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.
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.
- Example: I had my middle-school crush. She liked me, I liked her. We were friendly in class but didn’t know each other that well, so we broke the ice over Snapchat and began talking. Fast-forward 6-ish weeks later and it had quickly devolved into in-depth conversations via Snapchat but little to no interaction in person.
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:
- Reading for 5 minutes before getting distracted by my phone
- Scrolling through Instagram while sitting with family
- Losing patience too quickly when learning to code
As I grew aware of my tech-enabled bad habits, I started observing those around me and quickly perceived it as toxic culture:
- People going places just to take pictures for their social media accounts. ( at concerts, too many people recording the concert than actually watching/dancing)
- People gossiping about an Instagram post or something flirty they had received on Snapchat from a “crush”
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.
- Example: We want a kid who learns to code online at the age of 12 but doesn't suffer from FOMO from missing out on friends’ Instagram posts.
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.
- Example: When I study in my college’s library, every 5–10 minutes students look away from their computer or textbook towards their phones. It’s pretty easy to tell from thumb motions that if they’re sliding up and down, it’s likely Instagram or Tik Tok. If their thumbs are swiping left and right, probably Tinder or Bumble.
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.
- Example: Tik Tok does such a good job providing user-relevant content that in any boring moment, people turn to it for quick amusement. As my roommates and I try to navigate dull college weekends during a Covid-19 world, we often find ourselves sitting in the common room scrolling through Tik Tok’s rather than having organic conversations. It’s shifted from us telling jokes or funny stories to saying “Hey look at this Tik Tok”
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?
- Example: A common trend among Gen Z Snapchat users is strategizing when to open a snap. When two teens are flirty with each other, they both often contemplate when the right time to open the message is. From a Gen Z perspective, if they open the message too quickly, they’ll come off as “too interested”, but if they wait too long, they won’t seem interested enough.
- Example: Nobody enjoys uncomfortable in-person conversations (e.g. break up conversations). People often now send break-up texts since they’re so convenient and an outlet to avoid the discomfort of telling someone face-to-face that they want to break up. The question we need to ask here is: do we think digital break-ups foster healthy relationships? Do we sometimes need to have those in-person uncomfortable conversations?
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.
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.
- Example: This past school year, I lived with seven other people in a suite. Of us eight, there is only one who doesn’t have Instagram. He has an old, cracked iPhone and pays little attention to social media. He is also the same kid that, in my opinion, best appreciates life and its beauties of all eight roommates, including myself. He doesn't get caught up with unnecessary virtual drama. He’s just a free-loving, free-spirited guy living life.
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.
- Example: Google’s search engine provides quick answers/solutions and enhances the productivity of users. At the same time, that data is used by other platforms for personalized marketing that show up everywhere online, thus encouraging impulse purchases at an accelerating rate.
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.
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.
- Example: My Grandma is a history buff, so when I talk with her she often has factual questions about some historical event. Every time, she is so surprised when I whip out my phone and find the answer on Wikipedia within 30 seconds. Gen Z are great Googler’s!
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:
- Inwords (iOS App): an empathetic intelligence product providing AI talk therapy and journaling. Products like this democratize access to reflection and therapy, which are overly exclusive in our current healthcare system.
- Joyance Partners: VC fund dedicated to delivering delightful moments and improving human health and happiness. The B2B SaaS market is important, but so is the market for human health.
- WHOOP: a wearable device that monitors health data, including sleep and workout quality, in a consumer-friendly and productive way. Improving our health in measurable and incremental ways can better encourage long-term healthy habits.
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.