In the US, UK, Europe, and around the world, young activists and campaigners from “Gen Z” are experts at using digital platforms to shape policy debates and put pressure on political and economic establishments. Taking full advantage of emerging online platforms, young people around the world are exerting influence on all kinds of topics, from racial injustice to the climate crisis.
This new generation was already extremely tech- and internet-savvy before the pandemic struck and quarantine measures dictated that their whole lives became shifted into an online realm. But just because they were comfortable using such a system, that doesn’t mean the system was set up to best meet their needs. The transition into an almost entirely digital lifestyle has underscored how the Internet of today must undergo fundamental changes if it is to allow young people to achieve their potential and – most importantly of all – preserve their physical and mental health in the process.
Social media for societal change
As true digital natives born into a world where the Internet has always been readily available, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Gen Z spent more of their time online (and especially on social media) than their generational counterparts, even before the onset of lockdown measures.
Those hours weren’t all idly squandered, either; as a highly motivated and politicized subset of the population, a majority of Gen Zers have used their online presence to lobby for systemic change. A poll conducted by French social platform Yubo found that 88% of respondents believe Black Americans are treated different to other races, while 78% of them have already expressed support for equality via social media.
Their voices are being heard, as well. One of the most popular platforms, TikTok, has evolved from a viral dance video sharing site to a political discourse forum and counts Gen Zers as almost 60% of its user base, meaning their outreach can even rival that of traditional media outlets. 16-year-old TikTok starlet Charli D’Amelio is a prime case in point. With 80 million followers, D’Amelio dwarfs the online backing of CNN’s primary anchor Anderson Cooper, who has just 10 million followers. Even the network as a whole boasts a mere 58 million followers.
Concrete examples of how Gen Zers have used their online arsenal to great effect include artificially inflating the expected attendee numbers at a recent Trump rally to publicly embarrass the President and organizing protests on subjects as diverse as affordable housing, healthcare access, utility shut-offs, gun control, police brutality and climate change.
Online environment not free from pollution
While coronavirus has forced many of these demonstrations into an exclusively online sphere, it has only entrenched the digital world as the battlefield of Gen Z. Unfortunately, that digital world is being found out as ill-equipped to support their needs in a variety of different ways. For starters, the Alienation Index – which is a rough approximation of how interconnected Americans feel in their communities and their country – recorded its highest ever score in 2018.
A migration towards a digiverse in which everyone is allegedly more connected but actually more isolated is a clear contributor to that outcome, especially given the rampant omnipresence of online trolls, fake news and privacy concerns in today’s Internet. Social media giants like Twitter and Facebook have been unimpressive in their efforts to create a community in which everyone – and especially young people – can feel safe and welcome. In that respect, the old guard would perhaps do well to take a leaf out of the book being written by the aforementioned Yubo, who have bucked the trend by placing the interests of their users ahead of monetary profits and enacted a number of policies aimed at keeping their young customer base protected. It’s unsurprising that Yubo has tripled the number of daily new users since quarantine measures were first put in place in the USA.
Aside from the shortcomings of the social, political and recreational side of the Internet, the pandemic has also highlighted how technology is failing the younger generation in an educational sense, too. At the height of lockdown, more than 90% of the world’s student populace (or almost 1.6 billion pupils) were adversely affected by school closures, yet 20% of students in the wealthiest nation on the planet did not have access to the tech necessary to continue their education. The UK faced similar challenges, with both England and Wales allocating funds and loaning out computers to equip “digitally excluded learners” with the tools they needed to follow along with their courses online.
Even those students who had what they needed suffered from the sudden change. Research shows gains made by US pupils in reading and mathematics will fall by 30% and 50%, respectively, in 2020 compared to a normal school year – and unsurprisingly, children from lower-income backgrounds will be disproportionately affected by the situation. Difficulties in assigning grades and counting attendance further highlight the problems facing remote learning for the US and beyond.
Old hands need defter touch
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Studies have shown that young people can retain between 25% and 60% more information in an e-learning environment than a classroom one, while the time it takes them to do so can also be slashed up by up to 60%. With the online education market estimated at $350 billion by 2025, it’s clear that some of those funds must be spent now to level the playing field for disadvantaged children and address some of the logistical concerns that are currently hamstringing both teachers and pupils from realising their potential.
Outside the classroom, the Internet must also use this opportunity to redress the way in which it allows users to be treated, both by their fellow consumers and by the platforms which supply them. While it might be tempting to assume that “the kids will save us” from ourselves, the responsibility to create online spaces where children and teenagers can learn, communicate and grow still falls on the shoulders of the older generation. In the long run, redemption may well come from Gen Z – but they need the help of responsible adults today to allow them to become the saviors of tomorrow.