The summer before I graduated high school, my best friend’s AIM account was yellow and bright pink in CurlzMT font, my Xanga played “Swing Life Away” by Rise Against, and I was desperate for a Facebook account. I considered applying for summer research jobs at the local university, purely for the purposes of acquiring a university email—the golden ticket to the exclusive college-only world of Facebook. I was convinced Facebook access would usher in the wider conversation, like-minded-friends, and meaningful connection I craved from my corner of the world in West Texas. Pandora, meet box.
Fast forward over a decade, and to say the novelty of social media has worn off would be an understatement. Of course, I did get a Facebook account when it opened to high schoolers a few months later. Now, I have instant access to a directory of 834 of my closest friends, distant family, casual acquaintances, and strangers I met in the Frankfurt airport. They all have access to the photos I have of my suitemates and I dressed up as campus squirrels. Like my fellow millennials, I worked out many awkward, growing years, oversharing a select view of my life with the online world.
Marketing studies insist that the tendency to overshare is a distinctively millennial trait. (Gen Z is at least wise enough to relegate their squirrel costume photos to Snapchat.) Curious, I reached out to younger women in my life to ask about how they spend their time online. What have they learned from the rampant oversharing of millennials? What sources of online pressures are older generations unaware of? Studies show that while Gen Z spends upwards of 10 hours a day online, they're more cautious about internet use, preferring private platforms with disappearing content like Instagram stories.
Talking with a few younger women of Gen Z has taught me several lessons about the shifting challenges around constant connectivity. Together, my sisters and I span over a decade, landing the youngest firmly in Generation Z. She has never had a Facebook account, went out of her way to acquire a ‘dumb phone,’ and prefers snail mail to texting. While she certainly isn't representative of Gen Z, she knows what it is to experience middle school while connected online. Perhaps because of the online pressures present at the center of her middle school and high school life, she is a more critical online consumer at 18 than I was at a similar age.
Memories don’t always need to be public.
Growing up in a social media-saturated culture has made her aware of pitfalls of encasing particular narratives of our lives in an online medium. As an outside observer to the world of Facebook, she is surprised by the tenacity with which people cling to these personalized time capsules. Meanwhile, as a steadfast millennial, I have deactivated my accounts too many times to count, but I can not honestly imagine permanently deleting them. Regardless of generation, opting out of chronicling the Instagrammable moments can help keep the focus in the present.
Make eye contact.
In speaking with young women in my life about their internet use, many are quick to point out how much time older generations spend on their phones. In The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, author Nicholas Carr cites studies describing how babies’ eyes normally watch their parents’ eyes, but so often now their eyes follow their parents’ to devices instead. As a consequence, they lose crucial time developing social skills. Eye contact means so much more in a conversation these days, although it’s not always easy. (Facetime doesn’t make it any easier—do you look at the person’s face, or stare into the pinhole of a camera?)
Kindness and courtesy matters, especially online.
When I asked my younger sister about the effects of social media, she said growing up with the concentrated pressure of the inescapable online social dynamics of middle schoolers made her value courtesy and kindness even more. “What kind of compliment would you give if no one could read the comments section?” she asked me.
In a world gamed toward more likes, more comments, and more content, some against-the-grain members of Gen Z have doubled down on intentional words of encouragement. My seventeen-year-old self lacked this sort of wisdom with the internet. Instead, I was on the internet to find the perfect MySpace background music as if that would earn me more friends at the cafeteria table. Even now, it strikes me that contriving witty comments, aimed at people you want to like you back, is an embarrassing human tendency. My sister understands implicitly that the remedy to the voracious need for online validation is kindness in unexpected places.
Suffice it to say, the generation that doesn’t remember life without smartphones isn’t falling for the artificial trappings of social media in the same way as their predecessors. With a decade of hindsight and bad HTML formatting choices behind me, I hope I’m a wiser internet user, but I’m still glad I kept those squirrel photos.