Over the holidays, I sat down with my niece and nephew, 14 and 16 years old, to better understand how they, as Gen-Z, use technology and communicate. When I became an aunt, l promised myself to always try to keep up with the technology they use, and they promised to warn me, if l ever start behaving like an out-of-touch oldie. In spite of all my efforts, I am of another generation, Gen-X. My peers are not on the same platforms as today’s teenagers, I have most of my friends and acquaintances on Facebook, I post photos on Instagram, and send text via SMS, WhatsApp or Messenger.
This is what I learned. We ‘Google’, they ‘YouTube’. We write, they record. They search information audiovisually, whether for school work, self-learning or entertainment. They record audio and video messages, as a mode of communication and to document memories. In fact, sometimes talking in real life (whether in person or on the phone/video) can be uncomfortable. Text is an option but voice messages or videos are a preference. It allows you to talk without getting interrupted and you can take time to choose your words and ‘edit’ your thoughts.
Snapchat over Facebook (and all other messaging apps)
Facebook is for old people. They do not use it. And if they do, it is to join groups, such as for the football club or for dog-sitters in the neighbourhood. Messenger is simply used to communicate with grown-ups, such as their parents or grandparents. Instead, Gen-Z ‘hang out’ with their friends on Snapchat.
Snapchat is a multimedia App with 229 million users (half of US users are 15-25 years). This is where they connect with friends and friends of friends. Some choose to display their Snapchat name on, for example, Instagram, but make sure to always check who the person is before accepting a friend request. When meeting in real life, they can easily add new friends by scanning their Snapchats QR code with the camera on the phone. Snapchat is used to stay in touch, either by sending videos, voice recordings or text messages, the latter the least preferred option. By default the chat history disappears immediately after viewing and listening and therefore leaves no trace (if no item is actively saved).
Another feature of Snapchat is the Bitmoji personal cartoon avatar that you can tailor according to your individual characteristics, looks and fashion. You can then choose to display your bitmoji on an animated GPS map and see all your friends wherever they are in the world. My map (see image), only display my niece, nephew and I. However, theirs are covered with plenty of friends all over Sweden and beyond. It is a cool feature to share with your mates, but less fun if being used by parents that sign-up to Snapchat to keep track of their children (unless they deactivate it for certain people).
TikTok AND Instagram – both, but for different reasons
TikTok is a video-sharing platform that is both addictive and fun. It has 800 million users and one million views daily. People post short videos, between three seconds and one minute, with music and other features. As a viewer you are exposed to all kinds of random videos and can also choose to like or follow certain accounts. While more than half of the users (55%) upload their own videos, the rest just view others. My niece and nephew explained that they too make TikTok videos, however rarely or never do they post any of their videos in public. Instead they save them for themselves only, or share with a few selected friends via direct messaging. Gen-X, including myself, tends to share photos and status updates with all their friends on Facebook and often with the wide public. Few keep track of their privacy settings and a lot of information is available to anyone on the Internet with a simple search on the name. Gen-Z on the other hand, is actively using social platforms, but remains rather invisible to the general public. In other words, they make active choices not to share their life with the world and to keep their privacy.
Instagram is a photo and video-sharing platform with one billion users. Here you choose whom to follow and you can see what friends, celebrities and influencers do. While l post photos, as it was an old fashioned hands-on album, my niece and nephew do not. Sometimes they share momentarily “stories” but rarely or never a permanent post. Stories disappear after 24 hours and, just like Snapchat, therefore do not leave any traces (if you do not actively save as a highlight). This is exactly the reason they prefer stories. Posts are serious and pretentious, as they explained to me: Stories are more for fun and the fact that they disappear takes away the pressure of being perfect and judged by people’s likes, comments or lack of them.
Digital natives but not necessary digital literate
I asked my niece and nephew if they worry about their accounts being hacked and their videos or photos being shared without their permission, or ending up accepting friend requests by a peer that turns out to be a dodgy grown-up. My niece said she found catfishing scary (when someone takes on a fake identity, targeting a victim for abuse or fraud) and admitted that she was not sure she would be able to tell if it would happen to her. However, overall none of them really worried, they trust their friends and know better than sending private photos to anyone unknown. What they know, they learn from peers and influencers such as YouTubers and Vloggers. Instagram can be toxic with a lot of girls comparing their bodies with others. You need self-awareness and stop following those that make you feel bad and search for more positive influence, explained my niece.
The generational digital divide
Talking to these two awesome teenagers provided me with a bit more insight into their world. An understanding of their frustration when grown-ups complain that they are wasting their time online, while they in fact are socialsing or searching for information. At the same time, Gen-Z is described as spending more time on their e-devices, reading less books, consuming less alcohol, having lower rates of teenage pregnancies and being more well-behaved and less risk-averse. Socialising mainly online may protect them from reckless drunk behaviour or ‘in real life’ predators. Nevertheless, it does not protect against online fraud, harassment and violence. This opens up to many more concerns: digital natives are not necessarily digital literate; grown-ups, who are supposed to be the experienced ones to educate cannot keep up the pace nor can they truly understand young people as their own generation communicates in different ways and are not on the same platforms. In my profession, working with European-level advocacy for more than a decade, I see a similar discrepancy: policy-makers running behind the fast-paced online development, trying to regulate technology they barely grasp. So, how do we bridge the digital divide between generations and how do we better foresee future innovation in policy-making for it not to be obsolete when finally put in place?
However, these are topics for another blog post.