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Connected or addicted? Gen Z's complex relationship with technology

This piece was originally published by The Australian Financial Review.

There's a lot of moral panic associated with the how Generation Z uses technology. As a cohort they have spent their entire lives immersed in the internet, with smartphones never far from their nimble fingers. Young people aged between 18 and 24 are a test case for the impact of technology on our broader social systems.

As with every new technology, from electricity to music to television, there is an ever-present fear among older generations of the damage it will do to young minds. Writing for The Atlantic and in her book iGen, American psychologist Jean Twenge argues that there is a sharp decline in the mental health outcomes of Gen Z (or "iGen" as she calls them) compared with their predecessors, and it correlates exactly to when smartphone use became more prevalent among young people.

"It's not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades," Twenge writes, "Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones."

This doom and gloom narrative points to the decrease in face-to-face socialising and a rising disinterest in "independence", which Twenge links to things like wanting to get a driver's licence or go shopping without one's parents. But is the situation really so dire, or is this just an intergenerational misunderstanding?

Appearances are deceptive

Dr Clare Southerton, a research fellow at the Australian National University specialising in intimacy and digital culture, argues that such catastrophising is often a case of correlation being mistaken for causation.

"Research in Australia has found some decline in face-to-face interaction, with mediated interaction like social media, instant messaging and services like Skype offering alternative ways to communicate," she says. "However, it is important to note studies have not found a decline in face-to-face interaction has any association with social isolation or a decline in feeling socially supported."

It's really just that the way we socialise is not as visually obvious as it once was – the sight of a teenager in their pyjamas, hunched over their phone might suggest social isolation to the concerned parent, but maybe they're actually in the online equivalent of a party, surrounded by 15-20 of their favourite people in a group chat, or connecting with peers and people they admire across the world through Instagram.

Freedom to decide

For Georgia, a 23-year-old retail manager from Victoria, interacting online actually gives her more independence and in many ways safeguards her mental health, especially when it comes to dating. She uses apps such as Tinder and Her, and says that technology helps her keep meeting people even when she's feeling less social – and importantly, gives her an out when someone exposes their weirder side.

"I have the freedom to decide whether I like someone enough to go out on a real date with them, instead of having to spend time with them in order to decide," she says. "It's a lot easier to swipe left on someone with weird habits or uncomfortable opinions than finding those things out halfway through a three-hour conversation."

Importantly, the screen can act as a tool for connection, rather than creating the social isolation so many people assume it does. This makes sense, given this generation has been connecting and socialising online for most of their lives.

Yen-Rong Wong, Brisbane writer and founding editor of Pencilled In Magazine, 23, finds the delineation between connections made online and those made in person to be arbitrary.

"I think it's a little facetious to [criticise] online connections because in this day and age, even if you do meet someone in person for the first time, you will inevitably end up communicating with them over text or email or Facebook messenger or whatever the cool kids today are using," she says.

Unfortunately, though, it's not all pragmatic decision making, especially when it comes to meeting total strangers through apps. As Yen-Rong points out, the slight distance of the internet does create space for some of the uglier aspects of humanity to prevail. One example is the racism she encounters, as a result of her Chinese heritage.

"I think I'm always holding my breath for something racist to come up [on dating apps], and it's such a relief when it doesn't," she says. "I've been called 'chink', told 'I've always wanted to f--- an Asian girl', seen preferences for 'Asian chicks' on bios …"

This is a key pitfall of communicating through technology, and is the aspect that older generations struggle with the most – it's true that cyber-bullying is more insidious than other forms of harassment, partly because there is no boundary to its reach; the negativity can find you wherever you go, beaming straight to your smartphone.

On the flipside though, this also means you have consistent access to your support networks, a fact that directly contradicts the hypothesis posed by Twenge that smartphones are enhancing solitude and dependence in young people.

Alarm bells

There is, of course, a tangible danger presented by the possibility of translating a relationship that has only been online to meeting in the real world. One of the earliest identified dangers of online communication was the potential for people to pose as fictional identities to manipulate their targets.

"Studies have not found a decline in face-to-face interaction has any association with social isolation or a decline in feeling socially supported," says Dr Clare Southerton, a research fellow at the Australian National University.

But where the thought of meeting up with a complete stranger who you only know from the internet used to ring alarm bells, young people today are pragmatic about it, especially when it comes to dating.

Irene, 20 and a student from Victoria, has a whole system worked out to mitigate her safety. "I share my location with three friends on Find My Friends. I let them all know what [the guy's] name is and send a screenshot of their Facebook profile. I tell them where we're going and keep them updated when possible."

This might seem extreme, but really, how different is it from meeting a stranger out at night and going to their home? Online dating and communication allows an element of preparation that can help mitigate safety concerns, as much as is possible.

While overall, meeting people online seems as natural to Gen Z as breathing, and comes with many benefits, there is the potential for swiping through partners to become as jaded and disconnected as scrolling through a Facebook feed.

"My biggest fear is how addictive it can become," James*, a 28-year-old postgraduate student in Canberra, admits. "If you meet someone you like, how long do you wait to disconnect from online? Do you keep swiping while you're figuring out if you like a person? Does continued swiping in the initial phase of seeing someone hurt your chances of a long-term relationship because you're one swipe away from meeting someone else?"

This suggests that perhaps the mental health impacts are more complex than social isolation or depression – could devices be creating new forms of addiction that we have failed to mitigate?

Isolated or social addicts?

Southerton is sceptical of the rise in diagnosing "addictions" to various apps, which she describes as a "really big 'trend' at the moment, with lots of talk of 'digital detoxing' and recommendations for appropriate amounts of screen time"

"Certainly, a small number of users may fit the criteria of 'addicted' but largely Gen Z users, though certainly heavier users than their parents, and probably heavier users than their parents would like, aren't addicted. People from older generations might see them as addicted because their social lives aren't as intimately connected to these communication apps, but for many young people their lives are intertwined with these platforms so it makes sense for them to be accessing them far more frequently."

It certainly does seem like Gen Z can't get it right, in the eyes of their predecessors – either they're socially isolated, or addicted to socialising online, in both cases driving themselves to mental health crises in the process.

The fact is that we're in uncharted territory, with nothing but the glare of a smartphone screen to guide the way. According to Southerton and Gen Z themselves, though, the kids are probably alright.

*name changed

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