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Gen Z'ers Are More Cautious Online Than Previous Generations

They grew up with phones in their hands—and learned early not to blindly trust the Internet.

I’m a Millennial with a compliment for Generation Z. I think you're more cautious about the Internet than my generation is. You are more discerning about what, and with whom, you share your private thoughts and photos. Fox News, the BBC, and the Washington Post have all asked, "Is Privacy Dead?" Your generation doesn’t think so.

After interviews with more than 35 of you, and interactions with countless others, I see how different you in Gen Z are from many of those in Generation X (now in our late 30s through early 50s) and from us in Gen Y (aka Millennials, now in our mid-20s through late 30s). Generations X and Y marveled at the novel landscape of the Internet, embracing social media and rushing to fill the voids with our thoughts, "likes," and opinions. You who grew up with phones in your hands learned early not to blindly trust the Internet. You knew that someone who's up to no good might be watching you.

I was a young teenager during the early years of the Internet, when the digital world was still unknown and unexplored. "Don’t use your real name online!" was a phrase I remember hearing often. Thanks to the newness of the Internet, we expected privacy back then, with identities cloaked by usernames and avatars, instead of names and photos.

Then Internet use soared, from 16 million users in 1995 to 4.16 billion users in 2017—more than 50 percent of the world’s population. Our digital presence has skyrocketed, from Aol, to MySpace, to Facebook, to Twitter, to Snapchat, and so on. Over time, trust in the Internet grew, and we shared ourselves more and more freely.

That is, until we began to see the negative consequences. Growing up, Gen Z watched as their parents and older siblings eagerly shared on social media, particularly Facebook, sometimes with embarrassing or even dangerous consequences. Gen Z'ers became reluctant to share on the same platforms, and with the same openness, as those older than them.

Gen Z'ers see less value in filling every corner of the Internet with their private thoughts as we did. While those in Gen X and Y flooded social media with high school reunion groups, wedding photos, and personal thoughts, Gen Z has sought to use social media with more discernment and purpose.

Privacy breaches, such as the news of Facebook's relationship with Cambridge Analytica and Google's unauthorized location tracking, have also helped tear apart our trust in online privacy.

Because they are more guarded with what they share online, many Gen Z'ers are opting out of Facebook in favor of more "private" platforms, such as Snapchat, where they can leave temporary "snaps" and less-permanent digital footprints; they're also migrating toward private Instagram accounts, often known as using "Finsta."

Recent studies indicate that the largest age group of Facebook users in the United States in 2018 is Gen Y, ages 25 to 34. In contrast, as of January of 2018, 78 percent of U.S. Internet users from Gen Z, ages 18 to 24, use Snapchat. Among younger Gen Z'ers, Snapchat is also the most popular and preferred form of social media for American teenage users, with almost 46 percent preferring Snapchat, and approximately 32 percent favoring Instagram.

Gen Z is teaching us to think of our Internet selves as real—mechanisms whereby our personal thoughts, actions, and patterns, stored in an artificial body, are sold around the Internet. It is an uneasy thought. As a Millennial, I find Gen Z's dedication to privacy laudable, and important. The American public has been too complacent regarding privacy, and social media corporations must strive for more transparency. Though they're often criticized for living in a supposed bubble of ignorance, most Gen Z'ers do not underestimate the significance of privacy, nor the power of data and the implications of digital footprints.

I would like to issue a call for Gen Z and for older generations: It's time for you to take action. In California, the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 takes effect on January 1st, 2020, granting consumers "basic rights" regarding their personal information. Such programs represent an important milestone for privacy. We must value our privacy and fight for it.

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Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Understanding Gen Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.

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