This is a selection from Humanly, Issue 02, which focuses on Generation Z and teen culture.
Indigo Kids, as we’re calling them, are blending their need for truth with the depths of digital to create their very own magical, mystical, philosophical belief systems. They’re ushering in a #woke new world in which Instagam covens and Snapchat gurus reign supreme, and Google holds the answers to life’s big questions. While the “indigo children” moniker was developed in the 1970s to describe kids who possess special, even supernatural and telepathic, abilities—some people even believed these kids embodied the next stage in human evolution—it’s also a fitting moniker for a group of (self-proclaimed) enlightened teens.
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Shae, 17, in Charlotte, North Carolina, will soon graduate from high school. She’s still deciding between college and the military, but during a recent conversation there was something much, much deeper on her mind: “I’m trying to figure out exactly how the forces of the universe work.” While we were reading teeny bopper magazines at her age—Teen Vogue if you were really sophisticated—Shae’s most recent pop culture discovery was a YouTube video about the Hebrew Israelites. “It’s basically taking it back to black roots and Africa and what happened all in the beginning, breaking down the Bible and all kinds of stuff,” she told us nonchalantly.
Generation Zs are pioneers of a new movement towards alternative spirituality, and the final frontier isn’t outer space, but rather their own inner psyches. While exploring the spiritual realm may be a perennial part of adolescent self-exploration, Indigo Kids are a particularly trend-forward and multicultural cohort who are mashing together elements of their ethnic heritage with digital-fueled philosophies to come up with their own belief systems, verging on the mystical.
Shae’s YouTube explorations just scratch the surface. T Magazine’s 2014 interview with Jaden and Willow Smith (then 16 and 14, respectively) went viral after the celebrity teens waxed philosophical about quantum physics, prana energy, and reality—I mean, what is it, really? Excerpts include Jaden’s rumination on the flexibility of time: “If you are aware in a moment, one second can last a year. And if you are unaware, your whole childhood, your whole life can pass by in six seconds.” If this all sounds like deeply stoned musing, it’s not because these teens are on drugs—more like they’ve been experimenting with the most mind-altering substance of our time: the Internet. This new phase of “onlightenment” comes at the very same time that atheism is at its peak. Fifty-five percent of Gen Zs say they are not religious.
35% of Gen Zs say they have a spiritual guru in their life.
Every generation has its own way of pursuing a deeper understanding of humanity: Boomers dropped acid and experimented with free love and communal living; Xers flew solo to India for Eat, Pray, Love-driven epiphanies; Ys threw themselves into social justice activism. Gen Zs are leveraging technology to go deep, in an attempt to get to the bottom of it all. A full 68% of Zs self-identify as “digital truth-seekers” who turn to the Internet to get to the bottom of things, and 64% believe the Internet provides a higher understanding of human truths. Fifty-nine percent even go as far as to say “I believe the Internet elevates my consciousness.” As Shae put it, “We’re the generation that’s like, ‘Okay, they say this, let’s go check it out.’ Because there’s so much stuff that’s been taught to us, been pushed to us since we were younger. We’re growing up now and finding out that it isn’t fact. We dig deeper. We want enlightenment.” This association of deep knowledge with enlightenment runs counter to the preceding generation: Overwhelmed Gen Ys sought the CliffsNotes version of life, which gave rise to highly curated retail, travel, and entertainment experiences. Zs are alternatively scraping Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram to attain a deeper, more meaningful understanding of all that surrounds them.
One source of Zs’ deeply inquisitive nature is that, for younger and younger kids, the world is a seriously complex place. This generation has a lot to process; a majority of Gen Zs were born post-9/11, saw their parents struggle through the recession, and they’re coming of age at a time when school shootings, terrorism, and extreme weather events are regular occurrences. Still, Shae explained to us, “Our generation is about three big things: self-exploration, positivity, and awareness.” Her friend Addy, 18, told us, “I want everybody to be as happy as they possibly can.” And when we asked their artist friend Eddie to tell us what creative projects he’s been working on recently, his answer was “vibrations.” Despite all of the chaos and uncertainty around them, Zs believe in cultivating and sharing positivity, rather than, say, worrying about what could go wrong (like Gen Xers) or seeing life through rose-colored glasses (like Ys). To this point, 71% of Zs believe they can make a bigger impact on the world by spreading positive vibes than they can by purchasing consciously (29%). And forget being “cool”; the highest accolade a Gen Z can bestow is that you’re “woke”—i.e., you’re conscious and informed of the truths and injustices of the world. While certainly still fringe, Zs are twice as likely to describe themselves as “woke” as are their millennial counterparts (8% vs. 4%).
Religion is something you really have to look into yourself for. Religions are dying out because kids are becoming more about themselves. They feel like they can control their destinies.Ty, 17, Charlotte, NC
Further enforcing Gen Zs cult of positivity is the wave of spirituality and magic washing over digital culture. Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat and Pinterest are filled with crystal clusters, tarot spreads, psychedelic mandalas, and burning sage bundles (to clear negative energy, of course). The New York Times even coined the term “netromancy” to describe this occultism-meets-Internet phenomenon. While such new age iconography is admittedly trendy (Urban Outfitters now sells crystal-infused scents, manifestation candles, and palo santo sticks), the indigo movement is perfectly suited for the digital era: It mixes personal exploration and virtuousness with a damn good aesthetic.
And while esoteric trinkets and mantras are resonating with a generation that believes—or wants to believe—that “prana energy” can change the world, digital occultism is connecting particularly with minority and multicultural Zs: 54% of those who qualified as Indigo Kids in our study “straddled multiple cultures,” as compared to 46% of Zs in general. In many cases, these Zs are finally seeing the knowledge and rituals of their ancestors materialize in the mainstream. We first heard this from a young Chicano-Navajo artist in Albuquerque who is immersing herself, via Instagram, in the plant medicine practiced by her ancestors. While there are some ‘grammers that practice and share spiritual rituals true to tradition—for example, Vicky Salcido-Cobbe, a Mendocino-based herbal healer who shares recipes using the Instagram handle Grandmother’s Medicine—others are reinventing #spirituality for the digital era. The Hoodwitch, for example, is the website and Instagram account of Bri Luna, a 20-something who is translating the traditional spiritual-healing practices of her grandmother for her plugged-in peers. Aside from tutorials on energy, crystal healing, and lunar cycles, The Hoodwitch features an abundance of cheeky memes (“Hocus Pocus & Chill”) and nail art, with each luminous new polish color meant to incorporate a certain aura into her energy field.
And digital is also helping to serve up traditional organized religions in fresh new ways, with YouTube leading the way: One-fifth of Zs (19%) have watched a YouTube video to explore religion, spirituality, mysticism, or self-enlightenment within the past six months, and 41% of this group do so on a weekly (27%) or daily (14%) basis. Furthermore, apps ranging from daily devotional apps to Snapchat’s 2015 live coverage of Ramadan prayers in Mecca are also modernizing religion. Forget the buttoned-up approach of putting on one’s Sunday best; in their own ways, a variety of apps for Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are embracing looser and more visual, tradition-free forms that fit the free-flowing ways of social media platforms (for more on this, see “Snapchat Goes Spiritual”).
I want everybody to be as happy as they possibly can, because that’s what’s wrong with the world right now. Everybody is so upset and mad. I want people to know that they can do anything they want to do and be anything they want to be.Addy, 18, Charlotte, NC
While truth and positivity reign supreme as the North Star among the Indigo Kids we spoke with, they’re still turning to New Age gurus to serve as their spiritual guides—mostly digitally-savvy cultural creatives. Shae, for example, called musician-producer Pharrell Williams (of hit song “Happy”) “the father of my life.” (That’s top honor in teen speak.) And true to his interest in all that is uplifting, Addy called Wiz Khalifa his role model because “He only preaches positivity. I’ve never seen nothing negative come from his mouth. He teaches people to be themselves and to just be happy.” Another group of teens we met in Los Angeles were completely immersed in Based World, a lifestyle philosophy invented by Bay Area rapper Lil B that preaches positivity, love, and tolerance. Devotees eat vegetarian, and refer to Lil B as The Based God—they even indulge in a bit of black magic in the form of The Based God’s Curse, a spell that Lil B has put on several NBA players via Twitter, to detrimental effect.
But the techno-mystical guru with the most revelatory rise to date just might be DJ Kahled, a music producer who became “the leader of a spiritual army,” according to The Verge, when he started posting on Snapchat about the importance of good vibes, being grateful, and finding happiness in simple things. Khaled is building a library of posts out-lining his “keys to success” (among them: cocoa butter, green apples, clean face, clean heart, Dove bar soap, and lots and lots of plants). The popularity of these “keys” has even upped the use of the gold key emoji across Snapchat by 800%.
Our generation is about three big things: Self-exploration, positivity, and awareness.Shae, 17, Charlotte, NC
At the same time that digital is helping Generation Zs delve deeper into the great mysteries of the world, those great mysteries are permeating the tech world, behind the scenes. According to a recent SF Weekly article, Silicon Valley tech workers are increasingly turning to the occult (mediums, psychics, numerologists, spiritual therapists, and yogis) for supernatural insight into everything from finance to market forecasts—even the exorcism of a software bug. While the late Steve Jobs famously studied Zen Buddhism, the new class of techno-spiritualists includes LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, who advocates mindful meditation, and Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, who is spoofed on HBO’s Silicon Valley as the executive in constant consult with his in-house spiritual guide. Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook headquarters both host in-office meditation sessions, and Google has sent thousands of employees through its proprietary mindfulness-based emotional intelligence course, “Search Inside Yourself,” just one of a dozen mindfulness classes offered.
The breadth of available occult technologies is further reflected in the (literally) thousands of apps that join mysticism and technology: everything from meditation to tarot to energy cleansing and crystal healing, and virtually everything in between (ghost hunting for iPhone, anyone?). There’s a new virtuous cycle in play—teens are looking for magic, mysticism, and general assurance that everything is going to be okay, and Silicon Valley is more than set up to deliver. So, where do we go from here? Only Google knows for sure.
One quarter (23%) of Gen Zs say they’ve Googled big life questions—35% of whom do it weekly.
The younger generation is going to be way more spiritually advanced because of technology.Khajuan, 18, Charlotte, NC
Snapchat Goes SpiritualBy Brandon Ambrosino This essay is a selection from Girlhood, Humanly, Issue 02, which focuses on Generation Z and teen culture.
“Imagine this,” says a young male voice over an animation of a beautiful Middle Eastern skyline. “More than two million people. One spot. One night.”
That spot? Mecca.
That night? Laylat al Qadr, or The Night of Destiny, the holiest day of Ramadan, which marks the anniversary of the night the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
“You can’t imagine how amazing and spiritual this feeling is,” says another young man in the video, as dozens of Muslims bow in prayer directly behind him.
Maybe the sense of awe he’s talking about can only be experienced by those physically present. But thanks to Snapchat, many onlookers around the world could at least get close to that feeling last July, when the world was granted an insider’s look at a site that is off-limits to non-Muslims. Mecca Live, which Snapchat gave the green light to after receiving more than 300,000 #Mecca_Live tweets from users who wanted it to happen, was a smashing success.
You can thank Generation Z for that. According to recent numbers, they’re obsessed with the social media platform—and a lot of religious leaders looking to share their faith have taken notice of the trend and jumped on the bandwagon. Suhaib Webb, a Washington DC-based American Muslim imam, has amassed a large and faithful social media following, thanks in part to his Snapchat stories, which often highlight particular aspects of Islam. Then there’s Chabad.org, an online Jewish organization dedicated to connecting Jews worldwide; they also run a popular Snapchat account, regularly wishing users Shabbat shalom and sharing pictures of Torah passages.
At first glance, Snapchat might seem like an odd medium with which to educate young people about the complicated topic of global religion—how can you sum up millennia of religious history, belief, and practice into short and ephemeral clips?
In fact, for those interested in sharing their faith with new audiences, Snapchat is the perfect place. For one thing, Zs tend to always be on the platform, which creates the possibility for around-the-clock connection. Compare that to traditional religious services, limited to a few hours a week—and usually on the days that offer the biggest temptation for sleeping in. Now, if Zs don’t want to get out of bed on Sunday morning, they can follow what’s happening at the church services they’re missing by tuning in on their phones.
But this trend isn’t just evident on Snapchat. Despite their skepticism towards religion (43% of 18-to-29-year-olds believe religion causes more problems in society than it solves, according to the Public Religion Research Institute), the popularity of spirituality apps and social media channels is growing, meaning Zs haven’t given up on religion entirely. Young people are interested in learning about religion—they just want to learn it on their terms.
This new religious curiosity is symptomatic of what is sometimes called DIY faith; just as teens can teach one another over social media how to make their own versions of Lush bath bombs, they can explore how to go about spirituality. No longer do they need a minister to track their spiritual progress: apps can do that for them. SoulPulse, for example, promises to chart users’ spiritual growth over a period of time, even providing them with a detailed report to help them attain the level of spirituality they desire. And ConZentrate helps the spiritual-but-not-religious person achieve their meditation goals by acting as a guide in the ancient practice of Trataka, a meditative practice in which you fix your sight on a tiny object as a way to calm the mind. No longer do Zs have to open a holy text to find out who they are; they can tap on an app and explore who they want to be.
Of course, this kind of DIY religious experimentation can create problems for religious institutions, says Daniel Cox, researcher at Public Religion Research Institute, because it means “religious leaders are no longer in control of their narratives.” But for Zs, that’s the point: Social media is the place that allows them to explore their beliefs about God and the world, free from the confines of a traditional religious community. And those in traditional religion who embrace this are the ones that just might keep teens interested.
Still: “When all is said and done, the medium will not last,” as Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone, Chabad.org’s director of social media, wrote on the subject. “It is only the value of the media—the human connection forged and the positive impression left—that remains. When we realize that the platform truly is ephemeral, that it’s not the likes, clicks or hearts we get but rather the greater world of good that we build, then we can open ourselves to a global audience to share that good—touching the untold lives of those around us.”
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