A part of Gen Z is currently in the final phase of childhood. Compared to previous generations, options to connect with peers and family have increased drastically. Hence, this generation is growing up in a time of nearly universal use of online social media. Their ways of expression are increasingly dominated by visuals and a minimal use of words. This has profoundly changed Gen Z’s habits of communication, self-reflection and thinking patterns.

Our observations

  • Due to the rapid development of new possibilities to communicate (e.g. Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp), Gen Z’s (those born between approximately the mid-1990s to mid-2010s) habits to connect with friends and family have changed profoundly compared to only one or two generations before them (millennials and Gen X), who had limited or no access to these possibilities that are now most popular amongst today’s teens.
  • Other than the early cohort of Gen Z, those that were born in the second part of their era have switched from using Facebook to Snapchat as the primary online platform. While Facebook comes fourth in the ranking of most popular online platforms, the top three for teenagers today is made up of Snapchat, YouTube and Instagram. Even more so than Facebook, these platforms are visually oriented and less focused on textual content.
  • According to a report of the Bank of America, the overwhelming majority of Gen Z relies on new forms of communication, with emojis, social media and acronyms being the most popular (i.e. using 140 characters or less). Meanwhile, the frequency of teens’ face to face contact and phone conversations with friends is diminishing.
  • The fact that the majority of Gen Z owns a cell phone has become one of this generation’s defining characteristics. 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, and for Gen Z, their smartphone is their ‘everything’, as the majority would give up television, tablets and computers to stay connected to mobile. Moreover, media consumption for Gen Z is embedded in their daily lives; they are not even consciously making a decision to consume content. 45% of teens now say they are online on a near-constant basis, mostly connecting with their friends and family through online platforms. These digital natives are connected online about 10 hours a day.
  • Increased internet use, mainly of social media platforms, is pointed to as the main cause of the decrease in alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, working for pay and taking drugs in Western Gen Z. According to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), this generation, while still valuing friendships, is more family-oriented, though time is spent with family and friends mainly through online platforms.

Connecting the dots

Social, romantic and sexual relationships are increasingly experienced online, and sexting is seen as an alternative as well as a precursor to intercourse (as the BPAS reports). Snapchat appears to be a popular medium to facilitate sexting, because of its visual emphasis and promise of deleting footage within a few moments. Due to the opportunity to immediately connect and experience meaningful encounters online, teenagers are increasingly connecting online rather than face to face. Platforms like Snapchat, with its motto “the fastest way to share a moment” appear to be the perfect match for the teenage mind, providing immediate satisfaction of the typical need for kicks and the urge to satisfy their direct needs. Because of these new media, communication is shifting from being linguistically/physically oriented towards a more visually and short-text oriented nature.
Emotionally, youngsters are developing their self-image and individuality in the last phase of childhood, causing them to put more value on their own thoughts and experiences. Today, with the slightest effort, teens can immediately record and spread their every thought or experience in short texts, audio and/or visuals to an audience and expect almost immediate response, often in the form of approval or disapproval. In the past, most of a teenager’s thoughts simply passed through their mind without much attention or being remembered afterwards. However, a large archive of conversations and experiences is currently recorded. This archive of memories that greatly contributes to their self-image is increasingly built up out of short text and visuals.
Some psychologists fear a downside to this development, mainly because this will intensify puberty’s natural phase of narcissism. In this phase, youngsters need more cues than others in order to remember that not every experience or event is about them. As such, because Gen Z records every thought or experience and presents it to an audience 24/7, their narcissistic nature is amplified. Relationships dominated by contact through short texts and visuals, for example, can lack a sense of empathy and even reality. The texting and posting teenager shifts from being in a relationship with another person to being in a relationship with just themselves.

Without actual and substantial face-to-face time, the relationship becomes one with their own words or posted pictures and the screen on which they appear.
From a pedagogical point of view, there are some concerns about extensive communication through short text messages and visuals as well, pertaining to teens’ cognitive development. For example, some recent studies suspect that the current high levels of functional illiteracy (a lack of the necessary linguistic and intellectual tools required to adequately function in our complex societies) is correlated to the rise of time spent reading and writing text messages and exchanging images. This is because much of the communication is formulated in sentences with a maximum of 140 characters or no words at all, which bears little resemblance to more traditional forms of writing and reading (e.g. books or papers) that boost cognitive development. Dr. Aboujaoude, psychiatry professor at Stanford University, warns that the result can be an avoidance or oversimplification of complexity and exchanges that are reduced to decontextualized opinions, abrupt declamations, or rapid transactions. According to him, the abandonment of even acronyms (e.g. 3D = three dimensional, LOL = laughing out loud) by communication through images can be seen as a sign of language regression, with real cognitive implications.
Yet humans continuously lose certain capabilities that were crucial at some point in the existence of humanity, such as orientating and handling oneself in nature (e.g. making a fire, finding food, building shelter, determining a direction, etc.). Due to technology, many of these capabilities are now forgotten or only mastered for specific (often recreational) purposes. In the transition between an “old” way of living towards a new way offered by technology, the loss of these capabilities is often emphasized, however, it is still unclear what new capabilities we will gain. In the case of the profound changes in connecting with each other that have occurred within only two decades, the fear of losing the capacity to comprehend complex content and understand or acknowledge another person is a dominant voice in reflecting on these changes. However, history has also taught us that more positive notes on new capacities gained are likely to appear at some point as well.

Implications

  • In the last phase of childhood, teenagers try out all sorts of new things, often accompanied by risks. Because a part of this urge is now acted out in the virtual world, the consequences seem less dramatic, which is confirmed by a significant decline of teenage pregnancies, the abuse of alcohol and drugs. However, while the virtual world offers “do-overs” and often prevents one from coming to any harm (e.g. unwanted pregnancies), the real world does not. It is unclear if the reduction of the harsh lessons of reality in this phase of their lives will influence their sense of reality in the real world. Especially because it is also a phase in which the brain develops the competence to estimate long term consequences of actions.
  • Although there might be new valuable capabilities developed that suit the upcoming world in which we are fully embedded in new technologies, current education systems still require their students to learn in a more old-fashioned manner (e.g. comprehending theories that require reading books or listening to lectures), which is increasingly becoming a challenge in education. Along with the growing skill gap due to the rapid changes in the labor market, youngsters might increasingly turn directly to companies or start their own business instead of pursuing higher education, in order to develop themselves in a way that resonates with their lifestyle and offers a more solid perspective on a job/income.