Unzipping Gen Z
From a global pandemic to the Capitol insurrection, it seems Gen Z has already lived through a textbook’s worth of historical events.
February 26, 2021
Trudging through the West High doors, you spot a pair of students in a corner facing a phone propped up on a table, shimmying their hips and lip-syncing to the latest TikTok dance trend. Continuing down the hall, you nearly collide with a student about to repost a graphic containing information about Black History Month. As you get a pump of hand sanitizer while walking into your first class, you find your teacher disinfecting distanced desks. “Secure your devices,” your teacher says. Before the lesson begins, you slide your phone into your backpack, but it’s hard to focus with the buzzing of incoming news notifications.
For individuals born between 1997 and 2012, these are just everyday spectacles. Growing up in an increasingly globalized world with an abundance of technology at their fingertips, Generation Z is unlike any other.
In the era of COVID-19, previously crowded social events have foregone the crowd and moved online. As a result, digital communication has skyrocketed. According to a January 2021 Statista study, the first weeks of March 2020 saw an 18% increase in at-home data usage compared to the same period in 2019.
Despite online communication, feelings of loneliness and isolation due to physical separation from COVID-19 persist. Of 133 West High students surveyed, 48.1% said they “often” feel lonely, while 39.8% said “sometimes” and 12.1% said “never.”
McKenna Proud ’21, who marked “often” on the survey, hasn’t found online communication to be a sufficient replacement for in-person interactions.
“When you’re talking to someone in person, you can read their facial expressions,” Proud said. “[Online], you lose that sense of [being able to] tell what’s going on,” Proud said.
Psychology teacher Travis Henderson worries prolonged physical separation can have a detrimental effect on well-being.
“Social isolation is contrary to a lot of the things that are part of our nature, and as a result, it’s very destructive to mental health,” Henderson said.
Due to a decline in social interaction, more than seven in 10 Gen Zers reported symptoms of depression during the pandemic, according to the American Psychological Association.
Social isolation is contrary to a lot of the things that are part of our nature, and as a result, it’s very destructive to mental health.
Many Gen Zers fit into the 10-24 age group, which is “characterised by heightened sensitivity to social stimuli and the increased need for peer interaction,” according to The Lancet’s Child & Adolescent Health sector. Researchers found that the lack of social interaction may hinder the development of navigating social networks.
Joye Walker, math teacher and member of the baby boomer generation, believes feeling connected with others is especially important for Gen Zers during this time of isolation.
“I think personal relationships are just so important, especially when you’re a teenager,” Walker said. “You miss those people, and you miss those interactions, so I think it’s mentally tough.”
The lack of physical interaction caused by COVID-19 has greatly affected Samantha Croco ’22.
“I’m so used to being social all the time and always being busy,” Croco said. “I have felt so lonely this year and so cut off. I have missed so much from COVID, and I don’t know when I’m going to get my old life back.”
Even before the pandemic, it was typical to see a group of high schoolers conversing through texts instead of talking to the people beside them. Eleanor Weitz ’24 believes many Gen Zers’ affinity for online communication has made the lack of in-person interaction easier.
“We were all extremely affected by the pandemic, but Gen Z may have actually fared better than some others,” Weitz said. “We’re used to communicating via online messaging.”
For younger members of Gen Z, however, this may not be the case. Abigail Lee ’27, who used to greet people with a hug or handshake, has found online interactions to be a disappointment and believes some Gen Zers’ childhoods have been disrupted.
“I don’t think it’s the same anymore,” Lee said. “Kids should be able to be with other kids so they can have a healthy childhood and happy memories to live with.”
Henderson believes the absence of face-to-face interaction will particularly impact younger Gen Zers.
“[Social isolation is] going to have a big impact on the worldview of Gen Zers, especially those younger ones,” Henderson said. “Their little brains are growing so quickly that they’re sponging up everything that happens to them, and it’s shaping the way that they develop.”
World wide web
“You’re on your phone too much.” This classic argument frequently breaks out between caregivers and teens and despite being difficult to accept, may ring true for many members of Gen Z.
A Business Wire study found that 58% of Gen Zers cannot go more than four hours without internet access before becoming “uncomfortable.” As the first generation to grow up entirely in a digital world, the internet has made an everlasting impact on Gen Z’s everyday lives.
Clay Bopp ’22 feels the internet has allowed Gen Zers around the world to interact and become increasingly connected.
“[Social media] allows everyone to be more connected as a whole,” said Bopp. “Even though we’re all spread across the nation and even in the world … we’re all able to collaborate.”
Though there are benefits to social media, Gen Z also faces its negative effects.
According to Hiruni Sumanasiri ’22, users can create an overly competitive environment by only showing the positive aspects of their lives.
“[People] may be having bad days … and most people don’t want to put that on social media because social media is about happiness,” Sumanasiri said. “You’re trying to one-up each other, basically.”
The social media platform TikTok was the most downloaded app in 2020. With 60% of its users being Gen Zers according to Forbes, TikTok has now become an integral part of many Gen Zers’ lives.
Bopp believes TikTok content is more representative of reality compared to other platforms such as Instagram, which he feels often only showcase the highlights of a user’s life.
“With TikTok, you don’t have to be funny, you don’t have to look pretty,” said Bopp. “It’s allowed different kinds of communities to come together and make content. It allows you to be more of yourself.”
Croco shares similar views.
“[On TikTok], people are more open and share their struggles, highs and lows of life. Social media has now become a way to share your story and reach out to people all around.”
As per the ViewPoint Center, a teen mental health hospital, this authenticity may help destigmatize and raise awareness about mental health issues.
According to Walker, today’s social perceptions of mental health have changed compared to her experiences as a teenager.
“I think it’s much more socially acceptable to talk about those things,” Walker said. “There’s not so much of a stigma attached to having mental health issues as there was when I was a youngster.”
However, posting in online spaces leaves users open to harsh judgment.
The act of online shaming is commonly referred to as “cancel culture.” As TikTok influencers and ordinary highschoolers alike are at risk for being “canceled” on social media, Sumanasiri feels its harmful effects can last a lifetime.
“It’s like a person could do a million great things, but then one bad thing defines them for the rest of their life,” Sumanasiri said.
As reflected in social media’s hypercritical environment, Proud believes Gen Z’s greatest weakness is its judgemental tendencies.
“Generation Z is hotheaded [and] … very quick to judge,” Proud said. “If you don’t do something right the first time, we’re going to get mad at you.”
Instead, Proud suggests people should learn to inform rather than ostracize others.
“If you start attacking someone, the first thing that they’re going to do is be defensive,” Proud said. “If we … educate them first, then they’ll probably be more open to listening to ideas.”
While cancel culture can develop on social media, many members of Gen Z simultaneously use it to educate others and take action. According to Dr. Bogdan Vasi, an associate professor researching social movements at the University of Iowa, the widespread use of social media makes it an effective vessel for organizing action.
“What I discovered is that social media has a positive impact on the ability to … organize collective actions [such as] protests,” Vasi said.
West High alum Nick Pryor ’18 is the legislative affairs director for March For Our Lives Iowa, a youth-led organization dedicated to ending gun violence. He has coordinated protests and events since the 2018 Parkland school shooting and often uses social media to his advantage.
“With March for Our Lives back in 2018, Instagram stories were the biggest way for voicing events,” Pryor said. “It went from an Instagram story to [having] 300 people at the first walkout in the span of 24 hours of organizing it.”
However, Jason Del Gandio, a professor of communications and social influence at Temple University, believes social media can also promote “clicktivism,” a form of online activism that requires little effort from the user.
“[It] can also create a false sense of action. Getting a thousand likes or hearts is not necessarily the same as organizing a thousand-person protest,” Del Gandio said. “However, social media activism can achieve change and justice.”
Proud is one of many students who intends to make a positive impact through social media. She believes it is valuable in providing Gen Zers with a platform to spread awareness.
“Using social media to boost awareness about issues is one of the things that I’ve tried to do a lot on my Instagram because we have this platform and the power to speak up,” Proud said.
The extensive reach of these platforms can be used to activists’ advantage.
“An idea can now go viral across the globe in a manner of minutes,” Del Gandio said. “This collapses the boundaries between cities, states, and countries. It intensifies the need to act.”
Although the globalization of social media has positive impacts, its overwhelming amount of news content may reduce effectiveness. Alexis Njoroge ’21, who also posts about social issues on social media, feels it can be a tiresome way of receiving information.
“When I have the same audience seeing my posts multiple times and multiple people posting the same thing, it gets repetitive,” Njoroge said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people are tired of seeing [Instagram] stories … over and over again.” Pryor feels social media’s constant news refresh can prove just as exhausting.
“One downside with instantaneous news is that you can become burned out super quick,” Pryor said. “Every time you open Twitter, it’s just like, here is everything that’s gone wrong in the world in the last 10 minutes … and you haven’t stopped any of it.”
This constant stream of often negative news has created a phenomenon known as “desensitization,” defined as reduced physiological and cognitive reactions to real-world violence.
A seemingly perpetual dose of news about school shootings had that effect on Proud.
“We’re so used to [school shootings],” Proud said. “There could be two a day, and we’d be like, ‘Oh, did you hear about the shooting?’ and then be like, ‘Which one?’ I hate that, but that’s just what happens now.”
The news coverage on COVID-19 can be similarly draining, with daily reports of infection and death rates.
“I watch the news every day and am constantly hearing about deaths from COVID,” Weitz said. “Sometimes it turns into more of just a number instead of that amount of people actually being dead.”
To cope with this constant exposure to negative news, Gen Z has turned to humor.
For example, following the assassination of Iranian general Soleimani, many may recall whispers of “World War III” and the subsequent avalanche of memes that flooded the internet. Although this behavior may seem insensitive, Bopp believes it serves as a method of dealing with feelings of anxiety and helplessness.
“Our generation copes by trying to take the edge off with making memes and jokes,” Bopp said. “[They] make it a little less dark and dramatic.”
Weitz also believes memeing is something Gen Z bonds over.
“Memes are the language of this generation,” Weitz said. “It’s not a bad thing, and I do feel like it’s how a lot of us express ourselves.”
From record-breaking youth voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election to claims that teenagers’ viral social media posts helped sabotage a Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Gen Z’s influence on politics only grows as they age.
According to The Center for American Progress, the voting power of Gen Z and millennials is expected to equal that of all older generations combined as soon as the 2024 election. Courtney Juelich, assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, says this means neither major political party should ignore young people’s interests.
“Should a party work on mobilizing around youth issues, they would pull in a very important voting base,” Juelich said.
To appeal to youth voters, some politicians have prioritized issues important to young people, such as the environment and affordable healthcare.
However, Gen Zers have often taken matters into their own hands, whether it be due to dissatisfaction with policymakers or an increased awareness of political issues.
Walker has noticed this trend of increased political activism in her recent years of teaching.
“There’s been a big increase in activism and politics … it reflects what [is happening] in a bigger picture sense because I think that’s true across the country,” Walker said.
Of the West High students surveyed, 70.7% said they felt pressure to create change after the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests and Trump’s presidency, among other notable events.
“I think the last four years and especially now [have] given us a perspective … that all these things really do matter,” said Joseph Alarape ’23. “We can’t just ignore it … it affects us, it affects our futures.”
Pryor has been advocating for gun control since his senior year of high school and feels that recent events have caused Gen Z to become more politically active.
“The nature of experiencing problems for the first time or having some visceral moment that brings people in … creates young people in activism,” Pryor said.
Del Gandio agrees, adding that Gen Z has grown up alongside a confluence of historical events both from the recent past and present-day.
“Mass shootings become a horrifying social norm. Trump and Trumpism emerge, sparking a rise in hate speech, intolerance and anti-science,” Del Gandio said. “Meanwhile, the climate crisis simmers in the background with much of the west coast literally on fire.”
As Gen Z’s worldview expands, the pressure to act is to be expected.
“Gen Z is coming of age in an era when all the adults have left the room. It’s no surprise that younger people feel the need to act. The question isn’t why is Gen Z acting, but rather, why isn’t every generation acting?” Del Gandio said.
Despite today’s generational dispute over inaction, Walker sees similarities between Gen Z’s current push for change and her own generation’s activism during the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War in the 1960s. According to USA Today, modern-day issues such as climate change have made Gen Zers the most politically involved youth since that era.
“Perhaps the world that I became a teenager in is more similar to the one that [Gen Z is] in now,” Walker said.
Del Gandio sees political polarization as another similarity between the 1960s and the present-day.
In recent years, Americans have become increasingly divided over issues such as immigration and gun control. A 2014 Pew Research study found that the share of participants with a highly negative view of the opposing political party had more than doubled in the past decade.
In the survey of West High students, 60.2% said being on social media has made them more partisan, contributing to this growing political divide. Although these platforms allow people to see various perspectives, Proud thinks they simultaneously serve to strengthen users’ preexisting beliefs and push groups apart.
“In some ways, I feel like [social media is] making us more divided,” Proud said. “My friends [on social media] all have my same political beliefs. All the information that I’m seeing is also stuff that I already agree with.”
Social media algorithms use confirmation bias, the exposure and tendency to seek familiar information, to put users in groups with others that share the same viewpoints.
“Algorithms produce info-spheres and echo chambers,” Del Gandio said. “We get fed the same information over and over, reinforcing confirmation biases and producing deeper belief divides.”
On the occasion that users encounter information that challenges their beliefs, the effect is not always willingness to learn.
“Whenever I get a video on my [feed], I will not lie — if it’s a political opinion I do not agree with, I will hold down the screen, and I will click ‘not interested,’” Proud said.
According to Alarape, Gen Zers can combat the polarizing pitfalls and shortcomings of social media if they find a way to engage in open discussion.
“If you don’t agree with a person’s viewpoint … that just invites challenge, and challenge is a good thing in any discussion,” Alarape said. “If we become more open-minded and open to correction, we can move forward in the way that we’re supposed to.”
Proud also believes if Gen Zers find a way to come together, they can create lasting change.
“We have the power to change whatever we want to change as long as we can get our minds in the right spot … we all vote together, and we all protest together,” Proud said. “We are powerful. We need to realize our full potential and get stuff done.”