A Note from the Gen Z Authors of the 2023 Teens & Screens Report
Less romance and more friendship – this is what the adolescents of our 2023 study have asked to see from media, entertainment & storytellers (among other things).
As researchers in the industry, this felt like a headline-worthy discovery. But as young people, this felt like an idea that could casually blend into our many conversations and reflections on community (or lack thereof) that have been centerstage for our generation this year.
Late night musings with friends, discourse on social media, and personal meditation on what it means to connect and bond with others have all been consequential “gifts” from the COVID-19 pandemic. The outbreak and the isolation that came with it occupied pivotal years of emotional and relational growth for much of Gen Z, with current high school freshmen being in 5th grade (!) when stay-at-home orders were first announced.
Even as we’ve returned to more in-person routines, articles and YouTube essays on persisting loneliness continue to float around: some with a more analytical perspective, exploring reasons we may have entered “the Friendship Recession,” others more personal and titled with a simple but heartbreaking “I have no friends.”
So what’s the sitch? Earlier this year, U.S Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared an epidemic of loneliness and isolation, his advisory confirming that the pandemic simply brought an existing issue to the forefront of our collective consciousness. Social connection has already been declining for decades prior, with the rate of loneliness among young adults having increased every year between 1976 and 2019. Quite surprisingly, young adults today are twice as likely to report feeling lonely than those over 65.
Gen Z is already discussing solutions: #UrbanPlanning on TikTok currently has 434.2M Views, with a frequently discussed topic being “walkable cities” and how they are needed for social well-being. A trending sub-topic is the necessity of “third places,” a social environment such as a bookstore or diner, separate from one’s living or working spaces, “where you relax in public, where you encounter familiar faces and make new acquaintances.” Think Central Perk in Friends!
The problem is, there aren’t many third places left for young people. From the death of malls, to the criminality of “loitering,” and a transactional culture that demands spending money to hang out in such a place – where do young people go?
Arguably, as “digital natives,” media (particularly, social media) is where young people tend to land on as their third place.
How does this digital third space contribute to this generation’s collective identity? In our opinion, what’s crucial for storytellers to grasp about Gen Z isn’t the latest slang or weekly trends. Rather, what’s important is understanding the expanded worldview that comes with growing up on the internet and being able to interact with a myriad of different perspectives. What’s important is understanding how the opportunities they’ve had to explore their own identities and understand others’ identities have shifted and changed the kinds of stories they’re open to, the kind of characters they want to see front and center, and the storylines they believe to be authentic.
And while it’s essential to examine how this “digital native” identity sets Gen Z apart from previous generations, it’s also important to acknowledge that they are the same as previous generations: they are social beings that need face-to-face interaction, something that digital connectedness cannot replace.
We received the following response from a 12-year-old participant in Oklahoma:
“The Sand Lot is a baseball movie i like. i wish i could go outside and play like [they] did at the time. today its not safe”
Though simple, his words felt like a poignant representation of what many of our respondents seemed to be hinting at: that the core essence of kids (at heart) and teens will always be the same – from camaraderie to curiosity and a sense of adventure (or even just playing outside) – and it appears that somewhere along the way, this may have been forgotten in storytelling.
So young people are feeling a lack of close friendships, a separation from their community, and a sense that their digital citizen identity has superseded their sense of belonging in the real world – What can you do about it?
Well, it goes without saying that life and art are in perpetual conversation with one another. But, we cannot underestimate the role art has in this dynamic: Oscar Wilde shared in his 1891 essay, The Decay of Lying, that despite the existence of fog in London for centuries, its beauty and wonder is noticed because “poets and painters have taught the loveliness of such effects…They did not exist till Art had invented them.”
Storytelling (as an art) has the incredible power to influence the mood of the zeitgeist and the lens through which people see the world. Ask young people what it is they want to see, then listen: Shine a light on the ideas, characters, and relationships they desire in your stories, and the same light will appear in the real world.
Source: Scholars & Storytellers