Gen Z’s Biggest Legacy: Has Social Media Hacked a Generation?
I got my Instagram account in eighth grade.
It was one of the first steps in a direction that, I hoped, would make me more socially acceptable. As a homeschooler who was about to enter her first year of public high school, I was nervous, and I thought that having Instagram might make me more normal. My dad, until that point, had been highly skeptical of social media and banned it from our family; it was only then that he’d relented, allowing me to download it after he gave me a Talk about the Internet. Everything posted on the Internet is permanent, he told me. Nothing ever completely disappears. His insistence on approving every app that I downloaded led to future conflict between us, but looking back, I think he was simply trying to protect me from things he felt were there, even if he didn’t know what they were yet. And, frankly, he was right.
To put more security into our social media identities than in our worth as children of God is to ignore completely who we were made to be.There is research now that, in addition to paralleling with my own experiences, reveals the darker effects of social media, most particularly its long-lasting impact on Gen Z. Did anyone predict the impact of how a few apps could lead my generation into a mental health crisis? Could anyone have predicted it? Or, perhaps more hauntingly, did some people know about the potential effects that it would have on others—and simply not care enough to share?
I was born in 1999, the upper end of what would eventually become known as Generation Z.
Often mislabeled as “Millennials,” Gen Z roughly consists of everyone born after 1996 and, according to some sources, before 2012. (Specific years will vary depending on the source, but early nineties to early 2010s seems to be the rule of thumb.) The oldest Gen Z-ers are in their early twenties, fresh out of college and only just joining the workforce; the youngest are six years old. We’ve been called iGen and also Post-Millennials, a moniker that implies that Gen Z is simply a subset or offshoot of Millennials. I disagree with this label; we’re an entirely different breed.
Although Millennials often understand and interact with social media and smart devices, those in Gen Z actually grew up with them. My parents remember Walkmans and cassettes; twenty- and thirty-somethings recall AOL chats and VHS tapes; my peers and I will probably tell our kids about Fortnite and Vine. The way we use social media is different, too: while Millennials mainly use social media to share about their lives, Gen Z-ers often post to perform, sculpting their lives into digital storylines fraught with rules about emojis, commenting, likes. There’s a certain cultural and technological fluency that one intrinsically attains from simply being in Gen Z, a kind of camaraderie that comes with viral memes and funny videos. There’s a language, too—a complex, multilayered teenspeak that deals in space and visual imagery as well as syntax and semantics. This isn’t something that previous generations easily understand, which is why it’s often so easy for Gen Z-ers to discredit older people’s complaints—grumblings about avocado toast and “kids these days” often seem to derive from ignorant disgruntlement rather than legitimate experience. It’s impossible to reconcile both the allure and the destruction of social media unless you’ve grown up with all of its pressures.
But sometimes it takes an outside observer to gain perspective.
Several months ago, my dad sent me Jean M. Twenge’s article in The Atlantic, published in the September 2017 issue. Entitled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”, the article examines the social media habits of Gen Z, eventually linking the usage back to increasing rates of teen depression and suicide. “There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy,” Twenge writes. She goes on to note that cases of depression are on the rise, arguing that the research presented suggests that it’s directly correlated with “screen time.” “The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression,” she writes. Loneliness, fear of missing out, and lack of social activity are also correlated with “screen time.” Perhaps most importantly, teen suicide rates have shot up in recent years. This trend may not necessarily be caused by screen time directly, but, when one considers the relationships between screen time and depression, depression and suicide, it’s not implausible to suggest that electronics might play a factor in the increase.
The article alarmed me, not in its pronouncements about the state of my generation, but rather because much of what it says corresponds with my own personal experience. In high school, all of my peers—including myself—had terrible lifestyle habits, many of which could be linked directly to technology. One girl I knew claimed to take hour-long showers while she watched episodes of Dance Moms on her phone, which had a waterproof case. During classes, people constantly were on their phones—under the desks, during assemblies, after tests. Everyone I knew was chronically sleep-deprived; my friends and I frequently complained about how late we’d stayed up “studying” the night before, which meant we’d procrastinated on our homework by playing video games or scrolling on our phones. Even now, I still find myself staying up late in bed, looking at social media, even though I know I’m going to suffer for it the next day.
And, perhaps most significantly, my four years in high school were characterized by intense social anxiety, much of which seemed directly linked to my phone—texting response time, people who unfollowed me on Instagram, fear of missing out. While texting others, I was often “left on read” (i.e., people didn’t respond back), resulting in an inordinate amount of constant self-hatred. This mental chaos continued even more when girls from my high school, people who I’d talked to and interacted with, unfollowed me on Instagram. It might seem like a pointless and stupid thing, but in Gen Z, to unfollow someone you know in real life is the equivalent of stating that you don’t really care what happens in her life. And, for my already-fragile ego, these actions only perpetuated the questions: Did these people really care more about their followers-to-following ratio than they did about me? What did I do wrong? What was wrong with me? All of these were social issues at their core, but the subtle nuances of social media etiquette make for thin ice. Treading on it without falling through the cracks is time-consuming, agonizing, and, frankly, all but impossible.
The more I think about it now, the more I realize that social media took the issues I was dealing with, tricked me into thinking that having these accounts would help me solve those problems, and manipulated me into visiting the app over and over again in hopes of gaining the acceptance I so desired. Articles like “The Tech Industry’s War on Kids,” by child psychologist Richard Freed, simply confirm this theory; in fact, Freed himself goes so far as to claim that the tech industry uses psychology to entice kids and, essentially, “hack” their brains, prompting addiction through a method he calls “persuasive technology.” He claims that by employing persuasive technology, tech companies are intentionally using their understanding of the human mind to influence users’ natural tendencies and cause them to become addicted to social media. What scared me the most was his reference to a quote in a KQED Science article, one from a startup founder dealing in persuasive technology, saying, “We have the ability to twiddle some knobs in a machine learning dashboard we build, and around the world hundreds of thousands of people are going to quietly change their behavior in ways that, unbeknownst to them, feels second-nature but are really by design.”
On the surface, it’s simply business; if you’re creating an app, you’d want users to want to go on it frequently for extended periods of time. More engagement means more money. Once you dig deeper, however, and unearth all of the potential side effects—depression, suicide, anxiety, etc.—in addition to the universal impact, it becomes a question of ethics. What responsibility do creators have to their audiences? Did those who first created social media know about its potential effects? Or did they blindly stumble into something whose power no one could have foreseen? I’m more inclined to believe the former—the people who create these things are most likely smarter than the users for whom they’re making them, so they must have understood that what they were making would impact millions. Then again, they’re getting paid to keep you attached. Are they responsible for Gen Z’s mental health epidemic? Is Gen Z? Or is it simultaneously everyone’s—and no one’s—fault?
Most importantly, what do we do about it?
Freed’s article made me question myself, my own motivations, and my own priorities. What the piece made clear for me, more than anything else, was that every time we open Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter, nine times out of ten, we’re essentially just chasing shots of dopamine. We want to feel admired. We want to be adored. We want others to think of ourselves as accomplished. We think that through social media, the number of likes, followers, or whatever metric we use to measure success provide the answer to the yearning in our hearts for validation. By using it as a means of achieving human approval, we reduce ourselves to collections of chemicals to be hooked and manipulated, destined to ride the algorithm forever. These designs diminish our humanity, too: by making the measure of success the amount of engagement we generate, they invalidate our identities as people made in God’s own image, those He sent His Son to die for on the cross. To put more security into our social media identities than in our worth as children of God is to ignore completely who we were made to be. Because, in the end, the only thing that matters is whether or not we believe ourselves to be His children. Social media can make us lose sight of this.
And that, I believe, is the biggest danger.
Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that I’m not quitting social media. Not yet, at least.
Maybe this is simply a testament to how addictive it can be, but nowadays, I expend the most creative energy online. Why? To begin with, digital media fascinates me in its creative possibility. Composing Instagram captions has, believe it or not, helped me develop my writing voice; Twitter has given me access to a variety of perspectives and beliefs I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. I’ve met a few good friends online, and I love producing content for my blog and YouTube channel. This seeming contradiction of my simultaneous love and hate for social media and the Internet, I believe, stems from the fact that I’ve taken everything I’ve experienced online these years and, through these very platforms, tried to make sense of it; a boomerang effect, if you will. Because, as many pitfalls as it has, social media creates communities, careers, and creative opportunities. And while I do believe it has more drawbacks than it does benefits, I don’t think cutting it directly from my life is the answer. I believe that training myself to use technology in a way that honors God would be more helpful in the long run, because it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. I want to learn how to engage with the world, not run away from it.
At the same time, though, I’ve already pledged to myself that in the future, my children will not be allowed to have social media or smartphones until they’re equipped to understand and deal with their implications. Gen Z stumbled into this blindly, but now we’re tasked with the responsibility of making sure that everything—the crises, the depression, the anxiety—that’s happened to us doesn’t happen to our own kids. We’ve experienced these effects first-hand. And because we have this knowledge, we can—we must—do better.