a family computer in their formative years, the ability to “digitally cleanse” may come easy. But for a generation whose digital world is inextricable from the real world — as dizzying digital advancements continue while, simultaneously, pandemics and severe weather due to climate change keep mass populations indoors — cleanses are temporary fixes to a real and ongoing problem.

“If we’re spending less time together in person and most of the interactions are through this technological medium, it’s going to be more difficult for us to learn and to practice different ways of dealing with social interactions,” said Dr. Zachary Blumkin, clinical director of the Columbia Day Program and assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “We need to learn what it’s like to get rejected. We need to learn what it’s like to reject somebody else. We need to learn how to praise somebody, how to receive praise. And having that done in person can help us develop our emotions, our coping strategies and understand how we can better deal with stressful situations.”

What’s more: It seems Gen Z, a very self-aware generation, already knows all this.

Courtesty Netflix

Bo Burnham — the comedian who first skyrocketed to fame through viral YouTube videos in 2006 at the age of 16, just two years after the platform was created — hasn’t exactly dominated headlines and conversations on social media with his newest comedy special “Inside,” available on Netflix. But there’s been enough buzz from the young and very online that has permeated digital spaces, spilling onto the “For You” TikTok pages and Twitter dashboards of those who know when to log off.

The special is, at its core, a rumination on the relationship between the internet, the socio-political state of the world amidst a global pandemic, and one man’s subsequent descent into a deep and dark depression. In other words, it’s right up Gen Z’s alley.

The kids are not all right, and they’re online telling anyone who will listen with jokes. On Spotify, Burnham’s top track “All Eyes On Me” has hit over 21 million streams in just one month, with other “Inside” songs not far behind. Part of this success comes from TikTok, where Generation Z is repurposing the comedian’s work to showcase their own struggles — including “Bezos I,” a satirical number praising Amazon’s founder for his obscene wealth, and “Shit,” wherein Burnham sings of feeling like a “big ol’ motherfucking duffle bag of shit” atop an upbeat tune.

“I think one of the things older generations tend to do … is we minimize the issues that the younger generations are facing and sort of indicate that they’re too sensitive, too fragile,” Blumkin said. “But the truth is, we don’t know what it’s like growing up and being constantly bombarded by all that information. It’s possible the world hasn’t changed; it’s possible the world is even better than it used to be. But the fact is, they’re still getting bombarded with more negative information than any previous generation.”

“Inside” is nearly an hour and a half in length — longer than the standard hour for comedy specials. It was also shot and edited entirely by Burnham during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, alone in a small studio-style space in the backyard of his Los Angeles home that he shares with his long-time girlfriend, filmmaker Lorene Scafaria. In the special, audiences are invited to see the artistic process in between bits and songs as Burnham tests lights, cameras and microphones over the course of the year, his hair and beard growing along with the bags under his eyes.

Blumkin’s idea of a barrage of content affecting mental health is what Burnham’s special gets at; in its first half, there’s a teasing, played down sense of fun one can have on the internet. Burnham spoofs sexting, (“A White Woman”’s) Instagram and “socially-conscious” brands promoting their products amidst the social justice movements of the past two years.

It’s only after an eerie intermission that the amusement with the internet ends and the anxiety sets in. As audiences watch Burnham descend into a severe depressive episode — even after a concerning scene in which he projects himself onto his white shirt and listens to his healthier self unconvincingly plead for those feeling suicidal to “just not” — we begin to feel the effects of what many dubbed “doom-scrolling” in 2020.

Courtesy Netflix

“Welcome to the Internet” and “That Funny Feeling” are stars in this arena. The former track sees Burnham as the ringmaster of the carnival that is the digital world. Behind a pair of rounded sunglasses and an unnerving smile, the comedian sings of online recipes, horrifying news bites, Zooms, BuzzFeed quizzes and more, culminating in the apt chorus:

“Could I interest you in everything / All of the time? / A little bit of everything / All of the time? / Apathy’s a tragedy and boredom is a crime / Anything and everything / All of the time.”

“That Funny Feeling” plays with the list format as well. But rather than manically spotlighting the variety of the online world, Burnham’s folksy hit points to how inescapable variety at all points of every day gives way to dread. The comedian sings:

“Female Colonel Sanders, easy answers, civil war / The whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door / The live action ‘Lion King,’ the Pepsi Halftime Show / Twenty-thousand years of this, seven more to go / Carpool Karaoke, Steve Aoki, Logan Paul / A gift shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall.”

To put it another way: The longer you scroll and the more content you consume, the more the fun and doom on display in the digital world blur together to become one in the same.

“Much of the information [online] is negative, because that’s what’s on the news,” Blumkin said. “So whether it’s sexual assault, sexual harassment, mass shootings, pervasive discrimination and racism, or the denial of racism within our country, wars, our history, political issues; it’s such a large range of topics and [Gen Z] is constantly bombarded with it.”

According to Mental Health America (MHA), as of 2021, severe depression has increased .5% among the younger generation since 2020 — a total that jumps from 9.7% to 12.4% when considering young people who identify with more than one race. Suicidal ideation, too, is up among young folks, according to MHA, especially those in the LGBTQIA+ community. The report, like Cigna’s, also cites loneliness and isolation as the leading cause of depression and anxiety, issues exacerbated by the mandated quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Overuse of social media and the dependency on social media — which Gen Z was born with; they didn’t choose to have it — has really shifted mental health rates among young folks,” Blumkin added.

Courtesy Netflix

Burnham is now 30 years old, a fact he laments in a mind-numbingly catchy pop tune titled “30” in the first half of “Inside.” He was born in 1990, which means he’s a Millennial, but despite the age difference, Burnham seems to understand Generation Z in a way many in older generations do not.

His first feature film “Eighth Grade” (2018) follows eighth grader Kayla, whose painful anxieties about being a shy, young teen are exacerbated by her smartphone and laptop. Burnham, who stopped performing live comedy in 2016 due to panic attacks, said in a 2018 profile for The New Yorker that he wrote the film to explore his own anxieties. “Anxiety makes me feel like a terrified 13-year-old,” he told writer Michael Schulman.

And it’s important not to forget that Burnham — like his fictional Kayla and many folks in Gen Z — was also a kid “stuck in his room … [who]’d do any old shit to get out if it,” as he sings in his 2021 comedy special’s pivotal song, “Look Who’s Inside Again,” harkening back to his career’s humble beginnings on YouTube. “Inside” is as much about Burnham as it is the younger generation looking up to him. And he knows they’re watching.

Throughout the special’s songs, Burnham speaks directly to his invisible audience, and he seems to believe that many are Gen Z. In “30,” as he complains about growing old and out-of-touch, he breaks from singing to say to the camera, “Oh, yeah? Well, your fucking phones are poisoning your minds, okay? So when you develop a dissociative mental disorder in your late 20’s, don’t come crawling back to me.”

Courtesy Netflix

Similarly, in “Welcome to the Internet,” in his ringmaster role with hidden eyes on the camera’s lens, he sings:

“Insatiable you / Mommy let you use her iPad / You were barely two / And it did all the things we designed it to do / Now look at you / Oh, look at you / You, you / Unstoppable / Watchable / Your time is now / Your inside’s out / Honey, how you grew / And if we stick together, who knows what we’ll do / It was always the plan / To put the world in your hand.”

Then comes the maddening laughter.

In the 2018 New Yorker profile, Burnham attends a Social Innovation Summit in San Francisco, where he’s asked by Caroline Barlerin, then-head of Community Outreach and Philanthropy at Twitter, what he’d say to future innovators. His message is loud and clear: “I can just say, having worked with 300 middle schoolers over the summer, that [technology] is very important to them — and you really, really do have the well-being of an entire generation in your hands. God bless you, and I hope you do right by them,” he said to the members of Silicon Valley on stage and in the crowd.

Burnham has not spoken with press about “Inside,” so, while it’s hard to say for certain what his intent for the special was, there seems to be a trail of breadcrumbs in his recent body of work leading those who dig to a central message: Generation Z can’t take up the fight against climate change, the pervasiveness of the internet and the mental health crisis alone.

The young artist seems to get at this point with one of “Inside”’s final songs “All Eyes On Me,” which has now been used in almost 130,000 TikTok videos — some playful, some serious. The track, which features a monologue from Burnham about his break from live comedy due to his ailing mental health, is undoubtedly personal — a defeatist anthem, sung by a man in the pit of misery. However, the song’s viral success speaks to its relatability among a younger crowd.

The popularized verse online, meme-ified beyond comprehension, goes:

“You say the ocean’s rising like I give a shit / You say the whole world’s ending, honey, it already did / You’re not gonna slow it, Heaven knows you tried / Got it? Good, now get inside.”

Just like how the interaction between the internet, climate change and socio-political issues plaguing the country cannot be separated, Burnham’s deteriorating mental health in “Inside” is inextricably tied to the world around him, including the digital world — and so is Gen Z’s. As annual temperatures steadily rise despite years of warnings from top scientists, as COVID-19 highlights the wealth gap, and as we turn to the internet for merchandise, news, art and connection, America finds itself amidst a mental health crisis affecting its future leaders that Burnham ultimately shines light on with his funny-but-jarring comedy special.

“We know that mental health issues are biological,” Blumkin said. “But environment affects biology. So, if your environment is constantly bombarding you with information, and that information is scary, and that information leads you to feeling hopeless, leads you to feeling depressed, sad, anxious, angry — that’s going to affect your biology.”

To tell Gen Z to get off their phones and go outside is a complete dismissal of their lived experiences. It ignores the very issues Burnham highlights in “Inside”: income inequality leading to lack of access to health care; climate change keeping mass populations bored and indoors; the power dynamics within late-stage capitalism keeping the working class tied to phones and computers for school and jobs, that in turn help pay for food, clothing and shelter. Placing the onus of healing from these socio-political issues on the individual is not a solution.

Not to mention, those who have access, who are seeking help now overwhelm professionals in the mental health field. Blumkin said, “All of my colleagues and myself are fully booked, because we’re just constantly getting calls. And there’s more of a demand than ever, because I think people are really, really suffering.”

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So, what are some ways forward?

Burnham pointed to Silicon Valley tycoons in 2018, reminding them of the power they wield beyond the devices and apps they create. Blumkin, on his part, points to the health care system. “We need an overhaul of our entire health care system, including mental health [services],” he said. “And this needs to be not a privilege, but an actual right.”

In the meantime, Blumkin is hopeful for the future, because he says the research shows that so is Gen Z. He pointed to how contradictory feelings (like hope sitting beside despair) are typical of adolescence.

“I think a lot of researchers believe this: that it’s going to get worse before it gets better as the world reopens,” Blumkin said. “[But] I hope we can increase access, that we can support each other, and that, hopefully, it can get better and we can give folks the tools, because there are evidence-based interventions that can really help with a lot of these things. We just have to make sure people have access to it.”

If you are struggling with suicidal ideation, depression or anxiety, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-4357.

Top Image: Courtesy of Netflix