Noticing Gen Z and the Tweens of Gen Alpha, Part 2 - Bravester

They are not like previous generations.

This generation is different. Says someone who has been there with teens since the 1980s. I as a youth pastor have worked with teens in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, and now the 2020s. (Read about these different decades here.) So I say confidently that this Gen Z and the new tweens of Gen Alpha are very different. This Information Age and the smart devices have changed adolescence. This is a good and bad thing. Join me in this series at the odd wonder of what is going on. Your heart will break and you will find inspiration.  I believe in teens.

Part 1.

Part 3.

Part 4.

Boomers like me who hate math had no idea what an algorithm was before the 2000s. Now we all know we are victims of algorithms. And now know how to spell algorithms. We still don’t know how they work.

Gen Z has grown up inside the algorithms and are for the most part okay with algorithms informing their lives. This is how they learn what they like. Algorithms help form their identity, which is a crucial role of adolescence.

Gen Z do depend on these algorithms to learn as they are also aware of the downside. “Algorithms act like conveyor belts. Show even the slightest interest, fear, or insecurity about anything—hover over it for half a second—and you will be drawn in deeper. Little by little, the algorithm learns what keeps you watching. And since the most negative and extreme posts get the most engagement, very often your feed will become an endless stream of content that makes you feel worse about yourself. You’ll find yourself on a continuous conveyor belt of apps, products, services, pills, and procedures to fix you.” –Freya India

This insight comes from a Gen Zer who has the uncanny knack to reveal what Gen Z is just beginning to figure out. While all they know is learning through algorithms, they are also just figuring out how this is ruining their growing-up experiences.

(Millennials: Forgive yourself. No one knew about social media addiction and the dangers when you were teens. You were the guinea pigs to the many who have made millions off of you. Social media has been falsely named to dupe us. It’s not about relationships. It’s about transactions.)

More from Freya: “I remember first hearing conversations about mental health in the mid-2010s when I was 12 or 13. The first YouTube stars started opening up, tentatively, about their anxiety and depression. Celebrities confessed to struggling. Mental health communities formed on Tumblr. I learned about anorexia, self-harm, and disorders like ADHD. It all felt important to talk about.

“But things quickly began to change. Some of us got hitched to the algorithm. Platforms like YouTube began to reward cheap, clickbait posts to boost ad revenue, meaning that users were being served more and more sensational content. Slowly we went from watching influencers talk about anxiety to live-streaming their panic attacks, describing deeply personal traumas along to pop songs, and even capturing split-personality switches on camera. TikTok came out and suddenly everyone seemed to be sharing their symptoms of mental illness. Next, they started telling us we might be mentally ill! We began to see TikToks telling us we have anxiety, autism, ADHD, and traumatic stress disorders. (Read more about this trend.) Companies caught on. Soon we were served customized ads, micro-targeted ads, solutions to our specific struggles. Videos with vaguer and vaguer symptoms. Distracted a lot? You might have ADHD. Have ADHD? You need Ritalin. Pay for this virtual therapy app; get medication delivered to your door; buy some ADHD merch!

“And where have we ended up? With genuine conversations about mental health cheapened, monetized, and often trivialized into TikTok trends and fashion accessories. With pre-teens making mental illness the core of their identity.

“…We didn’t just grow up with algorithms. They raised us. They rearranged our faces. Shaped our identities. Convinced us we were sick.”

This is where we find ourselves today. This is where us adults who believe in the abilities of teens are lost in how to reach through THIS noise with the message of the truth of Jesus.

I have hope that my wisdom coming in real life from my skin that now has wrinkles will be trusted more than the noise. I promise to enter the struggle with them and be a guide to what their souls are seeking. Skin-on consistency may be the best thing we have to offer teens today.

Teens do not have the social obligation to attend church anymore. Many haven’t been in a church before, or maybe just occasionally. The Barna Group’s landmark study has found that this generation is seeking Jesus. Barna calls them the Open Generation. They are seeking for something real that their soul wants. The algorithm has not provided this.

This means when they do come to church, they want to learn about Jesus. It’s not the pizza and coffee, the bright lights, and the noise they have everywhere else in their lives.

Who is telling them to shut off their smartphones?
Where else can they find some quiet away from the technology?
Where else can the algorithms be stopped and they can listen to their souls?

“Gen Z has grown up immersed in algorithmically-driven social media, and now–emerging from a pandemic and its economic repercussions–they want more simplicity and kinship. They’re sidestepping dating apps when seeking love, and turning away from Instagram and TikTok when seeking friendship. ‘Gen Z simply are sick of the same old, same old when it comes to social media,’ says Katya Varbanova, a brand marketing strategist. ‘They’re craving new experiences mainstream apps aren’t able to produce…add information overload to that, [and] the comparanoia can lead to anxiety, [eating disorders], and mental health struggles. No wonder Gen Z are craving places that make them feel better, not worse.’” –Katya Varbanova, Source.

Of course, Katya’s idea is to promote another app. This one similar to the original MySpace. Hearkening back to time before smart devices.

Freya India wrote this haunting article about nostalgia for a time Gen Zers never knew. “There is a beautiful and melancholic word I like called anemoia. It means nostalgia for a time or a place one has never known.

“This is a sentiment I often sense from my generation, Gen Z—especially in recent years. I see it in the YouTube videos of old concerts that get millions of views. I see it in our fascination with polaroids, vinyls, vintage cameras, and VHS tapes.” –Freya India (Please read all of this article.)

In the article she included this random YouTube video of someone’s last day of high school in 1999 which has millions of views and over 30,000 comments. Watch it.

Did you notice what is missing?

No phones. Face-to-face conversations were happening. Groups were gathered and were talking to teach other. Memories being made together instead of watching memories on YouTube. Adults that mattered enough to be recorded.

This video causes an ache—and grief–in today’s teens.

Not one of us is going to give up all of the conveniences of our smart devices. I am noting though that the Church has a unique place to help this grief. I believe in this so much. Let’s intentionally move out of the algorithms and into the contemplative ways of our church history. Now more than ever.

My church has a saying, “We are a part of a larger story that is over 2,000 years old. This larger story has staying power because it is true. Join us to find your place in that larger story.” This has resonance.

I have so many more observances, research links, and wisdom from my 40+ years of believing in teens. Please continue to read this series. Trust me, I see hope everywhere.

Part 1.

Part 3.

Part 4.

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