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The truth about Gen Z

Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

October 4, 2018   6 mins

Zoe, 17, likes to switch off her phone and put it in another room so she’s not distracted. Sitting on her bed, she opens her book and begins to read. “I’ve really got into actual books, they are tangible, real and my imagination can run wild,” she says, with a geunine sense of wonder. She consumes anything from novels to non-fiction – especially works on feminism and art.

She used to purchase her items on Amazon but “that took loooong, like 24 hours to be delivered”, so she’s started going to her local library: “It’s great, the books are just there waiting for you.” Uploading a ‘shelfie’ of current reading material has become a popular status update amongst her friends.

Zoe’s generation is rediscovering books in the same way that Millennials discovered vinyl; the difference is that the former are increasingly doing it as a way of logging off from their smartphones. Last year, the psychologist Jean Twenge persuasively argued in The Atlantic that the device had destroyed a generation – but was Twenge too hasty in that conclusion?

Zoe is a member of Generation Z (those born between 1997-2010), who are very different from their Millennial predecessors (those born between 1981-1996). It is often remarked that whereas Millennials came of age in the smartphone era, Generation Z are the social media generation. But the real distinction is that Gen Z are the ones who can’t remember Myspace, think Facebook is for their parents and see the internet primarily as a video medium (using YouTube rather than Google to find something out).

If Facebook and Twitter turned Millennials into commentators, then Snapchat and Instagram have turned Gen Z into broadcasters and storytellers. The average Gen Z’ers have had a smartphone since they were 13, which means they have had the misfortune of living most of their adolescence on-line.

Babyboomers are actually the fastest growing demographic on social media, revelling in the sensation of greater connectivity, but Gen Z – who have lived its realities and its damaging impact on their time and mental health – are the ones questioning the point of it all. In the US, researchers at the University of Chicago found that 58% of teens said that they had voluntarily taken a break from social platforms in the last year.

In the same way that those who grew up with multiple TV channels now find the unlimited choice rather mundane, many teenagers feel they’ve reached iPhone saturation point. They speak of being “phone-bored”; the feeling you get when you find yourself endlessly and aimlessly scrolling through your apps. Social media, as one 16-year-old boy put it to me, “cannot make dull people interesting, plus there’s only so many funny cat videos you can watch”. If such platforms thrive on keeping your attention, are they losing the attention of the young?

Some teenagers are logging off, others are embracing the novelty and freedom of “dumb phones”, such as the deliberately basic Nokia 3310, but it would be wrong to describe Gen Z as neo-luddites. They are, however, developing a very sophisticated and obsessional interest in their data and privacy. Gen Z did not need the Cambridge Analytica revelations to open their eyes to the fact that ‘if the service is free, you are the product’. Unlike their elders, they have been aware of it since their tweens. They have been curating, collating and uploading material for their on-line brand and filtering and ‘spinning’ their personal narratives for at least half of their life.

Snapchat is their favoured app precisely because the content disappears after 10 seconds, although many find the Snapmap feature (locating the live whereabouts of their friends) a bit creepy. Many have both private and a public Instagram, and some have multiple profiles to reflect their many passions, fantasties and, increasingly, identities. Many opt not to use their real name or email addresses to access their platforms.

Gen Z are also using social media in more proactive, communitarian ways. While we can easily dismiss the virtue-signalling ‘clicktivism’ of Millennials (hashtags are the modern-day equivalent of pin badges), Gen Z, instinctively netcitizens, are going beyond this. Take, or example, the survivors and campaigners that emerged out of the Parkland shooting tragedy in the US.

Though themselves too young to vote, their on-line campaign, which began as #neveragain, spiralled into a GoFundMe that raised four million dollars, a national school walkout and companies from Delta to Hertz cutting ties with the NRA. It was remarkable in its speed, penetration and tactics – not to mention far more effective in pressing for change in gun controls than years of conventional consciousness-raising.

Online campaigning for communitarian interests may be a minority sport, but commercial transactions for private gain are where Gen Z is really showing tech intiative. It is estimated that over 70% of today’s teenagers are making their own pocket-money. And they are not doing a paper round or waitressing like previous generations, but selling goods, clothes or organising networks and events on social media. Depop, which has over eight million users, offers their mostly young subscribers a cross between Ebay and Instagram, enabling members to ‘flip’ secondhand clothes and trainers.

Many make a tidy profit and many more are learning a great deal about accountancy, photo-editing and marketing in the process. Scroll through the Depop markeplace and you will find teenagers exhibiting their items as if they were a fashion feature in Vogue. Depop now offers mentoring and support to would-be sellers, helping them to maxmise their market’s potential.

Companies have realised that the only way to reach this adblocker generation – one that is unmoved by traditional airbrushed celebrity-endorsed advertising – is to sell their products via ‘influencers’ on social media. But more than this, companies are seeing the value of ‘micro-influencers’; those with tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands of followers. These are increasingly likely to get traction with a generation that prizes intimacy and authenticity.

This generation watches less than an hour of television a day, but four hours of YouTube. The popularity of vloggers lies not in their offer of escapism but their promise of an education (in whatever you are interested in, from how to code to how to apply eyeliner). YouTubers may be the new celebrity class to their millions of followers, but the truth is that all members of Generation Z consider themselves ‘influencers’. That is the agency and perspective that the smartphone has given them.

But could it be that the touch-screen is destroying their sense of touch? A recent survey found that 16-18 year olds prefer sexting to actual sex, with 84% admitting to flirting and over a third confessing they had sent a sexual or nude image on their phones.

It appears that this generation is on a continual loop of digital foreplay, preferring virtual to real interaction. They are also less likely to indulge in the traditional means of social lubrication that often underpin such trysts. In a survey done by the Office of National Statistics, less than half of UK 18-24 year olds had consumed alcohol in the last week, compared with 66% amongst the same age group in 2005.

‘Sober socials’ are now mainstream on university campuses and teenage pregnancy is now at its lowest rates for decades, but should we really be surprised, given that every bar a teenager walks into and every bed that they consider lying in now has a surveillance and recording device nearby? The potential for social shaming through video (not just photos) is so pervasive that it’s no wonder that this generation are sensible and unrebellious.

The iPhone camera has achieved what years of sexual and drug education failed to do; prevented deviancy where public shaming is the ultimate deterrent. Teenagers live in fear of their misdemeanours being broadcast and will therefore do anything to maintain their brand. It is, however, this pressure to control other people’s perception of them which is also leading to record levels of depression and anxiety.

Kids already groan about online ‘sharenting’. An average child in the UK has over 1,500 images of themselves shared on social media before they are five years old. How long will it be before before they start to use GDPR to remove the material?

“My mum needs to learn how to use social media properly,” said one 15-year-old girl I interviewed, “she doesn’t understand that what she posts about me I’m stuck with forever.”

There is a new slang word doing the rounds in the primary playground lately; Tapass. It is what the kids call adults who are on their phone too much. If you think your child spends too much time on their phone, chances are they think the same about you.

Far from destroying a generation, the smartphone has conditioned them in sophisticated, surprising and exciting ways the older ones are only really beginning to understand. And what they learn now will shape them in the future – whether as consumers, activists, voters or entrepreneurs.

Eliza Filby is a speaker, writer & consultant specialising in the history of generations and the evolution of contemporary values.


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