Do you remember the first time you went online? I was in elementary school and we researched the pets of American presidents. Then, we played Oregon Trail and my wagon couldn’t ford the river. (Sad.) What about your first text message? I was in college and actually thought texting was silly. Why not just call the person? Oh, how things have changed.
Generation Z won’t have memories like this. They’ve grown up online. Depending on whom you ask, the Z kids were born between the mid-to-late 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s. They don’t know life without swiping, commenting, and Googling. Their world is filled with “likes,” acronyms, and emojis. And they know all too well what it means when you de-friend someone on Facebook.
Now that Millennials have grown up, so to speak (the oldest are in their late 30s), the world is looking to the next crop of individuals who will one day run the world. The kids of Generation Z have countless opportunities to take advantage of accelerated learning, connectivity, and entertainment—all online.
But at what cost?
“It has created unprecedented changes and challenges for social development,” says Dr. Natalie Abramson, a psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. She believes that today’s youth may very well be our most socially underdeveloped generation in centuries. “Youth often rely on online interactions as substitutes for the more nuanced authenticity of face-to-face interactions. There is likely a disadvantage for youth relying heavily on electronic interactions rather than gaining skills in social relationships.”
In other words (and in my own opinion), it seems that the kids of Generation Z simply don’t know how to talk to people. They use phones and computers for small talk, developing relationships and resolving conflict, instead of doing these things in person. It makes me worry about our future, and it’s a concern that Dr. Abramson shares. “If youth are not taught how to engage interpersonally, they will lack necessary skills required to foster healthy adult relationships,” she says.
The solution, according to Dr. Abramson, lies with adults. She recommends that parents, teachers, and authority figures have straightforward “tech talks” with kids about the risks associated with online interactions. Parents should know what their kids are doing, saying, and learning online, not only to make sure that they aren’t being completely consumed by the virtual world, but also to protect them from predators and cyber bullying. “[Online] access should be based on a child’s emotional and social maturity, rather than age,” Dr. Abramson says.
Basically, we should be making sure that this next generation is learning how to express themselves and communicate clearly and coherently and in more than 140 characters.
Of course, just like with any generational backlash, the Z kids are not all bad. In fact, this age group is overflowing with potential. They may end up curing cancer, putting human settlements on Mars, and maybe even fixing Congress (let’s not hold our breath on that one). But to do all this, they first need to learn how to have a conversation.