Gen Z and tech

Giovanni Buttarelli

EDPS is pleased to give its support again to the Fundamental Rights Forum, an excellent initiative for bringing together a diverse array of people who care about human rights. This year’s edition, in an exciting new venue, the METAStadt in Vienna, is expected to be bigger than ever.

We have convened a panel entitled Resisting Arkangel: technology, surveillance and the rights of the child. (The title borrows from one of the dystopian scenarios depicted in last series of Black Mirror where a digital implant is made available to paranoid parents to monitor a child and censor them seeing things which might disturb them.)  

We have superb speakers including academic and generations expert Eliza Filby, Martin Schmalzried of COFACE Families Europe, journalist Chris Stokel-Walker (author of this article on how teenagers behave online) and the EDPS’s own Amanda Joyce who will give her perspective as a parent of teens. 

The aim of the panel is to understand better how children and young people are using digital tech, their susceptibility to surveillance (whether by service providers, third parties, parents, schools, governments or whoever), the techniques that they and their parents use to safeguard their privacy and autonomy and what responses are available to safeguard their interests - including enforcement of existing rules like the GDPR. 

Also on the panel, offering the youngest and so the most important perspective of all, will be Emily Binchy, who recently completed a traineeship with us. As with Anna who blogged for us so thoughtfully and perceptively last year, we invited Emily, another ‘Generation Z’er’ now studying at the London School of Economics, to be our guest blogger today and share her personal experiences to help set the scene for the panel at the Fundamental Rights Forum next week.

If I cast my mind back far enough, I can just about recall the blue-screen-free days of my early childhood, before the internet played an active role in my daily life. At 22 years of age, people in my age bracket constitute the last of a generation to recall an era before the all-pervasiveness of the internet. I believe there to be a sharp distinction in attitudes between those of us with this memory and those whose birth coincided with that of social media and have therefore never known anything else.

Practically, this recollection is of little consequence to my relationship with technology and in no way implies a divergence in social media literacy compared to those a few years my junior. However, this gap offers me and those my age an interesting perspective. For example, I am constantly perturbed by the substitution of babysitters with iPads and the eerily calming effect of videos of Peppa Pig on young children. Yet, I consider myself equally as tech-savvy, and having a similar social media presence to a 17 year old- perhaps with slightly fewer followers. Whilst I cannot speak for the entire swathe of people my age in society, I believe myself to be fairly representative of an average 22 year old woman.

The trajectory of my social media use went from a marked lack of interest at the beginning of my teenage years and therefore absence of any social media account- so much so that my friends eventually created a Facebook account on my behalf- to daily if not hourly checks of Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp over the course of my first two years at university. This sudden injection of social media into my life was never something that sat comfortably with me. I always had a- at times lessened but nonetheless present- feeling of unease about the enormous waste of time which had so simply ingratiated itself into my life with such a heavy sense of permanence.

The phrase ‘waste of time’ is an interesting one with respect to technology. Whilst in many respects, including ways of which I am undoubtedly unaware, technology saves us time by simplifying tasks; it appears that, somewhat paradoxically, technology has simultaneously created a medium to occupy us during what would otherwise have been a newly created surplus of time. As we subconsciously fill this freshly void time with social media and catching ourselves up with our news feeds, the end result is that the time gained is then ‘wasted.’ In many ways, the definition of wasting time is subjective. However, it would appear that when it comes to social media, a select few capitalise on the undeniable time wasting by the majority of users.

Despite these niggling whispers of suspicion, my use of social media platforms continued on its skyward trajectory for quite some time. There were indeed lucid moments when I would catch myself having wasted away 15 minutes of time here and there, without even being able to recall what I had been looking at during that time. I am in no way trying to paint this behaviour as that of an avid user of social media, nor have I ever considered myself as such. It was simply this quasi instinctive compulsion to open an app and scroll that struck a chord with me. When I would catch myself doing it or see my friends only half participating in conversations with one eye constantly on the digital world, it would occur to me that this behaviour is in many ways quite scary. However, it is ubiquitous and therefore supposedly normal.

There appears to have been a shift in attitudes recent months. People are gradually becoming increasingly aware of their positions as pawns exploited unscrupulously by social media giants. This is largely due to increasing public awareness, coupled with renegade Silicon Valley employees, coming out against the addiction forming engineering of social media platforms. It is also due to these platforms falling victim to their own success. The obvious targeting used in advertisements, often with alarming precision, is evidencing what many find a creepy invasion of privacy and appears to be propelling a shift in tides.

The ball has been set rolling- a handful of my friends have begun to delete their social media accounts, not all but perhaps one deleting Snapchat here, another Instagram there. The usefulness of Facebook, WhatsApp and LinkedIn are indisputable, and this may be their lifeline. However, with competition increasing from app developers in the East, spearheaded by China, the current reigning social media monarchs are already finding themselves compelled to change their culture, to give something back to their users.

My current relationship with social media takes the form of what I can only describe as a perpetual weaning. Having deleted my Snapchat app almost a year ago and not looked back, I now am engaged in a cycle of deleting the Instagram app and subsequently redownloading it, roughly a week later. I believe this speaks volumes about the firm grip of social media platforms. My inner battle is as follows: Instagram is purely superficial and a mechanism for comparison whose sole purpose is to make others feel inadequate- but you like Instagram and photos and it can be a source of inspiration at times, so why be so strict on your use of such a tool?

One of the things that I find most daunting about Instagram, and possibly the reason I am trapped in this cyclical web, is that it is infinite. Yes, you can tailor who you follow to a select group of friends and interesting pages such as National Geographic, but an entire world of superficiality is only a tap away in the form of the search button.

Whilst I suspect that I am not alone in this, perhaps others possess more self-discipline. Or perhaps this behaviour is a symptom of being part of this age group, those whose earliest memories are characterised by an absence of technology as we have come to know it and who were then introduced to social media during its meteoric ascent to its current omnipresence.