Pulling Generation Z back from the online world

Being consistently logged on may cause a decrease in self-esteem with comparison, jealousy and a fake world surfacing through negative social interactions

Generation Z – those born after 1995 – have been born into a divisive world with a strong external presence weighing them down.

While Millennials (1981 to mid-90s) and Generation X (1960s and ’70s) witnessed a slow integration into a world so consumed with advertising, social media and what behavior scientist and author BJ Fogg describes as “captology”, the current evolution of Generation Z pulsates with an addiction to a private, self-consumed online world. Social media may not be fully to blame for the disproportionate attitudes of the current generation, however, it is impossible to say that it has not played some large part in the negative change in young adults of today, resulting in higher rates of depression, loneliness and a lack of confidence.

Many of Generation Z are still young, teenagers, with the oldest of the cohort entering the workforce. The impact of social media on their lives has transformed how they communicate, their desires for certain careers and developed identities which are new and misunderstood by older generations who are less involved or switched on to the online world.

There is a new separation from self, from community, with confused identities in Gen Z as bombardment from online worlds consume them. This has developed a fear of living offline, even greater than the fear of missing out. As a result, anxiety and depression has become prevalent as this change in behavioural patterns deepens.



Susi Lodola, counselling psychotherapist, has seen an increase of teenagers attending her practice, mainly presenting with anxiety and with issues about fitting in with other teens at school. While social media is often blamed for these issues, a lack of freedom during childhood may, in part, also be responsible.

“We can look towards developmental psychology,” explains Lodola, “from which we know that the lens we use to view the world around us is about 50 per cent genetic and around 50 per cent comes from our environment which we are exposed to during our formative years, such as parents, friends, teachers, extended family, etc.

“Taking this into consideration, lack of freedom could be part responsible, but there are many other factors that would play a role, which stem from the environment to which children are exposed. What I see in my practice are often very concerned parents bringing their children to me because they feel they are not reaching their potential, or they are not mixing in school, etc.

“This would indicate to me that sometimes parents have very high expectations due to wanting only the best for their child, but this leads to putting indirect pressure on a child to ‘perform’ a certain way. This is concerning as this would be one of the underlying issues causing anxiety.”

Lack of freedom

Considering Generation Z are the most proficient in using technology and delving into the online world, there is an ownership for them as they are self-taught and more understanding of the virtual world in comparison to the reality surrounding them. Perhaps the lack of freedom in childhood has established this consummation into an online world as control and understanding is firmly in their hands.

“Social media has certainly a role to play in the changing behaviours and attitudes of this generation,” says Lodola. “Children are heavily exposed to social media during their formative years. One study carried out in the US found that young people get depressed about seeing and hearing negative news reported in the media. Before smart phones etc, there was news maybe twice a day on TV, but now we are all exposed 24/7 to a stream of news, and a lot of it is very negative and catastrophic. It is enough to cause anxiety and depression in a child with poor coping skills.”

Being consistently logged on may cause a decrease in self-esteem as the real world and online world of Gen Z often play out in tandem, with comparison, jealousy and a fake world surfacing through negative social interactions. BJ Fogg’s understanding of “captology” highlights the persuasive nature of computer technologies which influence, motivate and ultimately change behaviour. Social media has a damning effect on the human mind as it uses triggers to manipulate our emotional state.

Upcoming generations

Many Gen Zers believe that social media has directly affected their lives, their happiness and their overall wellbeing. For the next generation this will certainly increase if support, understanding and appreciation of this world we are creating for upcoming generations is not given a new direction or balance. Considering Gen Z is so deeply, internally affected by the online world, it may be the responsibility of the older generations, who are at a greater distance to social media, to provide this balance. However, with the idea of “captology” so incessantly ingrained in our online interactions, is there a way to counter the addiction and manipulation of generations to come without the involvement of the higher ups of social media platforms themselves? Where can this balance be found if social media is not ready to change?

“A lot of research has to be carried out and currently is being undertaken to find out the effects of being ‘logged on’ to get an idea how young people are affected,” says Lodola.

“In the meantime, moderation is advisable. Having a balance is important. Choose times when the phone is deliberately switched off, engage in one or two hobbies. It is about finding mechanisms that will allow Generation Z to have a balance. It is also important to learn from research what the effects are and put something in place for the next generation, that would be possibly delivered through schools and help educate and support parents.”