In brief Gen Z and technology
- Access to digital communications technology amongst young people is now all but ubiquitous in established markets. As well as the multiple benefits, there is, however, evidence that the digital world can exacerbate inequalities in the ‘real’ world.
- This is partly because the type of content accessed can differ between social grades, with children from poorer families less likely to be using the educational advantages the internet can offer.
- Whilst it’s true that media brands have more to compete with than ten years ago, there is no evidence that Gen Z have shorter attention spans, or that they are less able to concentrate than generations before them, despite this being a widely repeated myth.
- We shouldn’t ignore that social media has, in some cases, had a positive impact on aspects of mental health, with a positive correlation between social media use and developing identities, self-expression and emotional support.
- However, there is also evidence that social media use has a negative relationship with a number of other aspects of mental health, particularly anxiety and depression – although cause and effect are unclear. The most thorough studies end up saying the evidence is worrying but inconclusive – which is understandable, given that pre-existing tendencies among young people and their exact use of social media are so varied and inter-related that unpicking a direct causal link is incredibly difficult.
- But these reviews also conclude that there is enough evidence to make it something that we should all – government, platforms, parents, educators – take actions to mitigate, and that more longitudinal and experimental studies are needed to inform what we can do. The small number of studies of this type that exist, do suggest that taking a break from social media does improve some mental health measures.
- Social media has also become a new platform for bullying, with a correlation between being bullied in school and time spent online, although there is no evidence bullying is on the rise as a result.
- Overall, happiness levels among young people have been broadly the same since the 90s, before they had access to the internet, or even increased in some countries, for example in the US. It’s true that beneath these overall measures, some specific measures of wellbeing have decreased in some countries, including the UK – but the overall picture is of relative stability.
THE IMPLICATIONS AND THE FUTURE
A hierarchy of digital skills
For the most part, studies suggest that children from across the socio-economic spectrum generally have roughly even access to digital technology. But will this be a levelling force, meaning that in the future there will be less of a skills gap across groups?
Unfortunately, evidence on the different uses that digital technologies are put to by different groups makes this seem idealistic, and as technology keeps moving, there will be new ways to fall behind, with the least advantaged in society the most likely to do so. With something so intrinsically linked with the ability to purchase new devices and pieces of kit, and with parental habits and expectations still so vital, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever have complete balance across socio-economic groups.
Currently children from lower income families are less likely to be using the internet for learning and they will, therefore, be less likely to develop certain skills as a result. Whilst there is improved literacy in basic digital skills, schools and education authorities need to ensure that we continue to track the progress of children in a range of new ways. Developments in tech happen so quickly that what was advanced even five years ago is basic or even obsolete now.
To encourage digital inclusion we need to consistently encourage the educational aspect of the digital world, so that all young people can utilise the skills they learn. For decades technology has often been treated as an entertainment pastime, where use needs to be limited to do well in other aspects of life – social skills, education, outside play. We limit our children’s access to technology – social networks, no phones until a certain age – because we feel it makes them safer. In fact, as we will see in other parts of this report, it is sometimes even considered by teachers and parents to harm young people’s abilities to learn.
This is undoubtedly a risk, but depends entirely on the uses made of the technology. A simplistic reading of limiting use may just inhibit children’s learning in these areas by limiting their access rather than encouraging them to learn. Should using technology and improving digital skills be just as important as reading at home?
The Coaching Cloud – Case study
A concept called the ‘coaching cloud’ is currently being explored, which would use machine learning to guide people as they work, and advise them on how to perform their task more effectively, by analysing data from a large sample of workers and identifying the best techniques.65
Like advances in the classroom, it would allow for personalised approaches to on-the-job learning. Gen Z are likely to be in the workforce to see these changes take place, and their propensity for using tech may make them more suited to adapting.
A changing societal dynamic with technology – for good and bad
The future of education is beginning to be realised already, and we will soon start to see much more personalisation through adaptive software which allows students to work at their own pace, as well as the growth of AI in tech, with robot tutors allowing more children to experience personal tuition than is available through human tutors.66
This shift from human to digital or artificial interaction brings all sorts of upsides and downsides. It is undoubtedly true that people can spend so much time switching their attention between different devices that they have less time to spend together – which may be impacting on all sorts of social interactions, even the most intimate. Indeed, last year, the BBC reported research showing a decline in sex life in the UK, and linked this to social media use, an extension of the decline seen with the rise of watching TV.67 In 2013, the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) found that British people between ages 16 and 44 had sex just under five times per month. This was a drop from the previous survey, released in 2000, where men were recorded to have sex 6.2 times a month, and women 6.3 times. In 2014 the Australian National Survey of Sexual Activity showed that people in heterosexual relationships were having sex on average around 1.4 times per week, down from closer to 1.8 times per week ten years earlier.
Digital world as a positive platform, not an exacerbation of offline worries
The online world as an extension of children’s and teenagers’ physical world is such a new phenomenon that we simply don’t have enough data to fully grasp what kind of impact it will have on Generation Z. What is clear is that digital education must become a part of young people’s upbringing – informally, but increasingly formally through curriculums worldwide, as we outline elsewhere in this section.
Brands also have a role in shaping and contributing positively to the digital world. As just about all brands are now heavily focused on digital communications, there is an opportunity for them to harness the positive impact social media can have, for example, encouraging self-expression and promoting positive body image. As we outline later in this section, some advertising encourages self-expression and creativity by including consumer-generated content in their campaigns, such as apps with games and quizzes which promote their products while providing entertainment, and campaigns like Disney’s #shareyourears for Make-a-Wish.68
At the same time, brands should avoid contributing to negative aspects of the digital world: online adverts can be highly targeted and therefore can have a strong effect on what users think is ‘normal’.69 They must also ensure they are taking every precaution to avoid advertising next to harmful content, and monitor their platforms for any forms of cyber-bullying or inappropriate content.
The debate on whether and how the digital world should be held accountable has gained traction worldwide. How much, if at all, online platforms are responsible for the wellbeing of their users will become more and more important. Apparent watershed moments, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, will continue to put pressure on regulators, platforms and brands. There are particular questions being raised by those focused on young people’s wellbeing: for example, the Children’s Commissioner in the UK asks whether the algorithms and features that encourage long periods of use (auto-playing videos, rewards for ‘streaks’ of continuous engagement) should be viewed differently for content aimed at the young.
Only one trend seems certain – that the pace of change will continue to accelerate, meaning regulators will struggle to keep up, and there will be no settled endpoint or easy solution to controlling the negative and promoting the positive of our online lives.
An exciting time for brand strategies
But it’s not all about risks and downsides. Brands can and are realising the new opportunities brought by new technologies and a generation whose lives are so intertwined between online and offline. Advertisers and agencies need to continue to adapt creatively to different devices and viewing contexts, whilst anchoring each one into the same core idea and brand position.70 For example, Coca-Cola in India tailors content to users who don’t have the bandwidth to view rich digital content, by sending them a text instead.
Using geo-location and time of day, brands can deliver specific messages to their consumers, which will be more likely to stand out and be more useful to them. Focusing on shaping the results from online searches immediately after TV adverts have aired can show immediate returns from multi-screeners, and enable advertisers to connect them to extended content.
There also needs to be a stronger focus on relevant content when optimising digital advertising. There is zero credible evidence that Gen Z has lower abilities in concentration or attention than previous generations. But it doesn’t need this patronising ‘goldfish children’ trope to mean that immediate impact is more vital than ever. The changing communications context, with much greater competition for attention, means it is true that brands often only have a few seconds (often without sound) to make a connection.
SONOS using offline ads to drive search behaviour – Case study
Multi-screening can be seen by brands as an opportunity to enhance calls to action. An example of this was Sonos’ 2015 ad campaign to encourage digital searches. People who searched ‘Sonos reviews’ after seeing their advertising were presented with a page full of five star reviews on Google.
THE CURRENT EVIDENCE
Access does not equal inclusion
Having grown up in a world saturated with internet access, Gen Z are connected to their friends, family and world events at the click of a button: 96% of 5-15 year olds in the UK have access to the internet at home, while 49% have their own tablet and 46% have their own smartphone.71 Worldwide, youth (ages 15-24) are the most connected age group, with 71% online compared with 48% of the total population.72
This allows Gen Z the opportunity to carve different paths in how they use this technology, resulting in varying levels of digital skills. As technology becomes more crucial for education, employment and a wealth of daily tasks, there is a risk that some young people will be left behind. A suggested 300,000 15-24 year olds in the UK currently lack basic digital skills,73 showing us that access doesn’t equal ability online.
Overall in the UK, access to the internet is consistent across socio-economic groups within Gen Z. However, we see differences amongst those aged 5-15 from poorer households, who are less likely to have access to particular devices. Compared with all parents of 5-15 year olds, parents in these households are less likely to own a tablet (80% vs. 86%) or laptop (72% vs. 83%),74 therefore reducing the use of these devices amongst their children.
Gen Z’s personal ownership of devices is consistent across groups, with 42% of 5-15 year olds from poorer households owning their own smartphone, compared with 46% on average, while 48% own their own tablet versus 49% from better-off households.75
But the amount of time spent online is significantly different. On average, children aged 5-15 spent 15 hours and 18 minutes online in a typical week across 2017. But children in better-off households, spent only 13 hours 42 minutes, compared with 17 hours by those in poorer households.76
More than this, the nature of this time online is significantly different. For example, we know that Gen Z use YouTube to watch videos and clips covering a wealth of topics from gaming to music and their favourite TV shows. However, evidence suggests that those in better-off households are using it more for educational purposes, rather than simply having fun. For example, children aged 5-15 in better-off households are significantly more likely to watch ‘how-to’ videos/tutorials (48%) than those in poorer households (32%).
A similar trend is replicated amongst 12-15 year olds, with those from better-off households more likely than those in poorer households to say they actively look for news (43% vs. 30%) and to look for news updates at least once a week (78% vs. 61%).
With more news exposure, those children aged 12-15 in better-off households who go online are, therefore, more likely than those in poorer households to say they have heard of fake news (81% vs. 64%) and more likely to say they have seen something online or on social media that they thought was fake news (46% vs. 31%).
Taken together, what this suggests is that, while children in poorer households spend more time online, children in better-off households spend higher quality time, helping them to improve basic skills and prepare for the future.
Why might this be the case? As with so much to do with educational outcomes, the impact of familial abilities and habits seems key. For example, a recent study looking at digital skills amongst all adults highlighted that 91% of better-off adults claimed to have basic digital skills, compared with 62% of poorer adults. Fewer poorer adults claimed to be able to digitally manage information (84% vs. 96%), communicate (82% vs. 95%) or problem solve (73% vs. 90%), compared with those in higher social classes. Without this basic understanding themselves, parents will be unable to pass these skills onto their children.
A distracted generation?
A popular claim in listicles and articles about Gen Z (and Millennials) is that because of the technological environment they’ve grown up in this generation have a reduced attention span, compared with generations before them. This is picked up and re-hashed by advice columns for marketing companies,77 and even accounts from teachers.78 Some more specifically claim the exact amount of time that Gen Z can hold their attention: apparently eight seconds, compared with the 12 seconds of generations before them. Some others even make the claim that this decrease has happened since the generation before them – Millennials.79
But there doesn’t seem to be any solid evidence that Gen Z have shorter attention spans than Millennials, in fact the exact same statistics have been used about Millennials in the past. As our own report on Millennial Myths from 2017 highlighted, the idea that attention spans are getting shorter is not something that has been measured and quantified.80 Attention is not single-faceted, it’s a complicated brain function with different domains and types.
So, where does this claim come from? The claim often links back to an article littered with hyperlinks to other articles and studies which makes it difficult to find the clear source of the claim – and a hyperlink trail through other sets of articles and listicles ends at a study by Microsoft Canada’s Consumer Insights team.81 As discussed in our report on Millennials,82 this study used a combination of survey data and neuroscience to conclude that Canadians had a lower attention span in 2012. According to this research, the top factors contributing to a lowered attention span are media consumption, social media usage, technology adoption rate and multi-screening.
However, as well as talking about all Canadians (rather than Gen Z specifically), the study had no longitudinal data to support a claim attention spans are lower now than previously, let alone that they are lower in one generation compared to another. Additionally, the measure on attention spans was based on self-reporting and the key statistic picked up in the headlines – that attention spans are now eight seconds, compared to 12 seconds in 2000 – is not an original finding of this study. This stat is in fact from another website that doesn’t cite its source.83
So why, when there is no solid evidence Gen Z have lower attention spans, are clever people so quick to pick up this claim and re-hash it as truth?
It’s because the claim seems so plausible. Technology is advancing quickly and the fact that young people are now spending more time multi-screening (research shows that people are multi-screening more: adults aged 15+ in the UK spend 41 minutes a day watching TV while using the internet, up from 17 minutes in 201184) and looking at screens than generations before them lends to the idea that attention is divided.
Some second-hand evidence does indeed suggest a perceptions shift. A Pew study found that 87% of US teachers think that today’s digital technologies are creating an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans”.85 However, this has a hint of ‘rosy retrospection’ about it, where we believe the past was better than it was – and kids (including ourselves) were always well behaved and focused.
However, whatever the objective reality, in the same study three quarters of teachers agreed that the impact of today’s digital environment on students’ research habits and skills are mostly positive.86
In addition to those who teach them, multi-screening amongst young people is a key concern for brands. The average number of connected devices in UK households is increasing, meaning children have access to a range of devices that are often accessed at the same time. The abundance of choice in technology and media means we’ve moved away from the 20th century ‘appointment to view TV’ and desktop internet access, to ‘always on’, anytime, anywhere access, providing more content and information than could ever be consumed. This means the competition amongst brands for attention is fierce. But the answer is good, effectively executed content, not a blame game about the attention spans of young people.
This can be good news for brands, who now have more opportunities and contexts to get their content seen by their target audience. Also, while people are multi-screening, they are more likely to stay in the same room during TV ads, and watch the ads ‘almost by accident’, and are no less likely to recall TV ads than those who are not multi-screening.87
The dark side of tech
Mental health is an increasingly talked about issue, and is becoming firmly embedded in national healthcare agendas – although many would argue that it’s still not given the focus and resources it deserves. More people are being diagnosed with mental health problems than previous decades, though, as many have pointed out, this may not be as a result in a growth of actual prevalence, and instead could in part be due to the increased awareness and de-stigmatisation of the issue.88
A main point of focus within these discussions is about the effect that hyper-immersion in tech is having on the mental health of younger generations. There is a clear association between time spent online and some symptoms of mental-ill health – but it is less clear whether this relationship is causal.
For example, more than a quarter (27%) of children in the UK up to 15 years old who spend three or more hours on social networking sites on a typical school day have symptoms of mental ill-health, compared with just 12% for those who spend no time on a school day.89 It’s not just time spent that is associated, it’s the type of use. For example, a US study among young adults from 2016 showed that the probability of depression was three times higher among those who were active on seven to 11 platforms, compared with those on zero to two platforms – even after controlling for time spent.
An overall reading of the most authoritative reviews suggests that more teenagers today suffer from severe anxiety and depression, and that social media may be a contributing factor – but that causal relationships are incredibly difficult to prove.90 This is partly because there is a very real possibility that social media and other digital tools are being used as a coping mechanism for those who suffer issues with their mental health, rather than these tools being a causal factor. Given that part of the explanation for the general rise in mental illness diagnoses is greater awareness and openness, it stands to reason that those more often online are more likely to pick up on these trends.
But one of the most respected academics on understanding young people, Jean Twenge from San Diego State University, notes the very strong correlation over time between the rise in smartphone use and the rise in depression in the US and concludes: “The use of social media and smartphones look culpable for the increase in teen mental-health issues. It’s enough for an arrest — and as we get more data, it might be enough for a conviction.” This is echoed in the small number of truly longitudinal and experimental studies that have actively reduced social media use among participants, and seen an improvement in mental health as a result.91
But in this, of course, we shouldn’t forget that people are incredibly varied, and the impact of social media will be very different for different people. Social media has many potential positive influences on young people’s lives, such as increasing social connections, helping with homework and enabling teenagers to develop their identities and share creative projects. There is data which even shows positive effects of social media on mental health. For example, YouTube use can have a positive impact on self-expression, loneliness, depression and emotional support. Instagram also scored strongly on self-expression, self-identity and emotional support.92
And the technology has the potential to help with those who are struggling. Two very interesting experiments by Microsoft and Harvard University have shown how analysis of social media postings can very accurately identify those at risk of mental health issues before they present.93
Overall then, while there are conflicting results of the impact of social media use across the spectrum of mental health, the overarching feeling is that heavy use of social media and positive mental health do not go hand-in-hand, and while the causal path is very difficult to prove, active intervention to emphasise the positive and mitigate the negative is a key priority for the welfare of young people.
Another way to look at the impact of online exposure on well-being is to look at specific intermediate outcomes. There are several of these areas where it is claimed technology and digital connection are affecting the emotional and mental health of children and teenagers today, including cyber-bullying, exposure to inappropriate content, and the pressure to look popular and be online all the time.
Bullying has always been an issue among children and teenagers, but the rise of social media has created a new platform for this hurtful behaviour, which unlike bullying in school, does not necessarily stop when the victims are at home. In 2017, 12% of UK 12-15 year olds reported having experienced online bullying.94
There is also a positive correlation between being bullied in school and time spent online: global OECD data on school students shows that 17.8% of extreme internet users (those who spend more than two hours online on a typical weekday) report that “other students spread nasty rumours about me”, while among moderate users (1-2hrs online) the figure is only 6.7%.95 Again, cause and effect are difficult to unpick here.
However, it is not clear that bullying has actually increased overall with the rise of cyber-bullying: in-person bullying is still higher than online, at 16% versus 8% among UK 9-16 year olds, and online bullying is reported more in countries where there are already higher levels of bullying overall.
In addition, a recent global study by Ipsos into cyberbullying found that most cyberbullying is conducted by someone the child already knows, and a child is most likely to be bullied online by a classmate.96 This implies that cyberbullying is at least partly a new outlet for the issue, rather than being caused by the rise of tech.
Gen Z and happiness
The overall picture of the influence of tech on young people’s mental health is mixed. But is that reflected in broader measures of subjective well-being and happiness? Again the picture is nuanced, but the overall sense is that, actually, kids as a whole are about as happy as they were in the past.
Looking at the generations when they were the same age, the proportion of 14-17 year olds in the US reporting some level of feeling consistently sad or hopeless has remained fairly constant at around 30% since the 90s.97
For two consecutive decades (1990-1999 and 2000-2009) suicide rates in 10-14 year olds across 81 countries have, on average, decreased slightly among boys, from 1.61/100,000 to 1.52, but increased minorly among girls from 0.85 to 0.94. The changes varied more in some regions than others.98
Comparing Gen Z in the UK with other generations at similar ages on more general measures of wellbeing shows a mixed picture depending on which measure is compared: on happiness with friends and appearance, Gen Z is at similar levels to older generations, but on family and home, they are less happy.99
In the UK, overall happiness and confidence is very slightly down from previous year. However, if we look at specific areas like emotional health, there has been a more significant drop from 67% to 61% happiness with emotional health between 2008 and 2017.
However, research in the US suggests adolescents (13-18) are more satisfied than previous generations with their overall life, and across 14 domains of life satisfaction, including satisfaction with their parents, themselves, their education, and the safety of their neighbourhood.100 A more recent study by the same authors also confirms this: when asked the question between 1972 and 2014 “Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”, shows teens are now happier than they used to be.101
FINAL THOUGHTS …
Overall, as the President of The Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK has said, it’s unfair to blame social media alone for the complex reasons young people are suffering from mental illness. The direction of cause and effect and the myriad mediators and moderators all make this difficult to conclude, without more evidence. Humans are resilient, and adapt to new lifestyles quickly, with the ubiquity of technology being just one of the major shifts we’ve seen in recent years. And as we’ve emphasised throughout this report, Gen Z is a very diverse generation, and (as with people in general) will react very differently to the same downsides and benefits of technology.
However, this doesn’t mean we should be complacent about a changing environment – and should recognise the significant risks associated with being ‘always on’, and take active steps to mitigate them. The Royal Society for Public Health in the UK emphasises how this could, and should, be approached in content and platforms targeted at young people – heavy use warning pop-up messages, for example.102
But we should also not forget the positives. Just as with TV, there are many different experiences to be gained from online technology, depending how people use it: some studies show that passive use may reduce subjective well-being, while active use can enhance it.103