When my daughter was 13, she mused, "I wonder what it's like to be a typical teenager."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"You know, someone who uses Facebook and texts a lot and stuff like that."
I was struck by how she had so readily bought into a stereotype about teens, even as she felt alienated from this description of her generation. Why do we assume there are "typical" ways for teens to use technology?
Like Millennials, Generation Z is most often thought of through its relationships with digital platforms. Gen Z has been described as the "smartphone generation" or the "app generation." While Millennials came of age in the heyday of Myspace and Facebook, Generation Z is full of smartphone-trained kids who prefer Snapchat and Instagram. Today my daughter is 20. She posts regularly on Snapchat and Instagram and browses Facebook to keep tabs on old friends. She never watches live television, but she loves BuzzFeed and YouTube videos. By most accounts, she's typical of Generation Z.
Defining Generation Z in this way, however, erases precisely what makes this generation unique—including the unprecedented range in how they engage with media and communication. The true commonality in Generation Z is diversity, particularly when it comes to digital media. I've spent two decades as a cultural anthropologist of digital youth culture and a parent of two Generation Z kids. I am constantly amazed by young people's unexpected variety of interests, subcultures, and ways of communicating and mobilizing that are supported by today's digital media.
My daughter is a computer scientist, surfer, world traveler, and educator. Her brother, just two years younger, has never used Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram, and instead hangs out on Reddit and Discord. He's an artist, digital rights activist, runner, coder, and gamer. Generation Z does not define itself by communication platforms any more than Boomers would define themselves as the landline and TV generation. The key to understanding what truly exemplifies a generation is looking beyond platforms to consider changes in behavior and identity.
A decade ago, I wrapped up a study of how teens in the United States were engaging with the first massive wave of social media, including Myspace, LiveJournal, networked games, and instant messaging. My co-authors and I described social media as a new arena for familiar dynamics of romance and friendship. We also noted something new: Teens were going online to "geek out" over interests like fandom and games that weren't necessarily shared by their peers at school. At the same time, most felt that meeting new people online was "creepy."
Recent research suggests perceptions have shifted. In a 2015 Pew study, 57 percent of teens said they had made friends online. It's now more the norm than the exception that friendships can be forged via online affinity networks, for every imaginable interest and identity. My research team has chronicled affinity networks, including Harry Potter fans who knit together, e-sports competitors, and writers of fan fiction about boy bands. We found that online affinity networks are no longer just for the nerds and geeks who dominated the early Internet. Kids today can find online affinity networks around every imaginable interest.
These studies are data points along a longer path of what mobile media researcher Misa Matsuda has described as a march toward "selective sociality." In Japan in the mid-1990s, Matsuda saw teens coin a category of chu-tomo, or "friends from middle school," with whom they kept in touch via text. Before mobile phones, these friends would have been inaccessible once they parted ways to attend high school. In the post-mobile world, teens have more options in crafting their social networks and friendships, and can continue childhood relationships that my generation would have lost touch with.
The march toward selective sociality intersects with issues of equity. A few years ago, my collaborator, Crystle Martin, looked at the social media of low-income teens in Los Angeles. She found that few had smartphones, and that even fewer had unlimited data plans. Even teens with smartphones didn't use social media very much, preferring the simpler (and perhaps cheaper) option of texting. The one social media platform these teens did use was Facebook, which does not require a smartphone. The recent Pew survey of teen social media use shows that, while smartphones have infiltrated most demographics, low-income teens gravitate toward Facebook more than their wealthier peers. Again, when commentators suggest that smartphones or digital media have common effects on today's youth, they erase or overlook the diversity of youth experiences.
It's tempting to assume that the greater choice young people have in crafting their social networks means they aren't encountering outside perspectives. Yet while online networks can amplify in-group beliefs and preferences, they can also connect you to people and perspectives outside given social networks. Just as people socialize across class lines through playing sports, online affinity networks for popular media like anime and e-sports are also contexts where young people encounter others from diverse backgrounds. These platforms can be a bullpen for common experience, but they can also provide opportunities to connect with people with different backgrounds and cultures.
My daughter spent two years of high school in Wales away from family, learning alongside kids from all over the world. Now she rarely sees them, but they stay in touch through social media. They are her closest friends, even from afar, and they anchor her commitments to world peace and justice. She's one of the lucky ones. All young people deserve to encounter such opportunity-enhancing and life-changing groups of diverse people, whether in person or online. Social platforms can support this kind of interaction, but they do not deliver these experiences on their own.
We need to get away from an obsession with how smartphones and social media define a common experience for Generation Z, and more on how they don't. Only then can we consider and develop policies, technology, and educational experiences that can amplify the positive potential of a radically diverse, rising generation.
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.
See more in this series:
Community Can Offer a Cure to Our Technology Addictions
The solution is not to turn off our phones; it's to develop social, economic, and political structures that address deeper issues of social disconnection and overwork. Read more
How Gen Z Is Solving America's Crisis of Isolation
Gen Z is remixing and repurposing old spiritual practices to maintain a sense of community. Read more
What We Can Learn From the Dramatic Dip in Divorce Among Millennials
Millennials may be proving that coming to marriage later, with less rigid roles, is enabling the sort of marriages that Boomers idealized—and too often failed to create. Read more
Is Gen Z Nostalgic About Nostalgia?
With access to seemingly unlimited social archives, young people still understand nostalgia. It might just be a bit different from their parents' version. Read more
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. Read more
Why Generation Z Should Give Religion a Second Chance
If our generation looked more closely at religious communities—inclusive, loving ones—we might be surprised by the care that we'd find there, no strings attached. Read more
How Gen Z'ers Are Remaking Religion to Suit Their Values
Many are no longer passing on the old sacred teachings, but they are imparting a new one: that everyone has not just a right but a duty to choose their own worldview. Read more
Gen Z Is the Least Religious Generation. Here's Why That Could Be a Good Thing.
The trend toward non-religiousness in this generation is probably here to stay. The upsides include increasing levels of tolerance. Read more