Misinformation, vitriol, body dysmorphia…all proven results of prolonged social media use. Just because Gen Z grew up in an era of portable handheld technology doesn’t mean that they’re going to choose digital lives. While the effects of growing up inundated by social media and advertising are still largely unknown, based on the mental health issues we’re seeing with next gens so far, prospects for a utopic, technology-based future aren’t looking good.
Generation Z consumers have a long history of putting changes into action that their predecessors only dreamed of. While some next gens are heeding the call of the metaverse and moving towards digitally based living, another group is going towards the other extreme –– abandoning their cell phones and social media to reconnect with nature and themselves. A growing group of self-proclaimed Gen Z “luddites” and an international group of teen activists aren’t taking the digitization of human life lying down.
Is this a fleeting trend for next gens rooted in nostalgia for an era they’ve never experienced, or the first step in an entire generation’s return to reality? Let’s take a look.
Gen Z Is Nostalgic for a Youth They Never Had
A few years ago, millennial nostalgia was the topic du jour. The influence of the early aughts was visible everywhere, from leather jackets with Rugrats characters embellishments to Urban Outfitters peddling Caboodles and flash cameras. The retail industry had never before seen the level of Peter Pan-ism that my generation demonstrated with our wallet share. But there’s a reason they call Gen Z “millennials on steroids”–– these kids know how to take a trope and run with it.
Gen Z is also nostalgic for youth, albeit for a technologically minimalist millennial youth they never experienced. Don’t believe me? Refinery29 recently released an article titled “I’m 23 and Nostalgic for the Fictional Millennial Experience.” This goes a lot deeper than an affinity for low rise jeans and avocado toast. Gen Z sees millennial’s heyday as a “simpler time.” While at first, this may seem laughable, when you break down the reasons behind this perspective it’s actually a bit tragic.
Consider the next gen reality. The average Gen Z-er reportedly spends four or more hours on social media every day. The pandemic exacerbated this trend. Today, many Gen Z-ers are trying to become influencers on top of their daily schoolwork and extracurriculars. Hurricanes have been ravaging the nation and global warming will reach a “tipping point” in just a few years. Many members of Gen Z spent school years that were critical for their personal, intellectual, and social development in lockdown. Unlike millennials, who got to have our Dawson Creek, low rise jeans moment during our high school years. In light of this, it makes sense that Gen Z sees millennial childhoods as more wholesome and natural than what they’ve had to experience. But that doesn’t mean they don’t also have to worry about finances… quite the contrary. Student debt is at an all-time high. For this generation, the demands just don’t quit. But nobody asked Gen Z if a digital life was the world they wanted. For many, the answer is a resounding “no,” and they’re starting to take action.
Luddite Clubs Emerge in High Schools in New York
Groups of New York teenagers are surrendering their handheld devices and flocking to the parks. But they aren’t there to party, have romantic liaisons, or to do anything nefarious. Quite to the contrary: these teens’ motivations are about as innocent as you can get: They’re just there to decompress with their peers, without the constant demands of online life. The Luddite Club in Brooklyn was the first group of high schoolers, but similar clubs are being founded in other areas of New York as well.
The Luddite Club doesn’t keep in touch with one another outside of the confines of the group, so teens have to show up to stay in touch with their peers. Many attendees are avid fans of writers like Kurt Vonnegut, who tell stories condemning a technology-based future — like the one where currently living in. High school age Luddite Club members fall smack dab in the middle of Gen Z. Many fascinatingly use flip phones to communicate with their peers –– having minimized or entirely done away with their social media presences in favor of life in the present moment.
But teens aren’t the only ones concerned with how much time their generation spends on social apps that are detrimental for mental health. Students at college campuses are also taking notice and taking action, and lawmaking bodies are right behind them. It’s beginning to look the Wild West days of unregulated social media use are coming to an end.
KIDS ACT Takes it to the Courts
The Cambridge Analytica Scandal was the impetus for college students at Brown and other universities to get serious about regulating social media platforms. Both the LOG OFF Movement and Tech(nically) Politics are recently formed student groups that are amassing followings on college campuses. But, unlike high school Luddite Clubs, LOG OFF and Tech(nically) Politics are going a step further than just leaving their phones at home.
College student groups are actively rallying to change the laws regulating the liberties that social media platforms take. They’re backing legislation, such as the Kids Internet Design and Safety Act, or KIDS ACT. The KIDS ACT aims to “stop online practices such as manipulative marketing, amplification of harmful content, and damaging design features, which threaten young people online.” The bill was reintroduced by Florida senators to protect young people from being harmed by social media platforms.
Consider 2023 a period of reckoning. Gen Z will come to realize the role they play in their own indentured servitude to technology. Retailers can pivot to Gen Z nostalgia for a “simpler” millennial youth with phone free events, yoga, outdoor hikes, old fashioned photo booths, and more. What retailers need to realize is that social media is not necessarily going to be a viable future for marketing.
In 2023, many business owners will have to come to understand that it’s not social media, but what they do outside of it, that creates lasting connections with next gen consumers.