My friend has a 9th grader and is going through many of the challenges that arise as a parent of a Gen Zer. Recently, he told me about an eye-opening moment.
It was later at night, and the kids had just gone to bed. My friend was locking up the house and climbing the stairs as he went off to bed when he heard what sounded like two people having a conversation – one voice he recognized, the other he didn't. He cracked open his son’s door and saw his son, under a sheet, Facetiming with some friends.
As he listened to the conversation, he described hearing a completely different person than the son he knew. The language he used, the topics he discussed; the overall vulgarity was incredibly disheartening. He ripped off the sheet and horror spread across his son’s face, realizing he had just exposed his digital alter ego.
he had just exposed his digital alter ego.
This anecdote highlights yet another dynamic in the lives of Gen Z: digital schizophrenia.
You see, prior to iPhones, parents were the gatekeepers of their own homes. Whatever came into their homes had to pass through the front door first. Now, in the digital age, kids have become the gatekeepers. Anything and everything has digital access straight into students' bedrooms, usually completely unbeknownst to parents. This newfound anonymity is the catalyst for digital schizophrenia.
Students have learned to create multiple selves to match the platform they are interacting on. Certainly, this dynamic has always existed – kids have always been different with their friends than they are with their parents – but the digital world has exacerbated that dynamic. And so, our students, from the moment they get their first smartphone, are conditioned to curate multiple personalities. In many cases, it is so severe that it's difficult to know who the student actually is.
our students, from the moment they get their first smartphone, are conditioned to curate multiple personalities.
I can’t tell you how many discipline cases at school result in shock when you find out which student actually said what. Teachers and parents alike are surprised at what seemingly good kids are capable of on social media.
But in many ways, our students do this without knowing the full consequences. They’re a guinea pig generation – the first generation to ever have this kind of supercomputer in their back pocket constantly. And we have yet to fully understand the impact it has on them.I tell my students in the beginning of class that it's certainly harder to be a teenager now compared to when I grew up. One author says this: “The smartphone is causing a social reversal: the desire to be alone in public and never alone in seclusion.”
The smartphone is causing a social reversal: the desire to be alone in public and never alone in seclusion.
In addition to digital schizophrenia, this dynamic is also complicating the lives of our students. The blurred lines between authentic and counterfeit community gives our students the appearance of closeness but doesn't actually deliver.
Author Tim Keller talks about our basic desire to be fully known and fully loved. While Keller uses that to talk about our relationship with God in a vertical sense, that same dynamic is in part true in a horizontal sense with our friends.
The issue with our students is that they are not making themselves fully known, and therefore cannot feel loved as they are. Social media is more of an avatar of themselves, only depicting the moments that get through the filter. Our students are left wondering, would I still get likes on all the things that are equally true of me that I’m not posting?
The issue with our students is that they are not making themselves fully known, and therefore cannot feel loved as they are.
Donna Freitas conducted a large-scale survey and interviews with students on 13 college campuses, all on the topic of social media. Part of her findings concluded the following:
“One of my most important findings, to my mind, is the schizophrenic effect social media has on people's sense of self. Social media produces a world in which the problems and blemishes of real life are hidden behind virtual presentations of self that struggle, often obsessively, to be liked. One must always appear attractive, happy, and clever . . . even while users grasp the dehumanizing forces at work here, they find it difficult to keep themselves from playing into this virtual world's insidious grasp on human insecurities and fears. The damage is perpetrated mostly by the same people who suffer them. It is troubling to anyone who wishes to see young people growing up to be authentically secure, happy, realistic, and genuinely caring about the real needs of other people.”
As I’ve said before, we don’t know the full picture yet. But we can already recognize some very significant brushstrokes, and it's safe to say that the iPhone has a drastic impact on one’s sense of self and community.
This won't be the magic bullet to solve all these issues, but it can be very helpful to begin developing a student’s sense of self.
One way to do this is to have them take a personality test – whether it's the Myers Briggs, or the DISC test, or the Enneagram. Whatever it is, students generally love combing through the findings and comparing them to their experiences to see if they are accurate.
It's not necessarily the results that matter as much as it is encouraging students to be introspective and thoughtful in a metacognitive sort of way. This can hopefully serve as an avenue to begin discussing other dynamics like the ones we just talked about.
We can also encourage young people to seek out authentic community in which they’re surrounded by others who will accept them just the way God has made them. This can seem like an overwhelming task, but they need to know that building community boils down to building one relationship at a time.
building community boils down to building one relationship at a time.
Think of the ways Jesus interacted with various people throughout the gospels. Consider John 4, when He encounters the woman at the well. He starts by going out of his way to talk to her. Jesus is alone. He has separated himself from the disciples. Additionally, he didn't carry a bucket of water, and he’s sitting on the well in a passive posture. All of these factors made him accessible to the vulnerable woman. And it's through this posture that this woman discovers the Christ for the first time.
In the same way, we can encourage children and teens to put themselves in situations where social interactions are welcome and can naturally unfold. This simple act of intentionality can even lead someone to salvation!
Erik Most has been a High School Bible teacher at CCA for eight years. He teaches the class Christ and Culture and is currently the Lead for High School Discipleship. He completed his undergraduate degree at Wheaton College and earned his Master of Divinity at Knox Theological Seminary. Most serves as an elder at Rio Vista Community Church where he attends with his wife Meagan and their son August.
Be sure to circle back to the CCA Blog next month to hear what Mr. Most has to say for part seven of this thought-provoking series! Missed last month’s article? Click here to give it a read!