From messages to memes, today's generation of teens and young adults are well-versed in Internet culture. Although understanding the newest trends is easy and fun for Gen Z, parents and older adults often find themselves confused and uncertain about what exactly their kids are doing on their phones. When this uncertainty morphs into distrust, it can cause an unhealthy breakdown in parents' communication with their children. It's human instinct to fear what we do not understand—but there's a sharp line between engaged, critical discussion about generational differences in media use, and assuming the worst and stoking fear.
Recently, Jean Twenge, a psychologist whose research focuses on generational traits, published a book that seeks to define the character of this new generation. In her book, iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy, and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What It Means for the Rest of Us), Twenge paints a picture of a socially aware but also fearful, depressed, and immature group of kids who only want to be on their phones all the time. Drawing from interviews with 23 teens and national data from four longitudinal surveys, Twenge spends the book describing many parents' worst nightmare.
In our years of talking to over 21,000 students from elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools, however, we see an incredibly different generation—one that is not only deeply aware of the benefits and drawbacks of social media, but also actively empowered to use it critically and thoughtfully. The members of Gen Z with whom we've talked are remarkably perceptive about the ways that technology has changed their world, and have a much more nuanced view than adults give them credit for. As true "digital natives" who have been picking up new trends, apps, and games for their whole lives, they also possess the expertise and instincts to weigh the complex effects of social media in the world.
When it comes to understanding this generation, we at My Digital Tat2—a non-profit organization that helps young people think critically about their power and responsibility in a connected world—believe that a conversation about today's teens is most enriched, engaged, and meaningful when it involves the teens themselves. This summer, our diverse team of interns (representing 10 high schools from around the Bay Area) discussed Twenge's book and reflected on the "generation gap" separating adults from today's youth.
Critical to this conversation was the empathy that teens had for their parents, and their frustration with commentators and authors who they viewed as attempting to exploit their parents' good intentions through alarmism. They knew that their parents' concerns about technology and social media tended to come from a place of caring, even if those concerns resulted in conflicts or tension. Recognizing that their proficiency and comfort with media is not shared by older cohorts, they understood why adults might feel scared or confused when it comes to their children's digital lives. They took an action-oriented approach to this generational gap, focusing on "How can we fix this?" instead of "Who is to blame?"
"I can get why adults are worried about us," one high schooler said. "They're our parents, so of course they just want us to be safe, and the online world is just another playground. They don't want us online because it's one less place for them to worry about, one less place for their kid to maybe get bullied. But I think that we could learn a lot more from each other and about social media if we just talked to each other openly about it. I think we should try to see both sides of the good and the bad, together."
These young people felt that the complexity of technological change and its impact on the family merited more nuanced, open discussions that bring everyone's voices to the table rather than jumping to alarmist conclusions. In addition, the students understood the role of uncertainty around technological change. Given how quickly media options are changing, these students said it was important that members from different generations should respect each others' opinions and learn together, instead of simply shutting down all devices out of fear.
"We know that the negative sides of technology are real, we all see it," one of our interns said. "I do think that technology is causing new problems to arise that we haven't seen before. However, I don't think it's nearly as extreme as [Twenge] makes it, and we should be listening to each other instead of pointing fingers, so we can address the issues together."
New technology has the potential to open up our world, encouraging us to connect and collaborate, but also to shut it down by enabling us to live within silos and echo-chambers. This is something that today's teens know well. They are intimately aware of the pros and cons of media use—and in our experience, they advocate a mindful, conscious use of technology across generations.
"I think the goal is for everyone to learn to use their technology and social media consciously," one of our interns said. "I think we should all want to teach kids how to think critically for themselves."
Technology has already begun to revolutionize the nature of work, transportation, relationships, and more. As the world continues to change and be changed by technological advances, this coming generation's attention to nuance, emphasis on personal development and preparedness, and ability to adapt will serve them well.
"[Twenge] thinks that we are completely unprepared for the future, but I think it's because she doesn't realize that our future is going to look different from her present," another high schooler said. "We live in this world with so much new technology, and our future is going to have a lot of technology. It's different from what adults grew up with, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's worse. It just means we need to tackle this change thoughtfully."
Today's generation is equipped to handle the coming technological changes, and it seems to us that they feel empowered to integrate media into their lives and relationships in a healthy way.
Take some time to talk with the children and young adults in your life about these changes; their responses may surprise you. This generation of super-connected kids is more nuanced, more thoughtful, and more prepared for the challenges and uncertainty of the future that lies ahead than many adults give them credit for.
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 Generation 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:
Are Gen Z'ers That Different From Gen X'ers?
Generational analysis can be enlightening—but it can also be facile and sensationalistic. Read more
Why We Can't Judge Generation Z by the Standards of Previous Generations
I used to worry about this allegedly cosseted generation. Then came the shootings in Parkland, and I began to see another side of these young people that humbles me. Read more
Gen Z's Message to Parents: 'Put Your Phone Down.'
In our conversations with young people, it's become clear that technology abuse is rampant—among their parents. Read more
Parents' Phone Use Is Taking a Toll on Their Children's Development
I'm hopeful that the next generation of children, after watching us be fools for our devices, may decide it's not worth it. Read more