52% of Zs agree, “If it were possible, I’d delete my entire digital footprint.”
The Real World
This is a selection from Humanly, Issue 02, which focuses on Generation Z and teen culture.
Many predicted that the world’s first digital natives wouldn’t know—let alone want—a life beyond selfie snaps, text-only conversations and double-tapped “likes.” But Gen Zs are proving to be on the verge of a digital burnout, leading them on a quest to rediscover what digital made us lose along the way—all things finite, tangible, unplanned, and in the moment.
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The source of this burnout is no mystery. With the arrival of digital-savvy parents, tech-first education, and smart phones in grade school, Zs have grown up with full digital-life integration—by the time they reach driving age, Zs are looking back at a small lifetime spent staring into the screen. In fact, the average teen spends more time consuming digital media than they do sleeping, according to Common Sense Media, and are confronted with an average of 285 pieces of content a day. As Times Free Press points out, that equates to about 54,000 words—the size of the average novel—or 443 minutes of video, which is equal to about three Star Wars movies. Zs are also the first generation to grow up with social media as commonplace in their routines as Saturday morning cartoons—60% of Zs don’t remember, or didn’t live in, a time before social media, according to our study. For the rest, social media is a virtual keeping-up-with-the-Kardashians—er, Joneses—that they’d rather do without: The pressures, loneliness, and insincerities that come with presenting highly curated versions of themselves are enough to send them jumping off the social media cliff. In fact, 59% of Zs say they’ve reached a point of social media exhaustion and are tired of keeping up. While Ys, too, are reporting a decline in their interest in social media, citing similar exhaustion with perfection (see Stepford Lives, Humanly, Issue 01), Zs are craving a total data dump that goes beyond skipping that beach selfie or cleverly crafted tweet—it’s about untangling the entire web of digital from their lives in order to experience the more interesting and elusive real world.
Snapchat is where we can really be ourselves while being attached to our social identity.Andrew, 20, Austin, TX
Zs, surprisingly, are also more concerned with online privacy than their Y counterparts: 61% of Zs say social media is creating a worldwide privacy epidemic. While millennials are dealing with the aftermath of those crop-top party pics from spring break of sophomore year, Zs are tightening their online security settings. Part of this may have to do with witnessing the slip-ups of Ys, but there’s also the fact that Zs’ lives have been digitally documented since birth by their Xer parents. Remember the embarrassment of your mom pulling out old photo albums to show your naked baby photos to your newest crush? Zs are living that moment every day, with childhood captures that never get put back in the drawer. Case in point: Jackson, 12, of Asheville, North Carolina, filmed himself in what ended up as an epic skateboard fail, which his mother promptly posted on Facebook without his permission. Much to Jackson’s humiliation, the video went viral and over one million people watched his wipeout. Of course, teens craving autonomy from their parents is an evergreen topic, but in the past, they only had to fight for the right to their physical space, whether it was going to the mall or having a sleepover. Today, teens have the added struggle of guarding their digital autonomy—which starts by locking it up or shutting it down. Supporting this point, 79% of Gen Zs—compared to 60% of millennials—say minors should have the right to their own digital identity, and what is posted about them.
Though the desire to return to reality runs deeper than wishing to abandon social media’s manufactured existence, many Zs are baby-stepping their way into authenticity through—you guessed it—social media. After all, how can you get back to real life if you’re still worrying about the amount of “likes” your feet-in-the-sand photo got on Instagram, or if your pocket is still pinging with Twitter alerts? As such, Zs are at the forefront of a social media exodus and revolution that is changing the way we think about the intricate relationship between young people and digital.
While the exodus is minimal on most platforms so far, Facebook is seeing an almost universal decline in use amongst teens. “Facebook focuses on getting as many friends as possible, and doesn’t really focus on status or the quality of your friendship. That means your content and your newsfeed is just being filled with all these people who you don’t necessarily care about,” says Andrew Watts, a University of Texas, Austin student whose Medium article “A Teenager’s View on Social Media” garnered over one-million views and has set the tone for Gen Z’s social-media sensibilities. While Ys may not have cared as much about the quality of their Facebook friendships, Zs across the country are echoing Andrew’s sentiment: 52% of teens say Facebook is “lame—it’s where my grandparents hang out!” While this makes Facebook thoroughly uncool—a fact Mark Zuckerberg him-self admitted in an interview with The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief—it also creates the need to tailor your presence to the platform: “I feel like Facebook is where you’re the most clean-cut,” said Michael, 22, Watts’s classmate. “You have to keep it very nice, because a lot of people can see it.” And Zs don’t want to cast only perfect versions of themselves: They want to show the real, the raw, and even the wrong.
Take, for instance, 18-year-old Australian social media star Essena O’Neill. After spending much of her teen years amassing nearly 800,000 followers on Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, and Snapchat, she quit it all in a viral tell-all vlog in which she revealed just how manufactured her social media image had been. Admitting that sponsors paid thousands of dollars for seemingly candid shots, O’Neill deleted most of her digital footprint and edited remaining photos with new “real” captions. A beach bikini selfie, for example, now reads, “Stomach sucked in, strategic pose, pushed up boobs. I just want younger girls to know this isn’t candid life, or cool or inspirational. It’s contrived perfection made to get attention.” Another recent Instagram dropout was the famed Hipster Barbie, a parody personality who logged her images of a perfectly put-together Barbie doll, posed in various Instagram-adventurer mainstays (think a flannel-clad back shot of Hipster Barbie gazing out over a mountain) coupled with the popular #LiveAuthentic hashtag. After a swift rise to social media celebrity—with the very stars the doll mocked praising her ingenuity—Hipster Barbie did the next-trendiest thing and dropped off the Insta grid. She was probably just in need of a more authentic life.
While the nine million perfectly filtered and posed photos filed under #LiveAuthentic (Instagram’s most popular travel-oriented hashtag) are perfect examples of the contrived reality of social media, such manufactured experience is spreading to real life. Now even travel—arguably the most in-the-moment, experience-driven activity you can do—is undergoing digital-specific updates, with image curation in mind. Australia recently launched a giant “selfie service” that plants high-quality cameras in selfie hotspots across the country, allowing tourists to connect their phone to the camera with an app and have a picture snapped and sent to them—no need for a selfie stick. And across the world, hotels are offering selfie vacation packages, where guests are provided with loaner selfie sticks and official lists of the best places to pose for shots; they even host contests for the best snap. But—along with giving all your friends FOMO—this “selfie tourism” steals from true experience; it may as well be tagged #LiveInauthentic , a fact Zs are becoming well aware of. In an experiment aimed at revealing this inauthenticity, Dutch student Zilla van den Born told her friends and family she was on a five-week trip in Southeast Asia, then posted tantalizing shots of her journey—images that were actually created with Photoshop from her home in Amsterdam. From scuba diving with tropical fish to taking a beach selfie with new international friends, van den Born’s digital evidence of her adventures was convincing; her social experiment culminated in the release of a video capturing the dismayed reactions of her loved ones when she told them the truth. Clearly, social media is a strong serum (nearly half of Zs—48%—call it “A drug, I’m addicted or know someone who is.”), or, as Scarlet, 19, from Austin, put it, it’s “kind of like a poison.” Scarlet deleted all but one of her social media profiles (she held onto Snapchat) and an amazing thing happened: She still kept up with her close friends and wasn’t totally out of the loop on major world events. Now Scarlet says she won’t go back: “It takes you away from what is happening here and now. You’re just so concerned with what is happening online, and that world really isn’t real.” And reality is what Zs are looking for.
48% of Gen Zs call social media “A drug—I’m addicted or know someone who is.”
While not all teens are ready to slam the door on all social media outlets, the growing need to be “really real” has resulted in a radical reinvention of social media platforms, from the ephemeral communiqué of Snapchat to anonymous messaging apps such as Whisper and Yik Yak, which allow users to spill their deepest darkest secrets without risking personal backlash. Indeed, Snapchat has proved to be among the most popular platforms for Zs (46% have a profile on the site, versus just 26% of millennials), for one big reason: The photos are set to self-destruct, just like the passing of real-life moments. For Zs, this makes Snapchat the perfect platform to show-case the good, the bad, and the ugly of real life. Where else can they display risqué or even intentionally unattractive photos without care? For teens, this is the perfect marrying of their desire for reality with the still-tight grip that digital has on their lives. As Andrew Watts explains: “Snapchat is where we can really be ourselves while being attached to our social identity.”
In an even greater effort to be real online, some young people are testing the boundaries of the hyper-curation of Instagram by creating “finstagrams,” or fake Instagram accounts, where they present more accurate versions of themselves—including those ugly or mundane photos once slated for deletion—usually to a much smaller audience. Already, 29% of Zs we surveyed admit they have a “fake” social media account “where I can really be myself.” If such accounts emphasize Zs’ need for spaces to release their real selves, it also begs the question, when your “real” Instagram is a deceptive presentation of your perfect life, and your “fake” Instagram is where you are the most authentic, what is really real?
Snapchat makes me feel like myself because I share what my life really is through pictures and videos. Also, it’s not like someone is going to comment or like/dislike it.—Daniel, 16, Los Angeles, CA
Like the rest of us, teens are seeking to get back in touch with reality by tapping into emotional nuances and instincts rendered useless by digital. Things like spontaneity, unedited responses, finite moments, and even nostalgia have been steadily culled from our experience of the world by 24/7 access to our devices. After all, it’s hard to get lost with GPS at your fingertips, and when every business has a Yelp page, the spontaneity of stumbling upon an unfamiliar—read: hit-or-miss—restaurant is a thing of the past. And when texting and tweeting are the primary vehicles for conversation, our responses become similarly scripted; there’s less room to make an off-the-cuff joke or express a revelation when all interactions first pass through the filter of digital editing. Weather apps prevent the chance of getting caught in a rainstorm; digital contact lists have done away with memorized phone numbers; and the “pic-or-it-didn’t-happen” mentality memorializes every moment—each perfect cappuccino or sunstruck cactus is at once eternal and utterly forgettable. We’ve outsourced our memory, manufactured our nostalgia, and stripped away the possibility of chance in our attempts to plan and control every moment of our lives.
It’s this sense of constant control that people are now looking to, well, control. From the annual National Day of Unplugging, to Screen-Free Week, to device-free camps and retreats, everyone wants to reconnect by disconnecting. Last year, podcaster Manoush Zomorodi of Note to Self launched the project “Bored and Brilliant: The Lost Art of Spacing Out,” which hypothesized that by incessantly turning to our smartphones, we are robbing our brains of the downtime that fosters deep, creative thinking. Zomorodi challenged listeners to participate in a week of disconnection, offering such exercises as keeping smartphones pocketed during the commute to work or deleting favorite time-sucking apps. She expected a few hundred participants, but more than 20,000 joined her. Even large companies like REI are advocating for dropping off the grid; instead of reaping the financial benefits of Black Friday in 2015, the company closed its doors and encouraged customers to #OptOutside. And small companies and start-ups are also responding to the public desire to get back in the moment by creating “organized spontaneity” apps that offer last-minute hotel room deals, restaurant reservations, and movie tickets to those who forgot—or chose not—to plan ahead of time.
But as Edward Slingerland, author of Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity, points out, using your phone to plan an event—albeit a last minute one—is not a truly spontaneous act. Nor is scheduling time to take an aimless walk really an aimless act. In the quest to get back to real experience, we’ve manufactured our disconnect as much as we’ve manufactured our Instagram accounts. For Zs, practicing mindfulness isn’t enough; they want to do away with the practice and get back to true experience. When asked what they would enjoy about living in a world without social media, teens gave very telling answers. Jaclyn, 16, of Los Angeles: “I would definitely enjoy going outside more and going on more actual outings with my friends. It would force me to be more engaged in the real world and events that are happening now.” Or Daniel, 16, also of Los Angeles: “I think I would enjoy all of the free time to explore the world, and read books, because I never get to read books for fun. Also, there would be much less drama than now.” But perhaps Evan, 15, from Los Angeles, put it best: “I would love it so much!”
87% of Zs are nostalgic for at least one aspect of the predigital era.
While the use of Snapchat and the rise of finstagrams are contributing to this need for the real, the raw, and the impermanent, it’s what’s happening in the physical world that really counts. For example, Playboy—whose core concept of glossy, airbrushed, and fully nude women hasn’t changed in decades—is getting a makeunder to appeal to a younger market. With more candid and strategically modest shots, the idea is to move away from the manufactured, unattainable perfection that’s so readily available (for free) on the Internet, and get closer to reality. Sound familiar? We’re also seeing once over-the-top celebrities tone down their pop personas in order to reconnect with information-fatigued fans—and perhaps even with themselves: Lady Gaga, who’s idea of a fashion state-ment was once wearing a dress made of raw beef, has been sticking to old-Hollywood-glam; Nicki Minaj ditched her ostentatious Harajuku doll aesthetic for natural beauty; and Katy Perry has of late been all about keeping it low-key, from fashion to lifestyle. “I am just always so exhausted,” she explained.
Teens can relate as they’re also riding this cultural sea change and looking for real experiences—even if they occur at school. As Addy, 18, in Charlotte, North Carolina told us, “I like to learn from experience. A teacher lecturing you, telling you stuff, versus going out and actually putting it together or doing it for yourself, I think that’s way better. Textbook learning, I never enjoy it. With science, you have experiments. You can actually mess with the materials, so you learn it. It’s so hands on and interactive.” And for Bella, 13, in Asheville, immersing herself in “IRL,” or in real life, experiences is less about getting away from digital and more about enjoying an activity for the sake of it, without an eye on the end product. She recently began questioning why she was still practicing gymnastics when it wasn’t going to get her anywhere—she wasn’t going to be a professional gymnast and it wasn’t going to help her get into college, so why do it? But her mom, Sarah, put gymnastics into perspective. Sarah recalls their conversation; she asked her daughter, “‘Do you enjoy it?’ because she loves that it makes her fit and strong. ‘Do you like being fit and healthy? Does there need to be something other than that?’ Bella paused, then said, ‘Oh, yeah. I guess I could just do it because I enjoy it.’” Sarah explained, “It didn’t occur to her that it didn’t have to be goal-oriented.” (For one teen’s perspective on getting back to the real world by getting back to nature, see “Why I’m Ditching My Device”, Humanly, Issue 02).
But it’s not all gymnastics and science experiments. At the University of Texas, Austin, binge drinking to intentionally black out is as commonplace among some students as going to class. While that may not sound too different from university campuses spanning every time and place, the difference is what’s driving students to engage in blackout drinking: With the overload of information, expectation, and pressure, these Zs need to tune out in a drastic way, just to get a break. Somewhat shockingly, as many Zs—all of whom are underage—as millennials have purposely “blacked out, or drank enough to not know what I was doing, in order to disconnect and relax” (15% of both groups admit to having done so within the past three months).
As Michael, 22, put it: “They’re after getting a sense of feeling free or comfortable. I think that a lot of time, they’re putting a lot of pressure on themselves, and being blacked out is when they’re really not in control. I feel like it’s that feeling of not having any worries and not having stress weighing down on you and just allowing yourself to take over your actions. I just think that kind of living in the present moment to an extent can be really appealing to people.”
Clearly the digital web is a complicated one to untangle. While the conversations surrounding digital overload have, up to this point, been one-dimensional—and slightly hysterical, with cries that teens are dropping off social media en masse—there’s more to consider here. With digital so integrated into Zs’ lives, it can still sometimes be about using the tools at their disposal—yes, digital tools including Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Snapchat—to get real. Take, for example, old media bastion the New York Times, who has found Snapchat success by using the platform to reveal real-time, behind-the-scenes, candid goings-on that would never make it to print. “What’s great about Snapchat is that it’s a casual and playful medium,” says news assistant and web producer, Valeriya Safronova, who has covered red carpet events for @thenytimes. “Candid moments are prized above staged shots.” A fitting way to see the world for a generation seeking to reclaim raw and authentic experiences—even if it’s still through the scope of an app.
What Zs Long For From The Predigital Days
|59%:||Real friends—a time when people had 10, not 1000 friends|
|54%:||Privacy, being anonymous, and not on display at all times|
|50%:||Less pressure to appear perfect, keep up, etc.|
|46%:||Living in the moment rather than documenting my life.|
|45%:||Old-school dating when courtship happened in the real world rather than online|
|42%:||Serendipity & surprise—running into a friend, getting caught in a rainstorm, etc.|
|40%:||Modesty, no more selfies please!|
|38%:||Memory—I miss having to remember a good friend’s number, directions, etc.|
|34%:||The library—Google is just too exhaustive|
|33%:||Real celebrities—a time before everyone was a star on YouTube|
Why I’m Ditching My DeviceBy Anna Kristina Moseidjord, 16, Oakland, CA This essay is a selection from The Real World, Humanly, Issue 02, which focuses on Generation Z and teen culture.
I’m pretty tired of adults telling me I’m ruining my brain, wasting my time, destroying my personal connections, and losing touch with real life because I have an iPhone and three social media accounts. It’s frustrating, condescending, and hypocritical. That said, I’ve had an iPhone for a year, and I’m tired of it, too. Yes, it keeps me in touch with my friends, gives me directions, and lets me listen to music or do homework pretty much anywhere, but it also keeps me awake, distracts me from reading, and makes me compare my online identity with other people’s as a way of measuring worth. Smartphones are the pinnacle of Internet technology because they allow people to store vast databases of information right in their pockets—but these devices also perfectly exemplify the distraction and overstimulation of being so connected.
I’m not alone in my ambivalence. My friend Maire has a smartphone but tries to avoid using it too much: She says she feels like she’s missing out on the real experiences around her when she’s on social media or texting. My friend Ana goes further, restricting her social media access to home by not owning a smartphone at all. She says she chooses to go without mobile data specifically because it distracts her from the people around her, and she’d rather be focused on work or friends when she’s out in the world.
This is a common pronouncement among teens I know: Most of us try to limit and/or hide how much time we spend on our phones, and are proud if we spend relatively little, as if it’s a guilty pleasure. I see this shame as a result of adults’ attitudes towards technology. Along with eyeing teens’ use of devices, most adults I know complain quite a lot about how invasive and annoying email is in their own lives, reminiscing about the “good old days,” but I think these adults are somewhat misguided. Communication technology isn’t inherently bad, it’s just extremely over-used, and frequently mismanaged. Having so many tools in one place is excessive; we don’t need our music, our photography, our telephones, our picture-sharing platforms, our work, and our email all constantly available to us on one compact device.
My generation is faced with the truly unique challenge of being the first generation to
really grown up with smartphones and constant social media access on a huge scale—and
make mistakes; it’s compli-cated. I’ve noticed there’s a cycle of
binge-and-purge, boom-and-bust in my generation’s relationship with pocket technology. We
overuse these tools that even the adults in our lives struggle to manage, then we ditch them for
while and try to figure out what it’s like to grow up without that constant accessibility.
It’s hard, and we’re the guinea pigs.
Social media has definitely had major positive impacts in my life, though. I live in the city, but I do a lot of solo hiking, biking, climbing, and camping. The hours-long mountain biking trips I’ve made on nearly deserted trails are highlights of my high school years, and bouldering has also taken me to some very cool places. Oddly, I credit social media in part for these experiences. Watching YouTube videos of Alex Honnold and Hazel Findlay rock climb led me to take it up; Facebook, Instagram, and Vimeo effectively proved to my 14-year-old self that people—interesting and nonprofessional people—free solo in Australia and bike Machu Picchu, cliff dive and run 80 miles in a day. The mantra is: “Just get out there!” And some of these people who inspired me even managed to create nontraditional career paths doing what they love. Seeing, liking, and commenting online on their daily adventures and successes (and, to their credit, their failures) makes me part of a community that loves the outdoors and connects me to people I wouldn’t otherwise know.
But it does beg the question:
When do I disconnect and head out there? How much of the time I spend on my phone could be spent creating adventure?
Recently, I was hiking in Redwood Park with my dad’s flip phone in my pocket for safety. I was alone and my breathing was heavy and I was sweating. My phone never buzzed, I never checked it, and no one could have tracked me. The stately redwoods commanded my attention, and I watched a newt tromp across the trail, its small red body swaying side to side with each step in the typical newt fashion. I felt no urge to document because I had no way to do so: without my iPhone on hand, the process of weighing the pros and cons of taking a picture was gone.
I got back home a couple of hours later with a wonderful feeling that I had been really alone for the first time in a long time. The noise of being connected—all the virtual voices I am so accustomed to tuning in for—were gone, and in their place was noise with intention: the sound of the leaves or a bird calling.
And so I’ve decided: I’m ditching my iPhone for a while. I’m getting a flip phone—a burner, if you will. I want to learn how to take the opportunities and inspiration that communication technology gives me and reap the rewards by fully enjoying them in real life. It’s a fine line. We each have a choice, and I’m choosing to check out for a while. A person can only be in one place at a time, so missing out is a fundamental part of human experience. But you can choose to really pay attention to every minute of what you are present for—and that’s not nothing.
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