Technology has always been a double-edged sword. But Gen Z has been forced to wield both sides of the blade.
In 1997, when the oldest Gen Zers were born, Liz Smith joined a Silicon Valley startup called Yahoo! What started as a bunch of internet misfits has turned into something of a “Frankenstein’s monster,” Smith told AdExchanger.
Generation Z, an age range currently between about 9 and 24, should have been afraid of the monsters they carried around with them, not the imaginary monsters under their bed.
Smith, who left Yahoo! for film school, was inspired by the effects of technology on children after reading Dr. Jean Twenge’s book on the subject, iGen. This inspiration turned into the film I Am Gen Z, which began screening this year.
“The term ‘digital native’ is used to describe both Gen Z and Millennials, but these two generations are incredibly different – technology is a key differentiator in terms of Gen Z’s growth,” said said Kathy Sheehan, senior vice president of ENGINE-owned Cassandra, a marketing consultancy that advised on the film’s production.
The film sets the scene in 2007, the year Apple unveiled the iPhone, and soon after Facebook opened up to everyone, not just students.
The most popular social media at the time, MySpace, had 120 million users. Facebook, at 80 million, has started thinking about how to catch up.
The solution? Algorithms.
“The business model for all of these social platforms is ad-based,” said tech and science journalist Clive Thompson, who appears throughout the film. “These companies want to keep users on their feeds all day. But how are they going to do it? By training algorithms to look for patterns of engagement.
We’ve agreed to free services in exchange for our data – but that data is used to perpetuate divisive and irritating content because it’s more likely to get clicks, said author and journalist Jamie Bartlett. “It’s content for people’s most basic instincts.”
Neuroscientists and clinical psychologists in the film liken the inner workings of social algorithms to the workings of addiction.
“The technology is really, really good at finding ways to make sure that this feedback is steady but not too predictable,” said neuroscientist Dr. Jack Lewis. “The one thing we know from addiction research is that it’s these ‘near misses’ that are most addictive.”
The appearance of what might have been — that near miss on the slot machine or the girl on Instagram who’s skinnier than you — serves as a call to action that encourages certain, often unhealthy, behaviors.
And algorithms that can mimic addiction patterns have an easier time latching onto underdeveloped brains. “In adolescence, gray matter shrinks ever so slightly as the brain cuts off neural synapses that aren’t needed,” Dr. Lewis said. “At the same time, white matter matures, helping remaining neurons become more efficient at sending and receiving messages.”
In other words, the algorithms are ready to take advantage of children’s neural reward systems.
The mental health crisis
The film connects the rise of algorithmic social media to social and mental health issues among teens and children.
According to the CDC, suicide rates among children ages 13 to 24 soared 56% between 2007 and 2017, said Tim Kendall, former director of monetization at Facebook.
But for young women aged 13 to 18, the rate is doubled.
Perhaps the most alarming effect of social media on young women is the glorification of eating disorders. From “thinspiration” trends to “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia) forums online, eating disorder behaviors go beyond normalization — they are encouraged.
Eating disorders have become a “social phenomenon,” said Dr. Tracey Dennis-Tiwary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience who conducts NIH-funded research on teen suicide risk. “The children come together and agree to share the experience together. But like any form of addiction or self-harm, eating disorders are a very isolating condition. By incubating people encouraging the behavior, social media has become an “amplifier” for eating disorders, she said.
But therein lies the rub – like much of the internet, social media is built on competition for ad revenue, so patterned identification and amplification is the nature of the beast.
“If you ruled out Apple or Google to rebuild the phone from scratch, I think they’d get rid of a lot of those hooks built into the phones — even some of the notification glitches,” according to Kendall, formerly of Facebook.
Signs of improvement
Gen Zers are more than “screen-addicted, emotionally paralyzed waifs,” said Dr. Dennis-Tiwary. Teens and 20-somethings are acutely aware of their own social paradoxes, perhaps more so than anyone.
When director Liz Smith began collecting feedback on the film, she found that only older generations were surprised by the presentation. “The older generations are gone [from the movie] feeling quite shocked and depressed, as Gen Z says, “Yeah.” This is our reality,” Smith said. “They are much less shocked by the film.”
From self-improvement practices and open discussions about mental health to social and political organizing, Gen Zers are “incredibly engaged in the world around them,” said Dr. Dennis-Tiwary. “They have to be – we handed them this utter mess of a world.”