I'm writing this because I know my Gen Z offspring will never read it – and that's OK

Gen Z
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Is Gen Z really different from the rest of us? The alchemy of being born between 1997 and 2012 has delivered a generation of not exactly non-conformists but some seemingly disengaged youths. I mean, they must be disengaged because they see everything differently. Or is it more clearly?

Jigsaw, which is part of Google and tasked with researching "threats to open societies," studied the increasingly influential Gen Z generation to understand how they consume information, what they trust and don't trust, and how they divine facts and truth, according to a detailed report in Business Insider.

The results were startling to Google and Jigsaw, but I could've saved them time and trouble by detailing my ongoing research involving my Gen Z relation. My non-binary child is 26 and has been schooling me for years on what people their age do and don't do. I understand how they connect or do not connect with peers, gather information, reach consensus, and mostly not take action that they'd perceive as pointless anyway.

My schooling began some years ago when I discovered they (and many other Gen Zers) do not consume entertainment like I do. I noticed they were watching TV with captions on. My child has no hearing issues and the show they were watching was not in a foreign language or even featuring heavily accented people. 

The reason was simple: the show owned only a piece of their attention. While they "watched," they were also on their phone engaging in social media and watching other content on YouTube or Tumblr. The closed captioning helped them keep track of the action on TV.

Now, it's far more common for people (including me and my wife) to watch shows with close captioning, but I'm convinced Gen Z started the trend.

My facts vs. your facts

The schooling continued as we argued key socio-political topics, and I noticed that even though they never watched CNN or opened a news website, they were well-versed in most issues of the day. If I challenged them on a point, they noted the details about said topic they were gathering from the ground-level of social media, including X (then Twitter), Tumblr (the once bible of all Gen Z tweens and teens), and which included stories from people near the action and other Gen Z cohorts commentating on it.

Researchers seemed surprised that Gen Zers do not read posts (especially long ones like this) and instead scroll to the comments where the real action is (sorry, no comments on this site). From study:

"Participants crowdsourced their credibility judgments by observing how others reacted to the same information...."

"...Note that her practice is to go to the comments first and then Google to confirm what she finds there, using a search engine as a supplement to multiple social checks."

The researchers observed the deep distrust of the establishment I've witnessed for years. Gen Z doesn't just believe governments and institutions have let them down; they have an equal distrust of the established media that covered them.

The study notes that Gen Z relies heavily on influencers for information and fact-finding:

"Participants used go-to public personalities and influencers as surrogate thinkers to help them filter and interpret information."

Again, this is not a surprising development, considering this is the first generation raised on YouTube.

The age of influence

I remember when I learned my then-teenaged Gen Z child was following Jenna Marbles on the platform. Marbles, for a time one of the most popular influencers on YouTube, was brash, raw, and unvarnished but mostly funny. What she told the Gen Z set about the world mattered. Marbles ran into controversy and abruptly left the platform almost four years ago. Interestingly, the potential of getting canceled may have played into that decision. Years earlier, she had posted some questionable videos, and as they resurfaced, she pulled the plug.

The study notes that Gen Z not only depends on influencers to help shape their worldview but uses comments on the content to game out which kinds of reactions might make them get canceled. It's a sort of real-time awareness that previous generations often lacked and struggled to develop. From the study:

"To cope with their fear of social error, they checked comments for social orientation and searched for answers validated by peers. They often remained anonymous online to avoid being “canceled.”

In a way, the growth of social media and mobile content consumption and the rise of Gen Z as an active force in cultural, political, and social conversations is a sort of symbiotic relationship. Modern media and social media are increasingly designed to reach Gen Z where it's most comfortable:

  • Short content
  • Content propelled by paid influencers
  • Reddit-style comment forums returning to more main-stream content source
  • Content that does not make them feel uncomfortable

The researchers, who did not do a wide study but one that more anecdotally focussed on just 35 Gen Z adults from various backgrounds, were also surprised to find that Gen Zers avoid content that might upset them and are not concerned over the proliferation of AI-generated fake content.

A lot of this is a reminder for people like me that my worldview is shaped not just by my generation but by my vocation. I assume that everyone else is interested in the facts and that when these facts are shown, we'll all agree on what is true.

Conversations with my child have disabused me from these notions. They have concrete belief in their point of view based on information gleaned from their networks. Historical perspectives and wider context mean little to them. They have the information they need and are comfortable in their assumptions or facts.

This one study anecdote was particularly telling:

"[One participant]  told us when investigating the rumor that Katy Perry killed a nun (screensharing with us a query they chose), they were disappointed to find no stories from major news sources that definitively answered this question. They went to TikTok and concluded that if Katy Perry fans hadn’t weighed in, the story must not be true. They trusted Katy Perry fans, who engaged with and reported on her activities daily, to know the truth. A lack of information on trending topics on search engines led several participants to turn to social sources of information."

Change. It's a thing

One thing I don't think researchers covered or fully comprehended, though, is that Gen Z is an easy label to use to define people of a certain age, but it is not a fixed description of every Gen Z person.

If we think of Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, or Gen X who were born between 1964 and 1980, these are people now either well into middle age or beyond it. As groups, they are varied. Some might have been hippies in the 70s, Reganites in the 80s, and corporate greedmongers in the 90s. Who knows what they are now?

The Gen Z population is already aging into adulthood and facing new realities. They may soon start to look at those news sources their parent favored or question the reliability of the hive mind comment section.

I'm not denying that Gen Z is adulting in an extraordinary time. No other generation was raised with ubiquitous screens or instant access to the opinions of millions of like-minded people. Their brains may be wired differently. I'm sure my person's is, but I can also see glimmers of change. They, too, may soon question their sources and seek a new way to gather information and form opinions. And they will be all the better for their journey through uncharted information space.

As I said, I wrote this reaction about the Jigsaw study and about my own Gen Z adult because I know they don't visit sites like mine and are more apt to learn of the study through X (formerly Twitter) or perhaps TikTok or YouTube and will form their opinions of it based on the reactions to the study. Their reactions to this piece will likely forever remain a mystery to me.

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Lance Ulanoff
Editor At Large

A 38-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of PCMag.com and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.