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A Love-Hate Relationship: MTV Explores How Social Media Is Impacting Gen Z

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We take a look at the impact social media is having on intimacy and relationships amongst Gen Z.

Does dealing with the drama of social media sometimes remind you of high school? If so, you’re not alone. Alison Hillhouse, VP of Youth Culture and Trends at MTV, recently spoke with Nev Schulman, creator of Catfish: The TV Show, at SMYNYC about how social media is impacting teen culture, relationships, and mental health. Having both spent many years working with young people, they had some fascinating insights to share about what teens love (and loathe) about growing up in the digital age. They delved into:

  • How Gen Z is using tech to develop strong bonds with peers, while also engaging in “social media dating” and online relationships to avoid “awkward” face-to-face confrontations.
  • How young people are “crowdsourcing their self-esteem” and constantly living in the tension of getting “likes” or getting ignored.
  • How young people are grappling with growing up in this new world, e.g. while they’re dependent on social media for their interactions, they’re keenly aware of its downsides and potential pitfalls.

Here are some of the key takeaways from this session.

How technology and social media are creating real intimacy (and distance) in teen friendships

Teens feel that social media is a double-edged sword when it comes to friendships.

To some, social media is a means to find community, connect, and make friends over shared passions. Hillhouse’s research indicated that 4 in 10 teenagers would consider friends they’ve met online as real friends.

To others, social media offers a safe haven to talk about important issues.  For example, one teen shared that total strangers on Instagram had been most supportive during her weight loss journey.

But for many, making authentic friendships is proving really challenging in the digital age. So much so, that “about 50% of teens wished they lived in an era before social media” because they are craving closer physical connections, according to Hillhouse. This might explain why the 90’s sitcom “Friends” has such ‘faux-stalgic’ appeal to Gen Z. Life seemed simpler then – close friends actually had to talk in-person, and people dated the old-fashioned way instead of swiping right.

Schulman can understand why teens are feeling jaded. “Social media is removing a lot of the intimacy and experience that is so vital to our understanding of each other and relationships.” But he said it cuts both ways. In his experience, social media also has the capacity to bring great hope and joy to people, and he shared an example of how much it meant to a young former prisoner that was trying to rebuild his life and raise his social currency. 

How technology is allowing teens to opt out of “awkward” situations

Many teens prefer to communicate digitally because it allows them to ‘opt out’ of tough situations where they might feel insecure, embarrassed or uncomfortable. Hillhouse shared a few examples:

  • “Texting allows us time to formulate our opinions, but when we’re in person, we’re forced to automatically say what we’re thinking on the spot.
  • “When I’m talking to a friend, and I’m upset, it’s like weird to see their facial reactions. If they think something is stupid they look at you like you’re an idiot,”
  • “I would tweet a joke but not say in person. It’s better if people favorite things and you can’t see if they are actually laughing.  In person if you tell a joke it can be awkward, because you can’t pause after you hear it and laugh, but on Twitter you can.”

Yet dealing with tough situations face-to-face tends to be where the ultimately deepest bonding opportunities occur, according to Hillhouse and Schulman.

How technology is impacting teen dating

Although Gen Z has access to online dating apps, studies suggest they’re having less sex than previous generations, and that they tend to have more complex gender identities.

Social media has become just another medium for teens to explore their identity on, “which can be wonderful for those exploring their sexuality or gender if they don’t have support at home or school”, said Schulman. Dating tends to start on text and Snapchat, and sometimes never goes offline.

Some teens use pseudonyms or alter-egos online to safeguard their identity. The creation of fake online profiles (known as “catfishing“) is increasingly common amongst teens who want to explore things they might be uncomfortable about or who want to connect with someone romantically.  Catfish: The TV Show has raised awareness around the tips and traps of online dating, and in the process revealed many catfishers to be shy and insecure. Of course, some have nefarious intentions too. Concerning online dating, Hillhouse and Schulman strongly recommended that young people become better educated about making good decisions and not share compromising content on social media. They felt schools and parents have an important role to play in this area.

Cyberbullying

Bullying has always existed and isn’t limited to teens, but social media has taken it to a whole new level. People can be harassed online 24/7, making it hard to avoid any toxic behavior. “The freedom young people have to now say remarkably horrible things to others is scary”, says Schulman. “People feel they have permission to say stuff in a way that didn’t exist in earlier generations.” Cyberbullying is an ongoing issue for Gen Z, given its potential to cause extreme emotional distress or suicide. 

Is social media turning the world into high school?

Schulman believes teens have always sought validation – but with the advent of social media, it’s now quantified (and “3 digits is ideal” when it comes to Instagram “likes” apparently). But adults are getting just as caught up in seeking online popularity too. The dangers arise when people’s self-esteem becomes too dependant on that affirmation.

The jury is still out on whether technology and social media are having a more positive or negative influence on today’s teens. On the plus side, Gen Z has been able to build new connections, find support, and mobilize like no other generation before. But given the evidence to suggest they are feeling unhappier than previous generations, it’s possible that increasing screen time and decreasing intimate face-to-face relationships are seriously contributing to these feelings of disconnection and loneliness.

 

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