In a series of qualitative interviews with Gen Z and Millennial youths in Spain we explore how they communicate and a host of other behaviors and attitudes, answering 8 intriguing questions:
- Do they need to be connected?
- Do they feel in control of their online time?
- Are virtual friends the equivalent of real-world ones?
- Is communicating with older generations online different?
- Do influencers have an impact?
- Can spending so many hours online and on social media have a negative impact on self-esteem?
- Are they in favor of cancel culture?
- Are they optimistic?
Warning: The questions are all loaded, there are no right or wrong answers, and all the answers come with caveats and flipsides!
Do they need to be connected?
Both to keep themselves entertained and to communicate
They’re digital natives and being connected is in their nature, and it’s not just needed for entertainment but for communication with friends and family. Miquel, who is 23, explained: “If WhatsApp were to fail and we couldn’t group chat, we’d never figure out where to meet and what to do.”
To test how strong their need to be connected is, we asked if they would go to a remote island with no internet or connection of any kind, and most answered something similar to Leire, who is 29: "I would go for 2 weeks and only if accompanied by someone, otherwise it would be very boring. I don't think I can go a whole month without internet."
And it’s not just needed for social comms, but also for work and study comms. One 17-year-old explained that before Covid her classes were all in-person and essentially all of her schoolwork too. And when she’d exceed her allowed online time her parents would take away her devices. But with Covid all her classes and schoolwork went online and even though she’s back in face-to-face classes, most of the schoolwork has remained online and so when her parents try to take her devices away they can’t because she always needs them to complete an assignment.
Do they feel in control of their online time?
But… they recognize the addictive and anti-productive nature of much of it
The trick to this question is that they feel in control, but are they really? Our participants spent between 5 and 12 hours a day connected, and most confess that a lot of that is for purely entertainment and more of a waste of time than a productive use of it. Some periodically feel the need to detox and get reset to reality.
Amira, who is 17, explains: "My sister stops using all social media every now and then because it consumes so much of her time. She says it’s like a social media diet."
And quite a few would be in favor of an option in social media apps to auto control via alerts for overuse.
Nagore, who is 26, explains: "Parents should limit time in the case of children, and in the case of young adults we should limit ourselves. It would be interesting if the social network offered the user the option of limiting the access time. "
According to a report by Konrad Collao of Craft Strategies, “Beyond Z: The Real Truth About British Youth”, done for Channel 4, we know that one in five GenZers say they have paused their social media use to protect their mental health.
Are virtual friends the equivalent of real-world ones?
Virtual ‘friends’ are totally valid in their own way, but are not quite the same as ‘real’ ones
Alba who is 32, explains "I have a very good relationship with a person that I met on Tinder that I haven't even seen a picture of. In that sense the two relationships are equally valid. However, you cannot replace personal relationships with purely virtual ones. It is necessary at some point to go to the mountains hunting for mushrooms or something like that.”
However, there is a bit of a flip side to that, as Ash, who is 17, explains: “I am a shy person, and it is easier for me to start talking to people online. Social Media has helped me in fostering friendships.”
The power of Social Media to help foster friendships is backed up by a study done by PEW Research called “Connection, Creativity and Drama: Teen Life on Social Media in 2022” where 80% of US teens say Social Media allows them to be more connected.
Is communicating with older generations online different?
They do this but in different ways, especially avoiding emojis and animated gifs
Alvaro, who is 20, explains: “Emojis may be misinterpreted by older generations. They do not understand emojis when we use them, and sometimes when they decide to use them we do not understand what they mean because they use them badly.”
Leire, who is 29, says: “People confuse the crying emoji with the laughing yourself to tears emoji.”
And that is not even mention the confusion with the skull emoji which, despite its morbid first impression, quite innocuously means ‘dying of laughter’.
On the flip side, however, not using emojis may be just as confusing, as Miquel explains: “Text-only messages are the ones that cause the most confusion because you can't read the tone.”
Avoiding inter-generational misinterpretations of text and emojis will only become more important as more Gen Zers enter the workforce. Gen Z workers are expected to more than triple in the United States, Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands and United Kingdom, accounting for 30% of total employment by 2030, according to a study by Oxford Economics entitled “Gen Z’s Role In Shaping The Digital Economy” done for Snap Inc.
Do influencers have an impact?
But a limited one… or it depends…
When we asked simply if 'influencers have an influence?' we got some very non-committal answers, but when we asked specifically “¿Who influences more when selling a product, an influencer or an advertisement?” all agree that for younger demographics they would go with the influencer.
All also seem to make their own influencer segmentation which is very subjective, but very generally divides them into 2 buckets, one full of “mindless entertainment” (silly dances and pranks) and another which promises greater value-added “educational and informative” content.
Then, there also looms a middle gray area of fashion and self-care influencers who may be more superficial, or actually provide valuable tips.
According to an IAB study of Influencers based on Nielsen’s InfluenceScope, Instagram is the first platform by number of influencers in Spain, United Kingdom and Italy. TikTok, meanwhile, is the first platform by number of influencers in France, Germany and the Netherlands. TikTok influencers are mostly Gen Zs (60%), while Instagram is more populated by millennials (55%). Youtube is fairly balanced with 35% and 38%.
Can spending so many hours online and on social media have a negative impact on self-esteem?
But for most it’s a learning experience which they overcome
While none of participants felt this to be true for them currently, many have experienced this in the past and nearly all have seen negative impacts in their peers.
Amira, who is 17, opened up about her experiences: “Previously, social media influenced my lack of self-esteem a lot because I wasn't like the girls I saw on Social Media. Now I have realized that the physique does not matter. I have stopped watching those videos, but many of my friends continue to be affected by them and it hurts them not to be like the girls they see on social media. They change their way of dressing to look more like those stereotypes and when they do not achieve it, I see my friends are sad or even it seems sometimes they are not present when we get together to talk.”
Results from a study by Marta Delgado of Twiga Research for the Spanish Mental Health Federation and insurance company Mutua Madrileña help to provide some idea of the dimension of the problem. In that study over a quarter, 26.4% of the 18-24 age range describe their mental health as “very bad”, and when we look at older ranges above 24, only 8.5% use the “very bad” descriptor. That said, there are a lot caveats to this finding, especially the higher access to information about mental health issues and the lower perception of the stigma attached to them, but the difference is still striking.
And on the flipside, online content may also have a positive impact on self-esteem. According to the study “Beyond Z: The Real Truth About British Youth”, 44% of Gen Z said they had been helped to accept their body as it is by information or images they found online, almost exactly the same proportion as said the opposite.
Are they in favor of cancel culture?
But to stop following someone who annoys them is perfectly normal and not considered ‘cancelling’
This question generated a lot of comments in defense of free speech, but there is an important flip side where tolerance has it’s limits, especially online where the ease of ‘cancelling’ can be done by clicking a button to unfriend or stop following…
Alba, who is 32, explains: “I think that in social networks there is less tolerance than in society because anonymity, ease of access and immediacy come together.”
And Ash, who is 17, explained that as a baby they were assigned female, and that as a pre-teen and early teen they read all the Harry Potter books and watched all the movies, but right at the age when Ash was beginning to identify as non-binary, JK Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, started tweeting criticisms of trans people with regards to their choice of which bathroom to they could use. Ash explained that it felt like her childhood hero (and current role model) was negating the new identity that Ash was just coming to terms with, and described it as “like a hole was being ripped out of my childhood.” Given that they felt that their identity was being attacked, it was only natural to stop consuming JK Rowling’s content and de-link themselves from the attacker.
Are they optimistic?
Yes and No…
While they view their own futures positively, the future of society overall isn’t so bright…
Anne, who is 27, offers an insightful glimpse into the conflicting currents of optimism and pessimism that the younger generations face: “The country's economy, fake news and the lack of job options for young people are what worry me. I hope life will improve, that there will be more opportunities and that society will not demand so much in terms of beauty, money and established canons. The future in general looks ugly. But personally I think that for me the situation will improve, but I am not quite sure... Before life had defined steps (you study, work, get married) and now those steps can not be taken so easily and there are different paths. The older generations do not understand that society has changed and judge us with outdated criteria."
So, even though they view their own future with more optimism than that of society, in both cases the view to the future is tempered by a high degree of uncertainty.
To wrap up, here are the 8 answers to the original questions
- Being connected is embedded in their behaviors and culture
- They control their time online and will waste it, or use it, as they see fit
- Friends are friends, but virtual ones aren’t quite real
- Communicating online with older generations requires a different lexicon
- Influencers only influence if they let them
- Maintaining self-esteem online is a learned skill
- Cancel culture is not cool, but if annoyed they will stop following
- The future is bright, unless it’s that of society in general
This is a summary of the 15-minute session Brian Loeb lead at the IIEX Conference in Amsterdam in March of 2023. The session was more oriented to being an entertaining flyby than a deep analysis. In the coming months we will do more research and elaborate a richer analysis with insights into even more key topics such as sustainability, sexuality and gender identity. The primary research consists of 16 qualitative videoconference interviews with youths aged 17 to 34 residents in Spain in November 2022. This was augmented by secondary research with special attention paid to the following sources:
Channel 4 - Beyond Z : The Real Truth About British Youth
PEW Research - “Connection, Creativity and Drama: Teen Life on Social Media in 2022”
Oxford Economics - “Gen Z’s Role In Shaping The Digital Economy” done for Snap Inc. https://resources.oxfordeconomics.com/hubfs/Gen_Zs_Role_In_Shaping_The_Digital_Economy.pdf
“La situación de la salud mental en España”, elaborado por la Confederación SALUD MENTAL ESPAÑA y la Fundación Mutua Madrileña
Internet influencers and generation gaps – BBC Podcast with Olivia Yallop, Sarah Ogilvie and Bobby Duffy