Just as the printing press changed civilization and communication, the smartphone has similarly revolutionized modern society.
However, researchers debate the nature of the impact of smartphones, the Internet, and social media – especially when it comes to today’s youth. According to Pew Research Center, Generation Z includes people born from 1997 onwards, meaning that when the iPhone was introduced in 2007, the oldest members of this cohort were only age 10. Currently experiencing adolescence or young adulthood, Gen Z faces unique challenges within and outside of the digital landscape that heavily influences their lives.
A (digital) Web of Creativity
Maybe Gen Z seems lucky. After all, our parents didn’t grow up with the ability to skim millions of search results on Google or swipe through potential partners on Tinder. The web also allows us to endlessly collect and organize inspiration, especially through photo-sharing apps like Pinterest and Instagram. These sites allow creativity and discovery to flourish as users around the globe interact and exchange visual ideas. It is impossible to deny the countless advantages of digital connectivity, especially as our lives grow dependent on the devices we hold.
Gen Z creatives have found unique ways to integrate social media with art and other passions. Matt, age 19, is currently a student at the University of Waterloo. Last year, he attended ESMOD Fashion Design & Business in Paris, France. He said that “[Social media] was the largest source of inspiration for most of my projects … a lot of the content we had to create was largely influenced by social media and finding inspiration through Instagram.” Additionally, the accessible nature of social media means that anyone can have a platform to share their vision and craft.
Making Social Justice Mainstream
Aside from creative inspiration, social media has heavily inspired a wave of “digital activism” across Gen-Z. While the translation of digital activism into real-world action is debatable, youth are certainly becoming more involved in social justice due to online education and discussion. A study from Pew Research Center in 2018 found that around half of Americans had engaged in “some form of political or social-minded activity” on social media in the past year. And while the streets and social feeds last summer were filled with activists protesting against police brutality, this July will mark eight years since the creation of the “Black Lives Matter” hashtag and subsequent movement, pointing to the growing history of digital advocacy.
As a writer who aspires to make political change during my lifetime, I find social media’s impact on activism to be in many ways beneficial. Social media has undeniably made conversations on wealth, power, and discrimination much harder to ignore. This allows young would-be activists to connect to causes they feel passionate about, whether close to or far from home. For example, Jaz, a 21-year-old student at the University of Guelph, mentioned how she was “completely unaware of the injustices taking place in China against Ughyur Muslims. [My program] is criminal justice and public policy, and I didn’t know about the situation until I saw news of it on social media.”
On the other hand, social media has made taking a break from trauma and tragedy incredibly hard, especially for members of marginalized groups. I talked about this concern with Deneisha, a 20-year-old student at the University of Guelph. Next fall, Deneisha will be stepping into the role of Co-President for Guelph Women in Leadership (GWIL). When I asked her how she hoped to see social media used in the future, she spoke about “getting rid of performative allyship,” as most people are willing to share infographics on social media about justice, but many won’t commit to genuine anti-racist efforts. Deneisha told me that during the height of the protests last summer, “… Every other post [on Instagram] was George Floyd dying. I had to log off of social media for two weeks because it was so bad. It was really affecting my mental health.”
As researchers continue to study the effects of social media on the psychology of Gen Z, it is becoming clear that an increased digital presence may have negative impacts on one’s well being. A study by researchers at JAMA Psychiatry found that increased time spent on social media correlated with increased odds of developing mental health problems. Another study published by The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health surveyed over 12,000 teens from England, and found that those who used social media multiple times a day were more likely to report lower life satisfaction, happiness, and more anxiety than teens who used social media less often.
Trading ‘Selfies’ for Self-Esteem
Although topics like cyberbullying and digital safety are taught in schools, many kids still suffer from teasing, harassment, and discrimination online. Further, growing up in the digital age pressures one to assimilate to their surroundings. It’s easy to feel FOMO (that’s fear-of-missing-out) when you see Snapchat stories of all of your peers hanging out while you’re at home. Kids feel more pressure online, too. Today, much of someone’s social status is dependent on their profile, and comparison between selfies is leading to lowered self-esteem. According to Scope, a disability charity, almost half of 18-34 year olds said their social media feeds resulted in feeling ugly or unattractive. Another 30% reported feelings of loneliness.
Sydney, a third-year student at the University of Western Ontario, spends about 2-4 hours on her phone daily. She confessed that her screen time was higher during high school, which resulted in lower self-confidence. Sydney also noted that spending more time on social media led her to seek validation through ‘likes’ on apps such as Instagram. From the perspective of a young woman, being on social media can sometimes feel like a performance to achieve recognition and respect from your peers. Fortunately, the show doesn’t go on forever. As Sydney put it, “[The ‘likes’ don’t] matter as much to me anymore, and I think that’s just come from me growing older and kind of just distancing myself from social media; kind of indulging more in – this sounds so cliché – the people around me.”
A Balancing Act
Social media, then, is a double-edged sword. Users can leverage social media to organize political movements, build community, and inspire creativity. Amid a global pandemic that has made it hard to be physically close to others, social media has offered our world a lifeline. But as we teeter between using our phones to connect and using them to withdraw, we must stay mindful of how social media (and technology at large) makes us feel. Although Gen Z grew up in front of screens, we don’t have to become trapped by an economy of likes – take ample time to unplug.