Digital Tribes: Gen Z's Friend and Foe
Patrick Gilligan (CEO, Somethings) breaks down the impact of niche online communities on adolescent well-being.
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Last week, San Mateo became the first county in the USA to declare loneliness as a public health emergency with 45% of its residents saying they are lonely. Ironically, or perhaps predictably, San Mateo is also the headquarters of Facebook which has been singled out as a prime culprit for the mental health crisis facing society.
Also last week, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg along with the CEOs of Snap, Discord, X, and TikTok testified to Congress about the damage online social media has caused young people due to bullying, harassment, and sexual predators. Zuck, after being bullied himself by Senator Josh Hawley, apologized to the parents of some of the victims.
This isn't a natural disaster...social media, games, and Covid played a major role in getting us to this point…but it will be a National Disaster if bold and urgent action isn't taken.
“In high school, I had 6 or 7 close friends, but that number has dropped down to 2 since starting college.”
In the six months since starting her freshman year, 18-year-old Seika reflected on the shifts that had occurred in her social landscape since leaving high school.
Where once she found it easy to develop a close-knit group of friends, college life had whittled that number down to only a couple. "It’s been difficult to make friends in person" Seika shared, highlighting a common sentiment among her peers. “You look at someone and you feel like they are this one kind of person. And it’s easy to judge them on how they dress, their fashion choices, who they are…there’s a divide between people that’s real”.
Teenagers today face the dynamics of an increasingly complex social world. The traditional set of adolescent stressors – dating, academics, and family expectations – are now being compounded by the unique challenges of the digital age. For Gen Z, online bullying is abundant and commonplace, and the fear of missing out (FOMO) pervades at extreme levels.
To cope with the new set of social challenges, many teens seek social interaction through niche online communities built around highly specified interests.
“Discords are big because they have people who identify with different things. People feel good talking to people who have similar interests… Finding people who have similar values and interests, it’s really important to me.” - Seika
Digital chat discussion forums like Discord have become the new venues for teens to interact with others who share narrowly defined interests, personality traits, and identities. Teens are now able to join communities for everything from Taylor Swift “Swiftie” fans to their favorite niche manga.
Within these communities, teens meet and interact with others who share their passion and affinity for a particular interest - something that their parents and even their friends at school might not understand. These communities tend to be focused, highly supportive, and egalitarian, moderated by the most engaged community members to ensure a quality experience for its members. They provide a safe and comfortable space for teens to use pseudonymous identities to express themselves and interact with others who are just like them. Instead of being confined to the physical social graph which limits social interaction based on geography, teens are, for the first time, leveraging the digital social graph to interact with others based on their shared genuine interests.
This shift towards hyper-niche digital socialization offers unparalleled opportunities for connection across global distances, providing support networks for those with highly specific interests and those in marginalized groups such as LGBTQ+ teens in rural areas. In addition, the general move towards more time alone has led teens to spend less time engaging in risky activities such as drinking, sexual activity, and juvenile crime.
It's clear that there are benefits when teens make connections online. However, this trend may unfortunately be pulling teens away from crucial, in-person social interactions that they need to develop properly. The data illustrates that a move towards more online social interaction has led to a shift towards increased isolation, with significant declines in the frequency of in-person social outings among teens over the last few decades. Concurrently, our own survey of 348 teens in January 2024 revealed that a staggering 73% reported having fewer than four close friends.
The average American will end up spending 21 years, 4 months and 29 days online across the course of their life. Similarly to how Baby Boomers need to learn digital skills, we will soon have to teach Gen-Z and Gen Alpha basic social skills. - Kian Bakhtiari (Forbes)
Today’s youth has a serious social disconnection problem.
With fewer friends overall and less time spent in-person with peers, teens are being robbed of formative experiences that would have otherwise allowed them to develop the tools needed to navigate their adult lives. These experiences, often awkward or anxiety-inducing, like asking a crush to dance or joining a new social group, are vital for fostering resilience. They offer manageable challenges that allow teens to learn and mature, teaching them how to handle life's complexities and overcome adversity.
The more time teens spend online in safe and supportive niche communities, the less time they spend navigating these appropriately challenging real-life experiences. The decline in these formative experiences has contributed to a delay in the transition into adulthood.
The consequences of this shift towards online social interaction extend beyond the loss of social skills or missed teenage milestones; they impact the core of adolescent mental health. The U.S. Surgeon General's advisory on the epidemic of loneliness and isolation details the profound risks associated with diminished social connections, including heightened risks of depression and anxiety. These risks are being realized by the increase in the number of teens with mental health issues.
“I think teens are more lonely than they used to be - I’m finding that even people with friends are lonely. A friend of mine always talks about how lonely he is. Almost like he’s only left to his thoughts. It has a lot to do with social media because you know that someone else is always talking to someone and the FOMO.” - Seika
We are raising a generation who has been afforded an amazing ability - to connect with those around the world who are just like them and to find community in expressing the truest forms of themselves and their identities. However, this gift might also be robbing them of the necessary elements for developing resilience, navigating life's challenges, and otherwise feeling connectedness in this modern digital world.
Teenagers might read this and call me a Boomer, but online social interaction is an incredibly new medium when compared to the evolved, physical nature of human social interaction. The result of these trends appears to be, in the aggregate, a generation that is significantly less happy and one that lacks the tools necessary to face adversity.
And although teens spend more time than anyone on social media, there seems to be an increasing realization that these platforms are not entirely beneficial.
“If I could snap my fingers and change anything to help young people's mental health, I’d probably just delete Twitter.” - Seika
So what can be done to address the growing crisis of loneliness and mental health struggles among teenagers?
One answer lies in encouraging parents to foster environments that encourage meaningful, in-person connections. Take video games, for instance. While they’re a staple of many teen boys’ social lives, parents can encourage teens to meet up and play together in physical spaces rather than in isolation. The shared physical space can promote social bonding and encourage real physical interaction. Additionally, breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health, especially in communities where therapy is viewed with skepticism, is vital in enabling teens to engage in positive experiences that provide them the tools to overcome adversity.
“A lot of parents avoid therapy. A lot of my Chinese friends have parents who won’t send them to therapy or get them help. It’s a fear thing like, ‘I don’t want my kid to be that one who goes to therapy.’ “ - Seika
I’m skeptical that teens are going to reduce their use of digital technology anytime soon. We can bridge the gap between teens' online connections and real-life support by linking them with mentors who share their interests but also offer guidance to navigate challenges. Caring adults who "get" them and can provide real-life wisdom and help them overcome adversity. This is what we are trying to achieve at Somethings, where we connect teens with trained mentors who are slightly older to help them navigate their challenges and live resilient lives.
Despite all of the indicators pointing toward increasing mental illness and loneliness among teens, I am deeply optimistic about the future of this generation. Gen Z is incredibly open to conversations about mental health and is willing to engage with support systems when they need it. Thousands of teens have reached out to Somethings on their own to get support because they want to improve their lives and feel better. They are much less encumbered by a generational stigma towards mental health and are instead eager to find ways to be better.
By encouraging teens to engage in meaningful relationships and providing them access to support, we can better equip them with the tools to navigate a complex world, ensuring they grow into well-adjusted adults.
If you’re interested in learning more or getting involved with Somethings, email us at email@example.com.