Cover Story: Generation Z
n 1995, the internet as we know it was born. The US government sold off its stake in its operations, opening up the floodgates for online commercial activity. Nearly 25 years later, the force of the internet is inescapable. “Offline” isn’t a real state of being anymore. The technology known as the internet has altered the world at a rate unequaled by any other invention since the printing press. And one group—Generation Z—has never known the “before” in this worldwide makeover story. Technology their grandparents couldn’t have dreamed up is not only available, it’s unavoidable. How does that shape childhood, adolescence, and beyond? This generation spends their time differently, believes differently, and behaves differently from any other before them.
Generational research can be a bit fuzzy.
A generation’s start date is usually determined by key political, economic, or social factors that shape a generation’s early years; in this case, the advent of the internet and rise of the smartphone.
The endpoint of a generation is pretty much undefined until the start of a new generation is pinpointed. For this story, we’re sticking with 1995–2010 as the span of Generation Z.
Known to some as the smartphone generation or iGen, Generation Z’s story is one of lives that are intertwined with technology—and the opportunities and challenges of that intimate relationship.
A 2015 study by Common Sense Media showed the average teenager spends nine hours per day with entertainment media— texting, gaming, video chatting, watching television, listening to music, and other internet use. That’s nearly all their leisure time. Mobile devices account for nearly half their screen time.
The positive power of the internet is undeniable. From Etsy’s connecting craftspeople with a global market to Facebook’s power as a community space for marginalized groups, the internet has connected people in powerful ways. Creating and consuming online content is even the way teenagers bond at slumber parties by making silly videos together or testing out Snapchat filters that make their faces look like puppies or babies.
For students, relationships are maintained over Skype after international exchanges, and opportunities like Global Online Academy let them learn with and from people all over the world.
Beyond the memes, insults, celebrity gossip, and other information coming at teenagers from their phones, the internet is a powerful learning tool.
Westminster is still dedicated to developing leaders for our city and world—even if technology has made that world look a lot different than the one in which this generation’s teachers and parents grew up.
It is our obligation to harness the power of technology to create learning experiences that move our students and inspire them to become leaders.
“We’re using technology as a tool to ask deeper, probing questions,” says Mark Labouchere, an Upper School faculty member who matches teachers with technology as our Innovation Design Specialist. “When we do it well, those experiences lead to deeper learning.”
"Students can find facts on the internet. We're helping them develop the skills to analyze them."
-Mark Labouchere, Innovation Design Specialist
“Of course, the students became familiar with names, places, and legal precedents, but more importantly, they took away the relevant lessons of standing up for humanity through action, civil disobedience, and artistic expression,” says fifth-grade teacher Tai Hart.When fifth-graders in Love Hall learn about the Civil Rights movement, they’re not just writing five-paragraph essays for their teachers to read. They transform their classrooms into a Civil Rights museum. Through immersive student-designed exhibits, parents, teachers, and other students discover stories of people and events that changed America.Virtual reality in classrooms connects students with the experience and emotions of historic events, not just facts about them. Interactive maps help students understand concepts like the relationship between economic growth and migration.
Despite the advantages of the internet, too much screen time (or the wrong kind) can be detrimental to users’ mental health, and even unsafe in some cases. As adults who are helping students become thoughtful, healthy leaders, our teachers spend a lot of time exploring that nuance and teaching online citizenship.
One of the simplest ways screen time interferes with teenagers’ lives is in the amount of time it takes up. To help students create healthy habits, Westminster’s teachers and counselors tap into the goal-driven personalities common to many of our students.
“We’re teaching them about the benefits of putting the phone down if you want to reach your goals, and that being mindful makes you more creative and productive,” Middle School Counselor Saundria Zomalt explains.
THE NEVER-ENDING POPULARITY CONTEST
Imagine always knowing, in real-time, what parties you were and weren’t invited to, who did and didn’t like the outfit you painstakingly coordinated, and how many more people laughed at your friends’ jokes than at yours. For teenagers living their lives online, that’s real. There’s a reason this generation popularized the phrase FOMO.
The desire for social acceptance is wired into the human experience— in hunter-gatherer times, people depended on sharing food with a tribe to survive.
This biological quest for belonging may be at the core of our national obsession with social media. But social media reduces complex human relationships to likes, followers, clicks, swipes, and subscribers.
What happens when teenagers use these numbers to measure whether or not they belong? Anxiety.
Anxiety about being left out. Anxiety about not being good enough. Anxiety about not having the perfect Instagram-worthy body. For girls and young teenagers especially, social media use is associated with elevated risk for depression, anxiety, and even suicide, according to a 2017 article in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
Research analysis shows a clear trend: more screen time equates to less happiness. While the Millennial years brought gains in overall happiness, Generation Z’s happiness levels have returned to those of Generation X.
A comparison of teenagers’ survey responses to questions about happiness and how much leisure time they spend on screen activities leaves a stark impression. Analysis of the Monitoring the Future survey conducted by the University of Michigan shows every single screen activity is correlated to unhappiness.
As this generation makes moves toward an individualist society in realms like religion and politics, typical trends suggest people would become happier. In an individualist society, the logic goes, you can feel good about yourself without worrying as much about social expectations. But while Generation Z embraces this sunny outlook on their social media accounts, what’s actually going on is more troubling.
"We are working with high-achieving students, and that transcends into wanting a high number of likes and followers. They want to be the best at everything and want that admiration."
-Saundria Zomalt, Middle School Counselo
Loneliness and left-out-ness are at all-time highs. A 2018 study by Cigna found that adult members of Generation Z reported being lonelier than any other generation. The number of teens who report feeling lonely grew so drastically in such a short time period, it’s likely a precipitating factor is at play. The smartphone, perhaps? Loneliness and left-out-ness are at all-time highs. A 2018 study by Cigna found that adult members of Generation Z reported being lonelier than any other generation. The number of teens who report feeling lonely grew so drastically in such a short time period, it’s likely a precipitating factor is at play. The smartphone, perhaps?
As with overall unhappiness, people who spend more time on screens are more likely to be lonely. The same goes for depression, particularly among younger teenagers. Teenagers with more than two hours of screen time per day have increased likelihood of suicide risk factors.
While Westminster’s counselors say the social media-related issues they see most commonly are about this sense of being left out, bullying has also taken on a new veneer in our technology-driven age. Kids who are bullied can’t get away from it when their harassers can assault them with words at any time over the internet. A 2016 study showed more than one in three teenagers has been affected by cyber-bullying.
At Westminster, online citizenship lessons are part of holistic social-emotional development that builds students’ empathy and resilience.
Research, analysis, and communication are foundational skills Westminster has cultivated in young people for decades. Generation Z is a generation of young people who want to create their own content and get it out into the world without the traditional gatekeepers of publishing houses or movie studios. Enter something called digital scholarship.
The goal? For students to create works that teach an audience about a subject in an engaging, often interactive, digital way, says Head of Libraries Liesel Good, who worked alongside Innovation Design Specialist Mark Labouchere to develop ways for our students to engage in this kind of learning. Imagine an app-based tour that gives visitors historical context about the Battle of Atlanta via audio. Or data visualizations that show how poets of The Belfast Network are connected to one another.
These projects require meaty research—they aren’t just about a flashy website. They build analytical skills, too, when students distill their research into what’s important for an audience. Westminster is investing in this kind of learning by partnering with the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship and shoring up our own library faculty with the addition of an Upper School librarian who specializes in digital scholarship. The access our students have to experts and resources helps them be content creators who share deep insights with the world.
CONNECTED BUT ALONE
Despite all this time spent surveying the social hierarchy from behind a screen, teens are not spending much time alone with friends.
A steep downward trend in how often teenagers go out without their parents began around 2010—about the time teenagers started to use smartphones. Other measures of social activity, like going on dates or seeing friends daily, began declining at the same time. All are continuing their downward trend, according to Monitoring the Future.
This data likely spells trouble for Gen Z’s social development. “An hour a day less spent with friends is an hour a day less spent building social skills, negotiating relationships, and navigating emotions... the time has not been replaced with homework; it’s been replaced with screen time,” Jean Twenge writes in iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, her book chronicling Generation Z’s experiences and outlook.
Some preliminary evidence suggests the effects of these changes could be long-lasting and have implications for teens’ adult lives: poor results in interviews for colleges and jobs, difficulty making new friends, trouble coping with in-person conflict.
Relationship-building opportunities like engaging in hobbies with an advisement group or completing a team challenge during Discovery are all the more important in a world where more and more time outside of school is being spent alone but connected through screens.
"If you were to give advice for a happy life based on [the research], it would be straightforward: put down the phone, turn off the computer or iPad, and do something—anything—that does not involve a screen."
-Jean Twenge, Author of iGen
At a point in students’ development when they are more vulnerable to the pitfalls of on-screen interaction, our Middle School has ramped up its focus on community, helping all students feel seen, known, and valued.
Students have ample opportunity to connect with one another face to face—letting them practice skills they’ll need their entire lives and solidifying friendships that can help ward off loneliness and depression.
"We prioritize connection in the Middle School for a host of reasons," says Head of Middle School Danette Morton. "Connection sets the stage for learning. Students are more open to learn and apt to take risks when they feel connected to their teachers and peers. Connection also forms a protective barrier against the pressures of early adolescence."
THE SLOW LANE
It’s an almost-universal adult experience to comment on how quickly kids grow up. But Gen Z isn’t pushing the gas pedal. They’re waiting later and later, on average, for the rites of passage older generations were eager to embrace: dating, getting a driver’s license, working for pay, and trying alcohol. Adolescence has been giving way to adulthood later and later for about 30 years. The difference with Gen Z? Childhood lasts longer now, delaying the onset of adolescence.
And for a generation that prioritizes identity, the shift makes perfect sense. Extended childhood and adolescence allow more time for self-development and reflection before taking on the pressures of the adult world.
STUDENT INNOVATION LEADERSHIP COUNCIL
Social media, comment sections, and creating podcasts and videos are all ways people use the internet to amplify their voices. It makes sense that Generation Z, the smartphone generation, wants to have an active voice in the physical world too. When students drive leadership groups, they let those voices be heard.
The newly formed Student Innovation Leadership Council lets students make decisions about how the Upper School invests in new technology. This group will work on how to use the STEAM Lab in Hawkins Hall and other ways to integrate new technologies into the Westminster experience.
ON THE FLIP SIDE
Ever heard of a flipped classroom? Students learn facts on their own time and use classroom time and the teacher’s guidance to explore and analyze those facts. For a generation that’s never far from reference materials, it’s a way to grow critical-thinking skills to synthesize abundant information.
Consulting with Georgia Tech professors who’ve flipped their classrooms, Upper School biology teacher Miranda Wilson experimented with at-home video lessons and in-class analysis at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year. It worked so well, she kept the flipped model in place the rest of the year.
The video lessons, all less than 15 minutes long, were the only homework assigned all year. Multiple-choice questions sprinkled through the videos let students know in real-time whether they were understanding the material correctly, which gave them the immediate feedback this generation craves and let them know what they’d need to watch again.
With constant internet access, students can look up facts like the steps of cellular respiration; lessons like how to read and interpret a graph are more meaningful, Miranda says. When students watched lectures from home (or while riding in a car or waiting in a line or anywhere else), Miranda spent classroom time guiding them through activities and discussions designed to develop analytical thinking.
Activities like extracting DNA from a strawberry or putting the steps of protein delivery in the correct order helped students build muscles around trial-and-error, logic, and discussing nuanced topics like scientific ethics.
“We couldn’t necessarily cover the same breadth, but it allowed us to dig deeper and make more real-world connections. It added a component of critical thinking and problem solving, and it helped the students get used to fear of failure,” Miranda says. Exam scores with the flipped classroom model were comparable to those from previous years taught in a more traditional style, and students’ responses to the immersive problem-solving model were overwhelmingly positive.
On the whole, Generation Z is enjoying their long childhoods. The number of teenagers who said they had three or more serious fights with their parents in a year fell by 10 percent between 2005 and 2015.
But does a longer childhood cause a lack of resilience? A 2014 study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies showed students who reported having “helicopter parents” also reported higher depression levels and lower levels of life satisfaction. Generation Z college students are more likely to have “maturity fears” than college students of the 1980s or 90s; more of today’s college students are likely to agree that they want to return to the security of being children
SENIOR WELLNESS DAY
Leaving high school is about more than academic preparedness. Westminster’s Senior Wellness Day was developed in part to prepare seniors to make decisions in a college culture where binge-drinking rates haven’t fallen much—without calling mom and dad.
This half-day wellness fair is a time for seniors to meet in small groups with wellness professionals who coach them on staying physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy during the transition to college.
Even though teens’ risky behavior is changing, the need to develop independence, social skills, and decision-making skills is universal.
PLAY IT SAFE
Along with growing up more slowly, teenagers are also growing up more safely.
The ubiquity of car seats, hand sanitizer, and sunscreen is just the beginning of how Generation Z’s parents have watched out for their safety at every move. All in all, that’s a good thing. Car seats protect against fatalities in car crashes, and sunscreen helps prevent skin cancer.
Their parents’ lessons have sunk in. Generation Z places an increased value on their security, reversing a multi-generational decline in the perceived importance of security, Monitoring the Future shows.
Even away from their parents, teens are behaving more safely: they’re less likely to drink, do drugs, get in fights, or have sex than previous generations. They’re also safer drivers once they get licenses (a milestone more and more teens are delaying). But some are worried that Generation Z may take caution too far and miss out on transformative growth experiences that require up-front risks.
"When ‘Economics for Entrepreneurs’ started, it was merely a catalyst to getting innovation happening. Four years later, you have students clamoring about problems to solve before they even enroll in the class and doing so in unique and deliberate ways. The culminating ‘pitch’ and award show really amplifies the energy and engagement in the class."
-Tim Shabanowitz, Director of Middle School Innovation Lab
Teens are not only making decisions that keep them away from physical danger; and they’re also protecting themselves from “emotional injury,” a controversial concept that can include avoiding bad experiences, uncomfortable situations, and people with different ideas from your own. Emotional safety, which has become a priority for Generation Z, is a nuanced idea that leads to more empathic behavior at its best and avoidance of anything uncomfortable at its worst.
Gen Z’ers are physically safer than any group in the history of the world. And they’re less likely than anyone before them to test that safety. Fewer teens now say they enjoy taking risks or doing dangerous things. The importance of “emotional safety” includes, for some, being protected from discomfort or people who disagree with you.
For Gen Z, protecting your reputation has become a serious concern. Since they were small children, they’ve seen how a careless Instagram post or an offensive tweet can ruin a person or business’s reputation. They know their friends are watching. And their parents. And their parents’ friends. And maybe even their future employers.
CREATE, DON'T WAIT
This generation is not one that waits around when it comes to making its mark on the world. While research shows Gen Z’ers have some fears about growing up, they’re not afraid to create content for the world to see, start business ventures, or lead social change.
And the technology they carry with them everywhere is hugely valuable for doing all these things.
Get a news alert about a tsunami in Indonesia? You can use the same phone that alerted you to the news to text a donation to the Red Cross. And almost half of Generation Z gave to a philanthropic cause last year.
From climate change to gun violence, Gen Z’ers are regularly in the news for starting movements. The concept of identity is important for this generation, so many of the causes they support are about everyone’s right to be themselves without fear of violence or harassment.
At Westminster, those who want to make an impact have quite a few resources to help them get started.
Students who have the desire to make a change now—and a plan for how to do it—can apply for grants from Westminster’s Glenn Institute. The Service Corps, a group of sophomores, juniors, and seniors, decides how to allocate grant money. Some projects that have been funded this way include Science To Action Road Trips (START), a group that takes elementary school students on field trips to show them science in the real world, and Keep the Ball Rolling, an initiative to collect lightly used sports equipment and match it with kids who need it.
"Service Corps provides a unique opportunity for members to collaborate with one another as they support the student body in engaging with the school and local Atlanta community. Service Corps members learn valuable skills in grantmaking, budgeting, advertising, design thinking, and sustainability as they fund their peers' civic engagement initiatives."
-Meghan James, Upper School Director of Civic Engagement
Students with an entrepreneurial side start exploring it young. Small Mall, a longtime second grade favorite, lets students try out making a product and marketing it to other students in Love Hall. More sophisticated opportunities for older students include an Economics for Entrepreneurs class in eighth grade (where students pitch business plans to alumni “sharks” at the end of the semester) and a JanTerm class in which students visit both start-ups and established corporations to talk with business leaders about the journey of entrepreneurship.
|Students who are ready to take the leap into creating solutions to problems in business and society have opportunities to use this entrepreneurial spirit in internships. Take Lucas Najera ’19, for example. For two consecutive years, he interned at the Mitchell Cancer Institute in Mobile, Alabama. After his first three-week dive into the medical world, Lucas researched and wrote a critique on some of the problems he’d observed in the healthcare system. The second year of his internship, Lucas combined the knowledge he had gained, the connections he had made, and his budding interest in software development to create a mobile app to help physicians expedite appointments without sacrificing the quality of care. The app launched at Mitchell Cancer Institute last year, and Lucas and his mentor continue to develop it, presenting internationally at conferences and in journals.|
Meanwhile, Lucas has begun developing other apps and visiting venture capital firms to learn more about raising capital. He’s now concentrating on a project management software that uses machine learning to improve the user experience and eliminate inefficiencies in the workspace. Westminster, Lucas says, was uniquely positioned to help him succeed both in his internship and in his business ventures, from peers who gained expert-level coding skills in Westminster’s computer science classes to mentors he met through the robotics team.
“You have the connections and a plethora of resources around you, and if you’re willing to take a risk and follow your passions, you can succeed,” he says. “There’s a special sauce at Westminster; I'm not the only student founder, I can point to my peers like Anup Bottu '20 (one of the student founders of START), who has created a foundation and is doing some truly impactful work in the nonprofit sector, or Jamal Hashim '18, who has been creating apps since he was a sophomore; in a way, he was my student mentor.”
PARENTS JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND
You’re probably expecting quotes in this section from parents lamenting that they can’t connect with their teenagers, and teenagers complaining that their parents just don’t get it. Each generation becomes more and more different from the last as the pace of cultural change accelerates. So, parents really don’t get it. But it’s not their fault. Because of technology, the way teenagers interact with the world now is completely different from the way their parents did. Instagram, Whats App, TikTok—none of it existed 30 years ago. Or even 15. Admitting that teenagers are living in a completely new world, says Upper School counselor Meredith Miller, is a good strategy for parents.
But total ignorance doesn’t do parents any good when it comes to sustaining a healthy relationship with teenage children—research shows that kids want to be able to talk to their parents about the issues that come up because of social media, even if they don’t want their parents participating.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
No generation faces a world without challenges. The young people spending their days on our campus now aren’t immune to the pitfalls of an always-connected life. We would be foolish to assume they are.
While no one can predict the next big innovation that will rock our students’ lives, Westminster’s commitment to Generation Z is to give them a solid foundation and nurturing community that will help them lead with conscience now and in their adulthood.
After all, their potential for far-reaching impact has perhaps never been greater.
PARENTING IN THE DIGITAL AGE
The rise of the smartphone means parenting now is unlike parenting at any other time. Upper School Counselor Meredith Miller offers these tips to help parents establish healthy digital habits for the whole family:
Model the use you want to see. That includes carving out time to be face-to-face without a device. Face-to-face time communicates your time together is valuable and meaningful.
Have systems for everyone. Have a central spot for the entire family to charge their phones. This helps ensure teenagers aren’t losing sleep by scrolling into the night. A good night’s sleep is one of the best tools for healthy brain development. Sleep deprivation is linked to compromised reasoning, health problems, and mood disorders.
Think twice about taking away phones as a punishment for non-phone-related discipline issues. Focus instead on teaching children to use technology responsibly and with kindness.
Keep learning. Resources like the email newsletter “Tech Talk Tuesdays” from physician and filmmaker Delaney Ruston connect parents with research about screen time—and tips for how to apply it. Ask your children to teach you about their favorite apps and platforms. Not only are you sharpening your knowledge, but it's also a way to use technology to hot wire connection!