Kids These Days: How Social Media Has Altered Generation Z’s Relationships

By: Taylor Kissinger

When I studied abroad on Semester at Sea last fall, I had limited slow access to the internet. I logged onto Instagram maybe 6 times over a span of 106 days. All of us on the program were de-conditioned to the “plugged in” culture. It sounds silly, but we had to relearn how to socialize without the comforting presence of our phones by our sides (which turned out to be the best thing ever). How do 550 college students entertain themselves for hours on end in the middle of the ocean without technology? Picture them playing giant games of hide and seek at 2 a.m., or sometimes switching it up with ukulele jam sessions in between classes. Personally, my favorite way to pass the time was by sitting with my friends, cup of coffee in hand, as we watched the sun peak above the horizon each morning.

Here’s me (mid) on our last day at sea with my two best friends, Carl (left) and Rori (right).

I grew so accustomed to interacting with others sans technology, that when I returned home, I struggled to reconnect with my peers. My friends got annoyed with me when I would forget to reply to the meme they tagged me in on Twitter, or when I did not open their Snapchats in a timely manner. My 16-year-old brother even threatened to unfriend me after I lost our meager week-long Snapchat streak. I’m pretty sure he was only semi-joking. Another friend of mine was offended when I liked her Instagram selfie but failed to comment on it, especially after she had commented on my most recent post (how dare I). I had to become re-accustomed to these unspoken expectations that my peers have for each other on social media. This made me think critically about the reasons why and methods by which we hold each other to these standards of digital interaction. It actually has taken up so much of my mental space that I’m currently writing my thesis on Generation Z’s social media expectations, with uses and gratifications as my theoretical backing.

Uses and gratifications states that people strategically and actively use media to fulfill certain goals. It often has to do with ritualized consumption, and media usage doesn’t get more habitual than social media. American youth are notoriously known for constantly being on their phones. Researchers have found that young people primarily use social media to satisfy their need for socialization. According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Adolescence, teens dedicate over half of their internet time to social media. Even though it can negatively impact their health (lack of sleep, heightened anxiety, FoMO, social media addiction…nothing major), young people are still drawn to apps like Snapchat and Instagram to interact with friends, plan events, and stay in-the-know about each other’s lives.

But now, social media has extended beyond sharing the highlights of your life; different facets of social media trickle into reality. Instagram reveals how long ago you were active on the site, and Snapchat reveals your location to all of your friends on the Snap Map, unless you’re on the optional “ghost mode”. These social media features paint a picture of your real time activity, and the young, social media savvy individual can read into and interpret what this means. Gen Zers have to constantly think about how their online activity could be perceived by their friends, which is why the social media landscape has created an authentic complexity to relationships and an unspoken set of social standards to abide by online.

No pressure.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on uses and gratifications in social media! You can tweet me @ohheytaykay.

This Article Has 9 Comments
  1. Jill Niedermeyer says:

    Hey Taylor! I recently returned from Semester at Sea, as you know, and I personally noticed how much time my friends spend on their phones when we’re eating together. How do we get our friends to disconnect from their devices and connect to us? One of my favorite things about my voyage was how intense and immediate the friendships were (and are) because there were no social media personas to hide behind or “curated” friendships. I really like what you said about social media “trickling into reality” and makes me curious about other potential unseen uses and gratifications. Great read!

    Twitter: @JillNiedermeyer
    Instagram: @JillNiedermeyer

  2. Jessica Murray says:

    Hi Taylor, I love this post! First of all, Semester at Sea sounds like the most spectacular experience. Secondly, I really understand and appreciate how you referred to the program as an exercise in being de-conditioned to the “plugged in” culture– it is so true, we are so plugged in. I don’t remember growing up that way, and I’m curious how and when we all kind of fell into this way of communicating and interacting with the world. Also, I have to ask– when your friends became irritated with you for not reacting or responding to things in their expected time frame, did you care? I wonder if, after the experience with Semester at Sea, your priorities had changed. If your priorities did change, do you think that change is a good thing?

    P.S. I think it’s likely a great thing.

    Instagram: j_murr16
    Twitter: jess_murr

  3. Jessica Baker says:

    Taylor I am FASCINATED by your description of this unspoken set of rules that seems to permeate GenZ’s interactions online! I also see a lot of the blurring of the public and the private – folks being unable to separate in-person interactions from online interactions. As well, these interactions seem to blow out of proportion because they happen online rather than in person… Scalability!

    I’m so glad you did the Semester at Sea – that sounds amazing and I’m very jealous. I never got to do a study abroad in undergrad because I was busy getting two bachelor’s degrees in five years, and so I had a lot of classes to take.

    Thanks for the perspective!
    Jessica

  4. Bella Barilati says:

    Hi Taylor!

    I enjoyed your insightful post- I experienced a similar trip where we were all phoneless for a week. It feels almost foreign to go without checking your Instagram or Twitter feed. All my friends that were not on the trip with me thought something was wrong with me or I was going through a crisis when in reality I just hadn’t responded to their facetimes. Semester at Seas sounds like a great experience, and I am happy you had the chance to take a social media cleanse.
    A rule my friends and I have is when we are together sharing a meal, we all have to put our phones in the middle of the table and not touch them. It sounds a bit silly, but it keeps us completely focused on one another and not our phones.

    Thanks for the read!
    Bella

    Instagram: @bellabarilati
    Twitter: @bellabarilati

  5. Elli Meinert says:

    Hey Taylor, I really enjoyed this post. I love how you compared your experience to Semester at Sea with how our generation’s use of social media and screen time has increased immensely. I completely agree with the fact that we have all grown up so accustomed to constantly using our phones that people now expect us to respond or comment in a timely manner. I’v noticed many people can be in the presence of all their friends, while still having a need to check and see what other people are up to. It’s become a habit that our generation has fallen into, which is decreasing face to face interaction. Unplugging and taking time from one’s phone is healthy and honestly needed at times to be more present, which is something we should all work on. Thanks for the read!

    Instagram: ellimeinert

    Twitter: ellimeinert24

  6. Ashleigh Maier says:

    Hi Taylor!

    First off, Semester at Sea sounds awesome! I would love to have that opportunity to unplug. In reading this post, I couldn’t help but think about even the younger end of the Millennial generation. I’m 25 and there are some people in my graduate program who are 22-23. You would think that the age gap doesn’t make much of a difference, but sometimes it’s wild how many of the media trends I’m “missing out” on that my younger friends make a reference to.

    I recently watched the movie “Eighth Grade” (it’s on Amazon Prime if anyone is interested), and it’s basically this coming of age film about a girl getting ready to enter high school in the age of technology. It covers bases on most of the things you talked about in your blog post, and to be honest, I came out of the theater feeling melancholy for my nieces who are growing up glued to tech. On the same vein, I worked in high schools before moving to Oregon and it was mind-blowing to see how Gen-Z kiddos interact with one another. In a school supported by Mac, a vast majority of communication was through social media or email, and within the counseling office (where I worked), most high school students didn’t know how to navigate conflict resolution face-to-face.

    It’ll definitely be interesting to see what happens in the coming years, especially with Millennials having children in the midst of learning a lot about interpersonal communication through tech. Thanks for your insight!

  7. Julianna Bourjeaurd says:

    Hey Taylor,

    Cool post! I totally agree with your point of the constant disconnect we have with friends. While technology and social media enables us to connect with people on a digital realm, it has almost replaced the physical connection that used to be the main source of developing relationships. Similarly to Jillian’s comment, the biggest thing I notice is being at dinner or other social engagements where people are glued to their phone. As a college student, I am constantly seeing parties on my Snapchat feed with captions reading some variation of “I love my friends” or “#Blessed.” To me, this signals a shift in flattery and show of appreciation. Rather than saying “I love you” to the people you are actually with, people are showing other people how they feel. Why do we do this?

    Instagram: jbourjeaurd
    Twitter: jbourjeaurd

  8. Elyssa Dziwak says:

    Hi Taylor! I couldn’t agree more… I feel grateful that I was able to grow up in a time where social media and smartphones were just beginning to get popular around late middle school. I couldn’t imagine carrying that load of social pressure at such a young age! I appreciate you taking the time to research the health effects that are caused by social (lack of sleep, heightened anxiety, FoMO, social media addiction). I had never heard the term “FOMO” before reading your article! So thank you for that new bit of information!

    I’m glad that you were able to get away and live that life of pure disconnect; it’s so refreshing. I also just want to praise you for your advanced blog writing skills. I’m currently taking J452 and you managed to apply all the points that are required to be considered a professional blog posting.

    Thanks for sharing your story!
    Elyssa

  9. Madelyn Dwyer says:

    Hi Taylor! I really liked this post. Semester at Sea sounds like an amazing experience! You inspire me to want to both travel and unplug more. I totally agree with your insights about how social media is affecting Generation Z. I have noticed in my own relationships, as well, how deeply social media now influences things. I remember there being such a “freeness” when I was growing up and not on any social medias. I imagine you felt very similar in your experience abroad. We should definitely all make an effort to disconnect more often and be aware of the potential consequences of social media.

    Instagram: @_maddydwyer
    Twitter: @dwyermad

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