Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Gen Z includes anyone born between 1997 and 2005. Facebook was released in 2004. Instagram in 2010. Snapchat in 2011. Tik Tok in 2016. Do some quick math; Gen Z is the first generation to grow up exposed to these platforms during their childhood.

Having grown up as a native Gen Z-er and people-watcher, I’m going to share my perspective on this generation as consumers. Along the way, I’ll share some personal stories that provide context to the prevalent and unusual behavioral trends of Gen Z.

Background

When I was in middle school, Snapchat and Instagram were the new trends. At that time, these platforms were new to everyone so we didn’t think much of how we used them.

I grew up in a relatively old-school parenting household with a techie older brother. In high school, my family started pointing out my bad habits:

As I grew aware of my tech-enabled bad habits, I started observing those around me and quickly perceived it as toxic culture:

My Takeaways

For most of high school, I was turned off by my observations and began to resent technology and social media in general. My solution was simple: kids needed fewer phones and apps while growing up.

Especially due to the global pandemic, a phone-less world for kids is not possible. Once I accepted that the million-dollar question brewing in my head became: How do we cultivate a healthy childhood while technology is increasingly ingrained in our lives? We want children to reap the informational/intelligence advantages from having resources like Google at their fingertips while avoiding the mental health anguish that arises from virtual interactions.

Three Key Factors

1) Need for Instant Gratification ( + low patience & attention spans)

Gen Z has grown up with Amazon 2-day delivery and <60 second Tik Tok reels. This quick value delivery has become all this generation knows, so we’ve naturally lost our ability to wait. Notifications pose periodic interruptions to our onhand tasks, making it incredibly difficult to focus and maintain patience.

Mobile apps are constant distractions. Gen Z is so used to having our phone tethered to our hip, making it difficult to live in the moment.

2) Consumption/Vegetative Nature

While apps like Instagram and Tik Tok enable users as content producers, the vast majority of time spent on these apps is consumption-based. These big-data tech companies work for advertisers, not their users, and their goal is to keep us hooked. And since Gen Z has grown up intertwined with these apps, that is all we know. These platforms offer quick escapes from reality for short-term pleasure, making it easy to lose track of time. Spending quality time with friends/family has too easily been replaced with laughing for two hours straight to online content.

Nothing about watching 5 minutes of Tik Tok is that bad, but these platforms do such a good job hooking us users that screen-time continuously compounds, eventually at the cost of other worthwhile activities.

3) Evolving Communication Behaviors

Whereas older generations view these platforms as a means to communicate, Gen Z views them as core communication in themselves. Gen Z looks much deeper into online communication than other generations. Given Covid, these platforms have enabled us to remain connected remotely. But, assuming life returns to normal, we need to ask the question of whether these communication habits are something we want ingrained in every new generation. Do we want to replace going out to dinner with Clubhouse talk sessions?

Virtual communication is relatively instant. Whereas the common notion would be to open/respond immediately when receiving a new message, now people are adding depth to communication in terms of when they do so.

These added layers of communication are adding barriers to clear communication, making it more difficult for tech-users (especially Gen Z-ers) to vocalize their own thoughts/emotions and understand each others.

Photo by Dustin Belt on Unsplash

The Challenge

The first major question we need to answer is whether we want to stop/change these naturally occurring trends as technology integrates more and more into society. I believe we should.

Younger generations have already evolved so much from technology, making it extremely difficult to rid ourselves of these unhealthy habits.

The second major question we need to ask is how we can de-rid our cultures of these behaviors given that technology is already so deeply rooted in our society. I spoke with a notable VC investor, who’s focusing on decentralizing the internet away from big-tech & big data. He brought up a valuable piece of information: since human nature is so complicated, it’s unlikely that we can directly fix these behaviors and trends. Changing the underlying structure of tech that promotes unhealthy user behaviors in indirect and subtle manners may be our best shot.

The third major question we need to ask is how to appropriately balance the benefits and harms of the Internet. So many aspects of the Internet are intertwined, making it hard to separate good features/platforms from bad ones.

For many, the answer is that we should let nature takes its course without intervention. Others may not perceive the factors I brought up as being problems that need fixing. I disagree and think we should work on harnessing the good and minimizing the bad. We should continue to leverage the Internet but ask more questions along the way.

The Good

From one perspective, social platforms like those I’ve mentioned serve a purpose. They enable users as content creators to share their experiences with the world and provide entertaining content. In a sense, they’re satisfying users and making them happy (albeit for a short period of time). We should ask whether this is the right type of happiness? I don’t believe it is.

With Covid, companies like Zoom have kept people engaged and connected from afar. We’ve relied on these platforms for educational, social, and emotional purposes.

Finally, younger generations are great at discovering information and problem solving very quickly. We’ve grown up with powerful resources that we know how to use extremely well. In many ways, these resources are making us much more efficient and productive.

Future

As I mentioned, Gen Z is the first generation growing up with exposure to these types of resources, and in a sense, we are still in the experimental stage with many future unknowns. Who knows what Gen Z will be like in 40 years? Maybe we’ll all be fine and turn out similar to our parents’ generation. I believe that what is at stake is too important to ignore.

The B2B SaaS market has taken off in the last few years, and as a result, the human health market has been underserved. There are various reasons why the B2B market is seen as more attractive relative to the B2C market from an investing perspective, but many people forget the sheer magnitude of the mental health TAM (total addressable market). There is a strong need and opportunity, so I think we need more minds focusing on mental health and human happiness. Here are some examples:

Conclusion

By no means do I exclude myself from the issues I’ve observed. I’m right there in the middle of Gen Z and all our complexities.

My final question is the following: How will younger generations continue to evolve and what, if anything, do we want to do to change the natural course of tech empowerment? It’s not too late for positive change but it will need to come in more conscious efforts.

Gen Z-er || Boston College ‘23