“Gen Z” and social media

Christopher Mims of the WSJ has talked to a few members of Gen Z and is here to define the entire cohort’s use of social media for us. As someone whose job requires me to deal with members of that generation every day, and who has for the past decade taught classes on negotiating the online world, I think some of what Mims so confidently asserts is right, but other generalizations are very wrong.

The first of his seven points is: “Gen Z doesn’t dis­tin­guish between on­line and IRL.” This is, frankly, a ridiculous thing to say, first of all because any universal statement about an entire generation is (as I have often but fruitlessly commented) indefensible. Generational cohorts — even within a given country — are divided in serious ways by social class, by economic condition, by culture, by education. The only people Mims talks to are university students and people who work in, or study, the tech sector. It is, to put it mildly, not safe to assume that those people are representative of an entire generation.

But to the specific point: most of my students are very aware of the distinction between interacting online and IRL, and I have seen a distinct upturn over the past few years in insistence on the value of being present when with friends and not always checking your phone. (That’s noticeably stronger among my recent students than people five or six years older. My 26-year-old son tells me that he is almost the only person he knows who makes a point of putting his phone away when hanging with friends. He’s trying to set a good example.)

Mims’s second point: “Pri­vacy on­line? LOL.” This is true to my experience, though (see above) I can’t assume that the young people I know are representative. But for what it’s worth, almost all of my students understand, in theory anyway, that anything they post online could come back to haunt them some day. I might add that every term I have students who are not on any social media at all, and when I ask them why, they usually cite privacy concerns as their chief reason for abstaining.

3. Face­book is out, In­sta­gram is in.” True, but Facebook has been out for a long time. Most of my students from a decade ago already saw Facebook only as a place to (a) post pictures of themselves for their grandparents and (b) find high-school friends they had lost touch with. Also, while Instagram is definitely big, not all use it in the “self-branding” way Mims assumes is normal. Many of my students have their Instagram accounts set to private, and I’m pretty sure that’s a trend. (Though it’s not really related to the privacy issues mentioned above, because people know that even their private posts can be screenshotted.)

4. So­cial me­dia is how they stay informed.” Also true, to my long-time frustration — though I am increasingly inclined to think that there’s no real difference between getting your news from social media and getting it from, say, the Washington Post, since so many journalists today take their marching orders from Twitter mobs. A small data point: Baylor buys access to the WSJ for everyone with a baylor.edu email address, but I have only ever met one student who has the WSJ app installed on his phone.

5. Video is im­por­tant, but it isn’t every­thing.” No, video isn’t everything, but it’s hard to overstate the centrality of visual communication (especially edited still images — Snapchat-style even when made outside Snapchat — and emoji) among most of my students.

Mims also quotes in this context a Pew report claiming that the “Post-Millennial” generation is probably going to be the “best-educated ever,” but by “best-educated” Pew means simply having the most years of education. And that is, ahem, not the same thing. But that’s a subject for another day.

6. Gen Z thinks con­cerns about screens are overblown.” Some do, some don’t. The really interesting question is this: Even if we could determine what percentage of them are concerned about overdependence on screens, which would be hard, how will those views change over the next decade? When today’s college students are 30, will they be more or less dependent on their screens, especially their phones?

7. But they’re still sus­cep­ti­ble to tech addic­tion and burnout.” Indeed. Mims quotes a young woman who says, “I def­i­nitely think we all know that we’re ad­dicted to our phones and so­cial me­dia…. But I also think we’ve just come to terms with it, and we think, that’s just what it is to be a per­son now.” I have seen, often, just this helplessness and defeatism, but I have also encountered many students who are not just aware of their condition but determined to do something about it.