Barna Takes: Gen Z’s Relationship to Screens Prompts Digital Discernment

I will always remember the first Barna report I held in my hand—and subsequently read cover to cover several times over—Gen Z Volume 1.

In 2016, research about Generation Z was in its nascency and the common impression among analysts, and possibly society at large, was that this next, next generation was just a newer version of Millennials. Barna’s first report on Gen Z largely challenged these notions and each page encouraged and reminded me—then a college sophomore—that my peers and I were different and that we had the chance to chart our own course in society.

Four years removed from this groundbreaking report, I found myself in a similar position with Gen Z Volume 2. Barna and the Impact 360 Institute felt it was time to revisit this young group of individuals as they entered a new phase of life: Gen Z’s oldest members are graduating college and entering the workforce while its youngest members are exiting early childhood and stepping into their first years of schooling. This time would be different, however: Barna and Impact 360 Institute wanted to explore the world of Generation Z from their own perspective.

As an analyst for the Gen Z Volume 2 report, I considered it the opportunity of a lifetime to be asked to research and write about my own generation (no matter how tall the order may have seemed at first). As a self-described “cusper,” I find myself sandwiched between the age ranges typically deemed as Millennial or Gen Z. I grew up surrounded by talk of Millennials (which was just a pseudonym for young people), but when I looked around at my friends, I thought to myself “Surely they can’t be talking about us… we’re not like that.” 

Gen Z Volume 2

Research is one of the many ways that we can challenge our own assumptions—in fact, my colleague Daniel Copeland writes about his own experience as a Millennial doing just this for the Connected Generation report. In similar fashion, working on this new study about Gen Z offered me an opportunity to grow in awareness, both of myself and those I am closest with.

One of my most prevalent revelations as a researcher, writer and member of Generation Z was understanding the extent of being a digital native. It is often noted that this generation’s relationship to screens is distinctly different than Millennials’. While Millennials inherited these internet-connected, lighted rectangles, Gen Z was and is, in essence, raised on them. For perspective, the first iPod came to the market when I was 4 and I still fondly remember receiving my very own lighted rectangle at age 11. 

What this translates to in practice is that every aspect of our lives—our worldview, our social skills, our purpose and meaning—are shaped by screens, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Most of us never had to learn to navigate by analog means. Many of our first social interactions were via instant messaging or PictoChat™ and have now graduated to things like Snapchat or Instagram. Our reliance upon screens is rooted in the fact that, for much of our upbringing, that’s all we knew!

Gen Z’s relationship to screens is complex—and even they are willing to admit that. Research shows that three in five (60%) said their generation as a whole spends too much time on screens and over half (53%) felt bad about their personal screen usage. Yet screens remain a reality for these young people that will not simply vanish. Where Gen Z feels they have most agency is in being discerning in their screen usage. My peer and Barna colleague Amy Crouch expertly explores digital discernment from the perspective of Gen Z in her new book, My Techwise Life. When digital health is seen more holistically, not simply as a screen shaming narrative, the youngest generation is given new avenues to be thoughtful in regard to their relationship with screens.

We will need support along the way. Screens, despite their many benefits, can often become tiny windows into seas of stress for Gen Z—crippling, narrowing and perverting our view of reality. Our generation will need screen-literate leaders ready to harness our creativity, brilliance and drive, otherwise the screens will become our leaders instead. However, those who desire to engage and empower my generation must be willing to listen first; Gen Z must be given a voice to express their ideas, desires and visions in order to be understood and led well. 

Are the leaders of today up to this task?

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