By: Michael McQueen

Gen Z have never known a world without the Internet. As a result, their hobbies, careers, identities and language are being powerfully shaped by their relationship with the online world.

A Deloitte survey found that only 10% of Gen Zs opt to watch a TV show or a film in order to switch off or recharge. In comparison, 26% say that online gaming is their favourite way to pass the time. For the rest of the Gen Zs in the survey, their favourite forms of entertainment are listening to music (14%), browsing the Internet (12%) or scrolling through social media (11%).[1]

When talking about the online world, however, we are likely to mean something completely different in relation to Gen Z than we do in relation to their older counterparts.

Living With Apps

While apps like TikTok, Discord and Twitch may be entirely unfamiliar to older generations, they are part of the online everyday for young people. In 2020, the amount of time that Gen Z spent on the app eclipsed their use of YouTube,[2] and in 2021 TikTok was the world’s most visited internet site – even beating Google. On average, each of TikTok’s one billion users spend 24 hours viewing content on the platform per month.[3]

Every minute spent on TikTok represents time not spent using other apps such as Facebook. To this point, research in 2021 found that just 29% of 15-year old’s regularly use Facebook – a figure that has slumped from 94% a decade earlier. It’s not all bad news for Facebook though with 83% of teenagers regularly using their subsidiary app Instagram.[4]

Generational Differences

Interestingly, being online is not only Gen Z’s favourite way to pass the time but it is also the place they tend to feel most like themselves. In a 2021 by Coefficient Capital, 45% of Gen Zs say they feel most like their authentic selves online whereas 40% say that they are most authentic in the real world. This is in stark contrast with older generations. Amongst Gen Xers, only 22% felt most like themselves online and just 7% of Baby Boomers said the same. For these older generations, they felt much more comfortable and authentic offline (62% for Gen Xers and 75% for Baby Boomers).[5]

Despite this sense of online comfort and authenticity, 40% of Gen Z say that social media contributes to feelings of loneliness and inadequacy.[6] Mental health challenges and an overall sense of pessimism towards the future characterise this generation, with one manifestation of this being their climate anxiety. While they are distinctly progressive and idealistic in their thinking, the overwhelming presence of global unrest, financial crises and pandemic disruptions contribute to their having the least positive outlook compared to other generations.[7]

Sense of Disconnection

The impact of the pandemic on them exposed this susceptibility to mental health challenges very clearly. Coupled with the fact that many Gen Zs came of age during the pandemic, these challenges were intensified by the isolation of the pandemic. 83% of Gen Zs say they have a greater appreciation for in-person interactions and just over half said they felt isolated and disconnected during pandemic lockdowns. Significantly, this figure was much higher than the equivalent data for Gen Xers and Baby Boomers. For those already in the workplace, the loss of in-person interaction resulted in  sense of disconnection as well as limited mentoring and career progression opportunities. While 50% of Baby Boomers felt it was harder to stay in the loop while working from home, 74% of Gen Zs reported feeling this way.[8]

It is perhaps this proclivity to negative thinking that gives Gen Zs their famed ironic sense of humour, which presents itself perhaps most clearly in their use of emojis. Where older generations are much more likely to take emojis at face value, Gen Zs use of them is almost always ironic – this discrepancy causing much confusion between different groups.

The Language of Emojis

In her book Digital Body Language, Erica Dhawan examines the dynamics involved in this generation’s very different use of emoji’s. “People over 30 generally use emojis to convey what the images always did, she said, while younger digital natives ascribe sarcastic meanings to them, or use them as shorthand for an entirely different thought.” The stakes are high when it comes to emoji-based miscommunication – especially in the workplace. “The rise of emoji use at work, such as between remote teams during the pandemic, has created more misunderstanding than ever,” according to Dhawan.

For example, where older generations would use the laughing emoji to express laughter, Gen Zs often opt for the skull emoji as a way of expressing that they are ‘dying or dead from laughter’. Where a simple smiley face or thumbs up for older generations would be read as an honest expression of approval, Gen Zs are likely to read it as passive aggression. They use the cowboy emoji to express the idea that they are happy on the outside but ‘dying on the inside’ and the clown emoji in a self-deprecating statement of their own foolishness.

With a distinct set of challenges, an original sense of humour and a unique way of communicating, this generation of digital natives has a whole new way of operating in the online world. But, despite being digital natives, the value of the analogue is certainly not lost on them.

[1]  Campbell, H. 2021, ‘Video Games Are Bigger Than Movies And Music Combined – And Surveys Show That Gap May Widen,’ Science 2.0, 20 April.

[2]  Nakafuji, R. 2021, ‘Tiktok overtakes Facebook as world’s most downloaded app,’ Nikkei Asia, 9 August.

[3]  Porter, J. 2021, ‘TikTok reportedly overtakes YouTube in US average watch time,’ The Verge, 7 September.

[4]  2022, ‘The Gen Z stats worrying Facebook,’ YouthSense, 16 February.

[5]  Sanwal, A. 2021, ‘Gen Z feel more like themselves online,’ CB Insights, 23 December.

[6] 2023, ‘Deloitte’s 2023 Gen Z and Millennial Survey reveals workplace progress despite new setbacks’, Deloitte, 17 May.

[7] 2023, ‘What is Gen Z?’ McKinsey & Co, 20 March.

[8]  2020, ‘Over 90% of Young Workers Having Difficulty Working from Home, Survey Finds’, Smartsheet, 22 April.

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

Feature image: Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash