Article

5 characteristics of “the selfie generation”

Gen Z’s unique relationship to the digital world

May 1, 2019

Like Gen X and others that have come before, the millennial generation is old news. They have moved beyond the college-aged years and into the workforce. In fact, many have their own kids!

There is a new youth generation that has been dubbed “iGen,” the “selfie generation,” the “trans generation,” but are most popularly known as Generation Z. Essentially, Gen Z includes elementary to college-aged students.

There is a ton of research on Gen Z by leading organizations such as Barna and The Center for Generational Kinetics. Yet in our recent book, So The Next Generation Will Know, J. Warner Wallace and I list a number of insights that uniquely characterize this new generation. Let’s consider five:

1. They’re digital natives: Gen Zers spend nearly every waking hour of the day interacting with some form of digital technology. This shapes their sleeping habits, how they process information, how they build and maintain relationships, and how they spend their spare time. Gen Z is the first generation raised swiping screens on tablets and smartphones before they could even speak. The use of digital technology—and in particular social media—is perhaps the defining characteristic of this generation.

2. They’re fluid: Categories that were seemingly fixed and distinct for previous generations are now considered blurry, ambiguous, and fluid for Gen Z. Technology has contributed to a blurring of the lines between work and home, truth and fiction, fact and feeling, and our public and private lives. Perhaps nowhere is there greater fluidity than with issues of sex, gender, and family. Few believe there is such a thing as a “normal” family. Only half of teens today believe gender is defined by one’s sex at birth.

3. They’re post-Christian: More young Americans describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated than ever before. The frequency of Bible reading, prayer, and church attendance is also declining. The Bible no longer holds the same authority in the minds of this generation, at least in terms of what previous generations claimed to believe. In her book iGen, Jean Twenge concluded, “The move away from religion is no longer piecemeal, small, or uncertain; it is large and definitive. More young Americans are thoroughly secular, disconnecting completely from religion, spirituality, and the larger questions of life” (p. 132).

4. They’re lonely: Based on their online presence, most teens seem eminently happy. But this happiness is often a veneer hiding deep loneliness. Gen Z may be on the verge of the greatest mental health crisis in decades. Depression, anxiety, and loneliness are on the rise.

5. Information overload. With smartphones, young people have endless amounts of information at their fingertips. As a result, they can have what they want, how they want it, when, where, and with whomever they want it.

Reaching Gen Z

The big question is how we reach a digitally-shaped generation that experiences information overload. In light of my research and personal experience as a parent, speaker, and teacher, I believe there are two key components.

Building Real Relationships

First, we must build relationships with this generation to develop trust so we can speak into their lives. Young people today have endless voices vying for their allegiance. Why should they listen to you or me? Part of the answer lies in building relational capital with them so we have the right to speak into their lives.

This is a distracted generation that deeply needs meaningful relationships with caring adults. Much of the loneliness of this generation stems from their broken relationships. Many young people settle for relational counterfeits­ such as consumerism, busyness, pornography, fame, and so on which can never truly fill their hearts. What they long for, and need, is adults who will step into their worlds and value them for who they truly are.

In 2018, the A&E channel ran a special show called Undercover High, in which seven young adults, aged 21 to 26, went back to high school to get an inside perspective on students today. What alarmed the undercover students most was the disconnect between teens and adults. One of the undercover students said, “They [teens] are craving for adults to understand them and see them for who they are and the struggles they are facing.” The undercover students concluded that, most of all, young people today just want someone to talk to.

Think about the caring adults in your life who shaped you. Honestly, would you be where you are today without them? Probably not. Because of social media and smartphones, this generation faces more relational challenges than you and I did growing up. They don’t just need “someone.” They need you and they need me. Will you be that caring adult who makes a difference?

Equipping with a biblical worldview

Relationships are vital for building the trust to reach this generation. But young people today also need a worldview through which they can make sense of information bombardment. In other words, Gen Zers need a belief system that can act like a funnel to determine which cultural message are good, true, and worth listening to.

Here’s the reality: If we do not consciously equip young Christians with a biblical worldview, they will unconsciously absorb the ideas of today’s culture. And because of our information-saturated world, Gen Zers are exposed to more competing worldviews—and at earlier ages—than any generation in history.

Barna research has consistently shown that people who see the world as Jesus did are more likely to live as Jesus did. We live based not on what we say we believe or want to believe but based on what we truly believe. If we aim to transform how this generation lives, we need to help them adopt a biblical worldview and then apply that worldview to their life and relationships.

Consider an example of how I tried to do this recently in my own family. My 15-year-old son wanted to see the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, which tells the story of the rock band Queen. I hesitated because the film is PG-13 and contains a message about sexuality that concerns me. Yet after some thought, and research on the film, I came up with a compromise: I would bring him and a friend if they would talk with me about the movie afterward.

He agreed. We went to the movie and then came home and discussed it at the dining room table for about 30 minutes. I didn’t lecture them, but simply asked questions about their impressions, insights, and how we can think about the movie Christianly. My goal was to build a relationship with my son and his friend and also to seize the opportunity to have a meaningful discussion with them about faith.

There are many other ways to do this, but the principle is simple: Truth is best taught to this generation through relationships. If we care about Gen Z, we must step into their worlds and be willing to sacrifice our priorities to get to know them so they can come to know our Savior.

Sean McDowell

Sean McDowell, Ph.D., is a Biola University professor, internationally recognized speaker, popular blogger, and the co-author of the new book So The Next Generation Will Know (David C. Cook). Read More