Young, Savvy and Media-free

Prepare to ditch your assumptions about Generation Z and social media. Change is in the air.

It is a cliché of the generation divide: post-digital teenagers glued to their smartphone screens. Pre-digital parents despairing about their kids’ lack of engagement with the real world. Marketers sagely repeating all the old tropes about the immense power of social media to reach Generation Z, that generation born between the mid-1990s and mid-noughties who have never known a pre-digital world.

That’s still largely true. Online influencers can reach an audience that conventional media can only dream of. Facebook has 2.2 billion regular users. Instagram grew by 25% from 800 million to 1 billion users in the past year. But there are signs – call them straws in the wind – that some demographic groups are beginning to turn off. And it’s not the oldies.

Facebook’s shift in user demographics is a case in point. Back in 2015, the Pew Research Centre, a not-for-profit, non-partisan ‘fact tank’ found that 71% of 13 to 17-year olds said they used Facebook. By 2018 that figure had dropped to 51%. It is widely felt that ‘parents killed Facebook’ for Generation Z and they had migrated to other platforms like Snapchat and Instagram.

But when Kylie Jenner wrote, “Does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me… ugh this is so sad” Snapchat’s shares plummeted by 7.2 per cent within hours. In Quarter two 2018, Snapchat’s daily active users dropped from 191 million to 188 million, the first recorded drop in the company’s history. No social media platform is immune to the whims of an audience that, by definition, is growing, learning and changing every day.

just 57% agreed with the statement ‘social media is important to me’

Participation on social media platforms puts intense pressure on the young to present an idealised persona to the world. The relentless quest for followers can be a harsh workload for teens at a vulnerable time in their lives. In 2017, a survey of British schoolchildren found that 63% would have been happy if social media had never been invented. Meanwhile, research company Ampere Analysis found that from a sample of 9,000 internet users, just 57% agreed with the statement ‘social media is important to me’, down from 66% when asked that question in 2016.

One social media dropout, interviewed by Sirin Kale of the Guardian, explained why. “If you’re having a bad day and scrolling through it, you’re constantly bombarded with pictures of people going to parties….it became depressing. It was this competition of who was the happiest.”

In a survey of Generation Z by US firm Hill Holliday, half of those surveyed said they had quit or were considering quitting at least one social media platform. And of those potential quitters, 44% gave as their reason as: ‘to use my time in more valuable ways’.

So a change could be in the air. What if it became cool to be offline? The digital world is now so dominant that we can easily forget how new it still is. Change is always possible. And probable.

Maybe the novelty of checking your phone every five minutes for updates and clickbait will begin to fade, and we’ll become more selective about how much social media interaction we want. If so, it’s fascinating that it’s Generation Z – the ones who’ve never known a time before the online world – who are showing us how to log out.