Gen Z has lived their entire lives online. Some are fed up.
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Members of Generation Z were among the first to go from birth through adolescence to young adulthood connected to a screen. They’re also among the first to say that they’ve had enough.
“I had a lovely time going on and feeling as though I had the world at my fingertips. I could connect to Olive Garden, I commented on the picture and they commented back, best day of my life,” said Emma Lembke, a 19-year-old college freshman at Washington University in St. Louis, recalling her first experiences on social media as a younger teen.
“And yet there was that sense, too, that I was entering these platforms and just feeling as though I didn’t have control,” she said. “I left feeling more anxious, more depressed.”
The huge number of hours spent online, compounded by a global pandemic that tied teens to their devices for both schoolwork and personal life, pushed Lembke to take action. From her bedroom in Mobile, Alabama, she launched the LOG OFF Movement in 2020.
“The LOG OFF Movement just started as a youth movement by teens for teens, largely hyper-focused on providing that space for conversation, to talk about the multifaceted nature (of social media) and to promote the healthier usage of it,” she explained.
Though she originally created it as a blog for discussing the negative effects social media was having on her own life, what she found was a generation of teens and kids who began demanding more from Big Tech. The movement has engaged with thousands of teens across over a dozen countries, documenting stories of a generation increasingly worried about leaving their mental health in the hands of for-profit tech companies.
In Los Angeles, 18-year-old Emi Kim was among those struggling to find a balance between what she refers to as addictive algorithms on social media apps and her need to stay connected to her friends during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“I have deleted everything. I have installed everything,” said Kim. “I know a lot of kids spent their time at home to strengthen their social media presence and try to aim for the influencer title. And now that we’re busy again with school and with extracurriculars and just life in general, people still have that desire to be TikTok famous, the YouTube star.”
Prior to the pandemic, children ages 10 to 14 reported an average of 3.8 hours per day of screen time, excluding schoolwork, but according to research published in JAMA Pediatrics, in May 2020 that figure rose to 7.7 hours.
Lembke believes much of that increase in time is by design — a result of tech companies’ deliberate strategies as opposed to a lack of willpower to put down the phone.
“My friend said to me, ‘I just get stuck in these cycles. I see the next video, it just keeps playing, it just keeps going and going.’ Obviously it’s such a genius thing to employ within an algorithm, because it maximizes attention … it’s promoting that sense of the never-ending scroll, like gambling, like the slot machine. But also what I think it does is make it so much easier to promote content to its users that can be possibly harmful,” Lembke said.
Lembke teamed up with college freshman Aliza Kopans at Brown University to capitalize on the success of the LOG OFF and formed another organization called Tech(nically) Politics, a youth-led organization dedicated to pushing for regulation of Big Tech.
The group is throwing its support behind the Kids Internet Design and Safety Act, or KIDS Act. The bill was reintroduced in September 2021 by Senators Edward J. Markey and Richard Blumenthal and Representative Kathy Castor of Florida.
The bill is designed to “stop online practices such as manipulative marketing, amplification of harmful content, and damaging design features, which threaten young people online,” said a statement from the lawmakers.
“Big Tech continues to blatantly prioritize raking in revenue over protecting children and teens, and that must stop. We know that these companies won’t change their ways unless Congress forces them to,” Markey stated.
The push for regulation gained momentum after groundbreaking testimony from former Facebook employee and whistleblower Francis Haugen, who filed a complaint with federal law enforcement and told Congress that Facebook had internal research showing that its platform amplified hate and misinformation, and impacted young people’s self-esteem.
According to leaked documents first reported by the Wall Street Journal, company data showed a third of teen girls said Instagram made them feel worse about their body image. Facebook and Instagram’s parent company, now called Meta, said Instagram “helps many teens who are struggling with some of the hardest issues they experience.”
Lembke reflects on her personal experience: “I was a young female going through social media when I was developing my self-image and my body standards for myself. It completely altered the future trajectory of the way that I viewed myself.”
According to Pew Research, 45% of teens say they feel overwhelmed by social media, even while the number of hours spent on the apps continues to increase year after year.
“There is so much pressure to be the perfect everything, that you can’t stop to acknowledge that everyone is flawed. And it feels like you’re the only one that’s flawed,” said Kim.
In 2021, Kim Joined the LOG OFF Movement as LGBTQ+ director, where she helps teens in that community find and navigate safe spaces online.
“If we can reach a point where people don’t feel unsafe online, I think we can call it a job well done,” she said.
But it’s a challenge with no clear end point — and one that no previous generation has had to grapple with in quite the same way.
“No other generation, no other category or group of people can say, other than members of Gen Z, I grew up having a phone in my hand when I was younger,” Lembke said. “Technology is baked into the DNA of our generation.”