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Every generation is different from the one it supersedes. Generation Z (Gen Z), those born from the late 1990s, have had access to online services and technology for their entire lives.
They tend to spend a significant amount of time on social media, put a whole lot of value on thumb-up and heart “like” emoticons and generally do not differentiate massively between online friendship and meeting friends face-to-face in the real world.
Robert Wigley, chairman of UK Finance, explores the implications of these and other Gen Z traits in his new book, Born Digital.
Wigley says the recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, launched in partnership with the US Center for Humane Technology, sounded a warning note: “People who feature in the documentary are whistleblowers. We should take note.”
But although it is a warning, for Wigley, The Social Dilemma doesn't tell the story from the perspective of Gen Z. “They know there is a problem,” he says.
There is a series of societal trends linked to Gen Z that Wigley believes cannot be ignored. One is the kind of relationships they have with their family. In the past, there was the concept of the nuclear family, everyone in the family sat down at the table for dinner and watched TV as a family, often because there was only one television in the home. “We had playtime and empathy developed,” says Wigley.
But today, parents are on their devices and young children are given tablets to keep themselves entertained. In most modern families, says Wigley, there is also a massive issue with negotiating access to devices. “It’s a tension in families. Parents have to be more informed,” he says.
Giving in to a child’s insistence on using a device may be the easy option, but Wigley says: “We don’t realise what is being interrupted. The way a parent has a face-to-face interaction with a child is a fundamental part of the parent/child relationship. No one in my generation has pieced it together. This is a fundamental change in how kids live their lives.”
In Born Digital, Wigley describes how the world is sleepwalking into a new disaster, which he calls “a crisis of distraction”. Like other crises, the warning signs are ever present, but people seem to be ignoring them. “I have seen the world sleepwalking into past crises: the dot.com crash, the global financial crisis and the climate crisis,” he says.
“We should be demanding global cooperation to manage the internet and technology, to find a better balance for the good of society”
Robert Wigley, UK Finance
The book explores the societal risks of social media and its effect on Gen Z. Wigley says children and young people in Gen Z tend to use social media as their primary form of interacting with those around them. In Born Digital, he describes how they snack on multiple information sources and are less likely to engage in a way that would enable them to see physically in their friends’ faces the impact of what they have said.
He warns of an impending “distraction” crisis, which, according to Wigley, could have the most serious and long-lasting effects of all. In the book, he urges everyone, from individual citizens to governments, to recognise the dangers and “take urgent action to restore control of our attention to us, its owners”.
He adds: “Kids are cyber socialising in a way that is very different to how we socialised as kids.” While appearing to connect people, for Wigley, social media actually leads to less face-to-face time and can affect mental wellbeing.
Gen Z is viewed as less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations. In his book, Wigley looks at how this perceived lack of resilience is linked closely to this generation’s reliance on technology and may reflect the impact of social media on confidence, self-esteem and sensitivity to, and ability to express, varying points of view.
The book references a Children’s Society Good Childhood Report from 2019, which concluded that there had been a continuous decline in average happiness among 10-15-year-olds in the UK, happiness with friends was in decline and 15-year-olds in the UK were among the saddest and least satisfied with their lives in Europe.
The research was conducted before the coronavirus pandemic, which has brought a new stream of negativity. “I believe we should be demanding global cooperation to manage the internet and technology, to find a better balance for the good of society,” says Wigley.
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As Wigley points out, Facebook is arguably the biggest news broadcaster in the world, and is controlled by one leader, Mark Zuckerberg. “People don’t realise they see different views of news,” he says.
In effect, Facebook stifles healthy debate, says Wigley. “You can’t have a serious debate about anything, because Facebook only presents you with the news you want to see,” he adds. On the social media platform, people with opposing views may as well be living in different worlds.
The power and influence that Facebook wants to enforce was highlighted recently when it went to war with Australia, blocking news in that country. Its action was effectively a warning shot against proposed new regulations in Australia to charge internet firms for the news feeds they collect from media outlets.
Commenting on the Australian government’s spat with Facebook, Wigley says: “Australia is the first market to take action of this sort, so perhaps Facebook thinks by doing this it will discourage other markets from following Australia’s lead. And perhaps Australia is a small enough market that Facebook can afford to withdraw there.
“The interesting test would be if a larger and more significant market to Facebook’s overall business made similar regulatory proposals. I don’t think Facebook understands the level of global political and regulatory concern over its substantial role in news dissemination.
“It is unimaginable that a sovereign country would have been allowed by others to get into such a position of global importance. This has led to some calling Facebook a ‘sovereign company’.”
Attacking values and traditions
For Wigley, technology is systematically attacking the places where human empathy has traditionally developed. There is general consensus that Gen Z is excellent at multitasking: young people today seem to be able to simultaneously listen to music while watching a movie and interacting with friends on social media. Wigley questions whether they are gaining any great insight from consuming information in this multimodal way.
Similarly, the fact that Gen Z tends to scan information and read the headlines in a news feed rather than click through to read articles, prevents them from fully understanding issues that require deeper knowledge, warns Wigley. “When AI [artificial intelligence] takes away basic jobs, we need to develop skills that the technology cannot do,” he says. “Do we have the capacity to ‘deep work’? This is not about phishing for some information and coming back to it later. That only leads to shallow work.”
From a pure worker productivity perspective, he says: “After Covid-19, society will have a massive public debt burden to pay off. By reducing the productivity cost of distraction, we could increase GDP substantially and eliminate this debt faster for our children.”
As a final thought, Wigley believes children need to be taught how to use the internet and social media in the same way that they are taught sex education. “There is a big gap in schooling,” he says. “We have sex education in the curriculum, but responsible internet use is not in the national curriculum.”
Born Digital by Robert Wigley (Whitefox) is out on 11 March.