Saving Generation Z from the Social Media Zombie Apocalypse
By Roger Weber
Poor generation Z. Amid a time of cultural tumult, today’s teens, inheritors of our future challenges, are ever our cultural curiosity. Every few days another article lending another attempt at cultural anthropology of our wayward Tiktok generation. Combed through with a needle-toothed comb, dissected under a mega-zoom, and surveyed through X-ray glasses, one wouldn’t blame them for feeling a bit, eh, under the microscope.
Our collective observations are but an introductory point for subsequent hand-wringing about a generational apocalypse. And there’s a lot to be nervous about, at least if the studies and the articles are to be believed: According to various pieces, Gen-Z’s are addicted to social media, with short attention spans and severe screen addictions. They’re addicted to the dopamine rush from the click-click-click and instantaneous gratification. As such, their sleep schedules are messed up and they’re sacrificing their social lives for a near perpetual screen-induced zombie-like addictive paralysis.
Thanks to a 24/7-tech-based existence, Gen-Z’s don’t hang out with their friends. They aren’t forming relationships. And, as such, they’re afraid of growing up. They’re so depressed they’re committing suicide in massive numbers. They’re more tolerant photogenically but they’re the most fragile ideological generation ever recorded. Burrowed behind the safety of their screens, they feel hopeless about their prospects, and as such are the most politically radical generation on record. They feel disenfranchised from society even more than their millennial predecessors, and are less trusting and more fearful. They cling to each other for a sense of moral direction, and reject the lessons of their parents. Having never faced “real” hardship, they have a tendency to make mountains out of molehills with a general inability to distinguish things that are truly important from those they merely wish were important. The list goes on.
Generation Z are the guinea pigs showing us both the opportunities and the pitfalls in our social media-based new world order. They're the first ones whose entire existence has been awash in this new reality. Their struggles are easier to put in context once you imagine yourself in a body in which the 24/7 social media dopamine world has never not been the order of the day. While Facebook stresses everybody out, it’s made abundantly less destructive on the fibers of one’s consciousness when you’re old enough to remember a time when you could step away and breathe the fresh air. That isn't an option for the Gen-Z's.
Not only does the eternal social media landscape and rat race for instantaneous approval they eternally face breed competitiveness and insecurity – these are reported on extensively – but, perhaps more importantly, it has cultivated an endless relentlessness of interactivity that almost paradoxically has offered them very little sense of agency, autonomy, or ownership in the world. This is an entirely different kind of public square from what we’ve known in the past. Reddit, for instance, one of the favorite Gen-Z playgrounds, is amazing, connected, fun, and egalitarian. With no barrier to entry, anyone can engage on anything, and the scoring of anyone's opinion is governed only by whether their peers agree with it. It truly is a portal to the world, and it’s fun to seek the approval of one’s peers. But it doesn’t build the tactile confidence that used to derive from taking one’s place in a public square that carried with it a higher barrier to entry and a greater burden of consequence. There’s nothing quite like waiting your turn to finally get your moment in the spotlight, putting your reputation on the line, stepping up to the microphone, grabbing the sides of the podium, looking directly into the eyes of your audience, speaking calmly and confidently to them with confidence and gravitas, and owning the room to warm smiles, constructive disagreement, authentic learning, and healthy dialogue.
This new egalitarian ease of the internet has drowned out the processes that used to give people their sense of mission, purpose, and accomplishment in life, and it’s made it so the rest of us have no idea who to listen to. When everything is accessible, nothing is, because the kinds of efforts it would take to get noticed in the past no longer offer a value-add. And when everybody has a voice, nobody does, because, well, most voices aren’t really worth listening to. When the entire world is easy, quick, egalitarian, and faceless, and when reward comes not from a sense of genuine accomplishment but from instantaneous dopamine-fueled peer approval, it also runs the risk of being soulless and leaving people wandering the wilderness for their sense of personal obligation or practical achievement. It leaves many Gen-Z's feeling like they don’t have a voice, and like they can’t break in in a more meaningful way. All of the things that are harming their prospects are a natural follow-on.
While most of the statistics that define the differences in Gen Z are fairly subtle, from a few percentage points to 10 or 15 points different from past generations in one measure or another, one particular trend bursts off the page: As reported recently in the Wall Street Journal, the percentage of high school students who engage long-form content, such as books or died-in-the-wool hobbies, has dropped from 60% in the 1980s to 15% today. This is a remarkable decline.
It is said that the thought of being patient and sitting down to read a book for two hours and do nothing else is mind-blowing to teens. It can also be assumed that it will blow their minds that it may take them years to ultimately lead their companies or invent the rocket that will send humans to Mars. And when their minds blow, the lack of agency they feel by consequence may further compound their sense of helplessness and blamefulness. If the only world you've ever known is defined by 15-second reward cycles, how would you confront a wider world whose challenges are bigger than that? Likely not with a lot of confidence.
Whether this decline in longform activities is a cause or a symptom, or just one cog in a wheel of self-perpetuating dysfunction, doesn’t really matter. But it is an intriguing place to plug back in and perhaps make some progress in pushing back against some of the more destructive phenomena that are plaguing the prospects for Gen-Z. It’s possible that kids are engaging in longform activities less because there’s so little incentive to do so in an environment of easy entry and short attention spans. And it’s also possible that the lack of investment in longform activities is the driver of these trends in the first place. But getting engaged in longform reading and hobbies offers multiple potential benefits that, at least on an individual level, can break through the boundaries of Gen-Z’s technological-induced dysfunction. These hobbies can include reading, writing, or scholarship. They can include dedicated focus on art or music, on an at-home building project, the cultivation of a unique new skillset, or the toil of work on a task that mandates focus. Anything, really, so long as it entails dedication, time alone with your thoughts, and a viable work product, sense of obligation and sense of achievement.
The benefits compound. Longform hobbies can help distract from the otherwise endless focus on the churn of social media. They can show young people that in fact there IS life away from the screen, and can slowly help them unearth more healthy, deeper, slower, and richer replacement reward receptors for the dopamine rush of instantaneous social media gratification. And they can offer them the opportunity to see a sense of deeper identity in themselves that isn’t derived merely from superficial attributes like gender and skin color. It can give them a sense of achievement that ties back to our innate identity as a species as creators that isn't tied to the approval of countless peers on the internet over vapid musings and grievances. It can help build differentiated skills that can help them actually begin to meaningfully contribute new ideas and innovations to the world, bringing their inflated sense of self-worthiness more in line with the value of what they can actually create to benefit others. It can build their sense of independence. And it may cure them from the notion that anything longer than 15 seconds is boring, because, in fact, most things that are meaningful take time. And most things that are rewarding are such because they entail investing a sizeable percentage of your blood, sweat, and toil to them.
At the very least, if we're trying to identify the areas in which Gen-Z's differ most greatly from past generations with an eye on helping them achieve a more stable footing as they take their place as leaders of the next generation, it's this trend that's jumped out to me the most. It seems a natural area for easy attention to close a gargantuan shortfall in the ways young people engage with the world.
Ultimately, I don’t have an answer to all the pitfalls the planet may face in the coming decades. There are a lot. And I don’t have a comprehensive solution to how to “fix” the next generation, or even whether there is any fixing that is needed. Such a notion itself seems a little condescending. But cultivating longform hobbies, and doing more longform reading, seems a good easy first step toward easing some of the pitfalls that our new social media world has created for the young. We might help them discover bigger, deeper, broader ideas, grow a bigger, deeper, and broader set of voices, and lend bigger, deeper, and broader contributions that pay forward society's investment in them.
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