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

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24