Back in 1997, when the oldest Gen Zers were born, Liz Smith joined a Silicon Valley startup called Yahoo! What started off as a group of misfits on the internet turned into a “Frankenstein’s monster” of sorts, Smith told AdExchanger.
Gen Z, an age range currently between about 9 years old and 24, should have been scared of the monsters they carried around with them, not make-believe monsters under their beds.
Smith, who left Yahoo! for film school, was inspired by the effects of tech on kids after reading Dr. Jean Twenge’s book on the subject, iGen. That inspiration turned into the film I Am Gen Z, which began screening this year.
“The term ‘digital-native’ is thrown around to describe both Gen Zers and millennials, but those two generations are incredibly different – technology is a key differentiator in terms of how Gen Z grew up,” said Kathy Sheehan, SVP of ENGINE-owned Cassandra, a marketing consultancy that advised on the film’s production.
Setting the stage
The film sets the scene in 2007, the year Apple unveiled the iPhone and, shortly after, Facebook opened to everyone, not just college students.
The most popular social media at the time, MySpace, had 120 million users. Facebook, at 80 million, started thinking about how to catch up.
The solution? Algorithms.
“The business model for all of these social platforms is based on advertising,” said tech and science journalist Clive Thompson, who appears throughout the film. “These companies want to keep users on their feeds all day. But how will they do it? By training algorithms to look for patterns of engagement.”
We’ve accepted free services in exchange for our data – but that data is used to perpetuate content that’s divisive and angry because it’s more likely to elicit clicks, said author and journalist Jamie Bartlett. “It’s content aimed at people’s most base instincts.”
Neuroscientists and clinical psychologists in the film compare the inner workings of social algorithms to how addiction works.
“Technology is really, really good at finding ways to make sure this feedback is regular but not too predictable,” said neuroscientist Dr. Jack Lewis. “The one thing we know from addiction research is that it’s those ‘near misses’ that are the most addictive.”
The appearance of what could have been – that near miss on the slot machine or the girl on Instagram who’s skinnier than you – serves as a call to action that encourages certain behaviors, often unhealthy ones.
And algorithms that can emulate patterns of addiction have an easier time hooking into underdeveloped brains. “In adolescence, grey matter shrinks ever so slightly as the brain chops away neural synapses that aren’t needed,” Dr. Lewis said. “At the same time, white matter matures, helping the neurons that remain to become more efficient in sending and receiving messages.”
In other words, algorithms are primed to take advantage of children’s neural reward systems.
The mental health crisis
The film ties the rise of algorithmic social media to social and mental health issues among teens and children.
According to the CDC, suicide rates for children ages 13 to 24 have spiked 56% from 2007 to 2017, said Tim Kendall, former director of monetization at Facebook.
But for young women ages 13 to 18, the rate is doubled.
Perhaps the most alarming effect of social media on young women is the glorification of eating disorders. From “thinspiration” trends to “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia) forums online, eating disorder behaviors go beyond normalization – they’re encouraged.
Eating disorders have become a “social phenomenon,” said Dr. Tracey Dennis-Tiwary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, who conducts NIH-funded research on teen suicide risk. “Kids band together and agree to share the experience together. But like any form of addiction or self-harm, eating disorders are very isolating pathology.” By incubating people encouraging the behavior, social media has become an eating disorder “amplifier,” she said.
But therein lies the rub – like much of the internet, social media is built on competition for ad revenue, so patterned identification and amplification is the nature of the beast.
“If you pulled Apple or Google aside to rebuild the phone from scratch, I think they would get rid of a lot of these hooks built into phones – even some of the notification defaults,” according to Kendall, formerly of Facebook.
Signs of improvement
Gen Zers are more than “screen-addicted, emotionally crippled waifs,” Dr. Dennis-Tiwary said. People in their teens and early twenties are very aware of their own social paradoxes, perhaps more than anyone else.
When film director Liz Smith began gathering feedback on the movie, she found that only older generations were surprised by the presentation. “The older generations came away [from the movie] feeling quite shocked and depressed, whereas Gen Z says, ‘Yes. This is our reality,’” Smith said. “They’re a lot less shocked by the film.”
From self-improvement practices and open discussions about mental health to social and political organizing, Gen Zers are “incredibly engaged in the world around them,” Dr. Dennis-Tiwary said. “They have to be – we handed them this absolute mess of a world.”