01 The World According to Gen Z

The World According to Gen Z


During their childhood and early adult years, each generation collectively experiences a handful of events or cultural trends that serve to shape their generational ethos. For Boomers it was—among other things—post-WWII prosperity and the rise of the consumer economy, the sexual revolution, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. Gen X was formed in part by the Challenger disaster, the end of the Cold War, no-fault divorce and the personal computer. The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent War on Terror loom large for Millennials, but perhaps not as large as the Internet, video gaming and mobile technology, globalization and diversity, and the consumer mindset of their Boomer parents.

The oldest members of Gen Z are now on the cusp of adulthood. Here are six trends that are working together to form their shared worldview, based on recent scholarly research and new Barna data.

1. They are Screenagers

One of the defining influences on Gen Z is that they have come of age in a world saturated by digital technology and mediated by mobile devices. Many admit to having experienced “nomophobia,” a feeling of anxiety any time they are separated from their mobile phone. They can’t remember a time before the Internet; they’re “digital natives,” a term popularized by Marc Prensky, a writer and speaker in the field of education. [2] Prensky, among many others, believes the ubiquitous presence of digital technology has changed the way young people process and interact with information. The changes are so pervasive that another nickname for Gen Z is “screenagers.”

Social scientist Jean Twenge has dubbed them “iGen,” making explicit the nearly symbiotic relationship between teens and their internet-connected mobile devices.[3] Beyond the effects of a curtailed attention span, Twenge believes smartphones have “radically changed every aspect of teenager’s lives.” She argues that, though they are physically safer, they are psychologically more vulnerable. For instance, teens are less likely to leave their homes, drink alcohol, get their driver’s license and go out on dates than generations before them at the same age. But while teen pregnancies, for example, are rarer than ever, rates of teen suicide and depression have skyrocketed. Twenge believes this is because teens live their social life on their phones, and much of that time is spent “in their room, alone and often distressed.” Teens are hanging out with their friends less; basketball courts and town pools have “all been replaced by virtual spaces accessed through apps and the web.”

Smartphone use is cutting into teens’ sleeping patterns, with many getting less than seven hours a night. Many teens and young adults sleep with their phone and check social media just before they go to sleep, then reach for it the minute they wake in the morning. More than half of 13- to 18-year-olds in a recent national study admit they use a screen four or more hours a day; one-quarter admits to eight or more hours, making smartphone, tablet or other screen use their top daily activity.

Gen Z Hours on Social Media


But it’s not only a lack of sleep and its associated problems that could spell trouble; mobile technology itself is potentially making an irreversible impact on young brains. The truth is, it’s too soon to tell. According to The New York Times, “Though smartphones seem ubiquitous in daily life, they are actually so new that researchers are just beginning to understand what the devices may do to the brain.” [4] According to a paper published in the Journal of Individual Psychology:

Generation Z’s lower cognitive regions, which stimulate impulse, are constantly being activated by the bombardment of neurological arousal provided by text messages, Facebook updates, and video games. At the same time, the so-called Google culture of learning—finding answers to any question within seconds—continues to change the way Generation Z youth concentrate, write, and reflect. . . . Their capacity for linear thinking has been replaced by a new mode of thinking, in which they need to take in and dish out information in a fast, disjointed, overlapping manner. [5]

Other researchers have begun to take stock of the neurological implications for memory, problem solving, concentration, addiction and risk-taking behaviors among teens and adults. [6]

So what are screenagers doing on their phones and other web-connected screens all day? Gaming, consuming entertainment such as streaming video, and engaging on social media like Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and others. According to a national survey of teens, 45 percent report using social media every day, and among all 13to 18-year-olds the average amount of time per day is more than one hour (some are engaging far longer and some not at all). [7]

For the most part, teens use social media for the same activities as adults: connecting with friends and family members, sharing photos or videos or catching up on the latest news. However, Gen Z is much more likely than older generations to use social media to branch outside of their existing personal network. More than half say they also use these media to meet new people or connect with celebrities or consumer brands. They are twice as likely as adults to say “I enjoy interacting online with people I have not met in real life” (18% vs. 9% all adults).

Among teens who use social media, seven out of 10 say they are happy with the amount of time they spend engaging with these technologies (69%). That’s a slightly larger percentage than among Millennials, the generation just ahead of them; 64 percent of young adults 19 to 33 say they are satisfied with their social media use. Similarly, teens are less likely than adults to agree that “social media sometimes interferes with my face-to-face interactions.” Even if it is interfering, only 12 percent say they notice it much, compared to about one in five adults (20%). Perhaps this is a result of having never known a world where social media doesn’t exist. For this generation, it is as comfortable as a second skin.

How I Use Social Media: Gen Z vs. Adults

Gen Z, along with Millennials, are more likely than older generations to think social media is a good place to discuss opinions and ideas, and to trust information they encounter online. Indeed, for many of them the better question might be, “Where else would I go?”

Researcher Danah Boyd is more optimistic than Twenge and others about the effects of mobile devices and social media use among teens. Boyd sees these technologies, which are now part of everyday life for young people, as tools for extending the pleasure of connecting with friends in real time.[8] She believes that in-person time with friends is made difficult by restrictive parenting, so online spaces have become new public spaces. Social media makes friendship the key organizing principle of young people’s social worlds and also provides teens with new opportunities to participate in public life. She argues that young people have more power and capacity than adults give them credit for. Social media allows them to create networked communities where they actively take part in self-expression and identity formation. These new “networked publics,” as Boyd calls them, are ultimately opportunities, not dangers, for teenagers.

Over time that may turn out to be true. But at least for now, these “opportunities” appear to adversely affect kids’ happiness—which is ironic, considering the premium Gen Z puts on being happy. Fully half strongly agree that “happiness is my ultimate goal in life” (51%) compared to 44 percent of all adults. Yet research shows that more time with screen activities is consistently linked to less happiness. Despite the promise of connection, social media exacerbates loneliness and dislocation, and appears to increase rates of depression. As Jean Twenge reports, “In 2011, for the first time in 24 years, the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.”9 The psychological distress of smartphone and social media use is related to the fear of missing out (“FOMO”), especially when those social encounters are documented online so relentlessly. Those who aren’t invited are keenly aware, through social media, of what is happening without them, leading to feelings of exclusion and loneliness. Those who post are also affected, anxiously waiting for the affirmation of comments and “likes”; this is most acute among young women.

In her book The Happiness Effect, Donna Freitas argues that the pressure to appear happy and successful online not only fosters inauthenticity, but can actually make people less happy. [10] As one student told Freitas, “People share the best version of themselves, and we compare that to the worst version of ourselves.”

Barna data validates that student’s claim. Agreement with negative statements about social media increases in each successive generation, and is strongest among Gen Z. (And women in each generation are more likely than men to report these feelings.)

In order to keep up with their peers, members of Gen Z create a personal brand by “manicuring” their online presence, driven by the knowledge that they are constantly being watched, not only by their peers, but by future employers. This is an exhausting way to live, but they don’t feel they can stop. Social media is where they feel most “seen”—but the version of themselves that is being seen isn’t authentic. This vicious dynamic is familiar to anyone who has ever been in high school—the pressure to act a certain way to fit in—but now there is no escaping it. There’s no time or place where teens are really safe. Even alone in their bedroom at night, many can’t stop scrolling through others’ photos or videos. They feel pressured by the temptation to post something. There’s just no escape.

Inauthenticity and constant self-monitoring are not the only psychological risks, however. In the Barna study, one-third of 13to 18-year-olds report having been on the receiving end of online bullying (33%)—far more than older generations, though nearly on par with Millennials. From the study published in the Journal of Individual Psychology:

The difference between Generation Z cyberbullies and bullies of other generations is that Generation Z no longer sees the immediate physical consequences of—or immediate feedback from—these maladjusted behaviors, because the Internet provides the “safety” of anonymity. The instant and impulsive nature of Internet cyberbullying is a phenomenon entirely unique to Generation Z youth, and it allows for socially disinterested behaviors to proliferate in ways we have never before seen. [11]

Whether, as this generation grows into adulthood, ubiquitous technology will prove to be a greater blessing than a curse remains to be seen. Either way, it will have made an indelible mark.

Q&A with Donna Freitas

Scholar, Author and Speaker

Donna lectures at universities across the U.S. on her work about college students. Over the years she has written for national newspapers and magazines, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. She’s currently a non-resident research associate at the Center for Religion and Society at Notre Dame. In 2008 Donna published Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses. Her latest book, The Happiness Effect: How Social Media Is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost, is based on research from her new study about social media and how it affects the ways college students construct identity, make meaning in the world and navigate relationships.

2. Their Worldview Is Post-Christian

It is not breaking news that the influence of Christianity in the United States is waning. Historical Barna data show that rates of church attendance, religious affiliation, belief in God, prayer and Bible-reading have been dropping for decades.

Consequently, the role of religion in public life has also diminished, and the Church no longer holds the cultural authority it wielded in times past. These are unique days for the Church in America as it learns what it means to flourish in a post-Christian era.

There are a few different ways we can look at the post-Christian phenomenon. Using a classification of faith based on widely accepted, orthodox Christian beliefs, Barna developed a profile of people with a “biblical world-view.”* The percentage of people whose beliefs qualify them for a biblical worldview declines in each successively younger generation: 10 percent of Boomers, 7 percent of Gen X and 6 percent of Millennials have a biblical worldview, compared to only 4 percent of Gen Z.

Americans’ beliefs are becoming more post-Christian and, concurrently, religious identity is changing. (See previous page.) Within the self-identified Christian population, the percentage that qualifies as evangelical according to Barna’s definition, which is based on nine points of theological and personal belief, has remained stable over the past two decades. However, those whom Barna classifies as “born again” (who say they have faith in Jesus and believe salvation comes through faith alone) have dwindled, especially in the last six years. During the same period, the percentage of those with no religious affiliation has risen, mostly thanks to the growing number of Americans under 50 who say they are “none of the above.”

In Gen Z we see more of the same trends, except for one glaring difference: The percentage of Gen Z that identifies as atheist is double that of U.S. adults. We’ll dig into this massive shift in an upcoming chapter. For now, here is a generational breakdown of how Americans identify today:



Many in Generation Z, more than in generations before them, are a spiritual blank slate. They are drawn to things spiritual, but their starting point is vastly different from previous generations, many of whom received a basic education on the Bible and Christianity. The worldview of Gen Z, by contrast, is truly post-Christian. They were not born into a Christian culture, and it shows.

You will notice throughout this study that we refer to various faith categories. These groups are a combination of religious self-identification and Christian beliefs and practices. When researchers segment Gen Z by faith, we find that, while a majority of teens still self-identifies as “Christian” (58%), only 43 percent have recently attended church, and just one in 11 is an “engaged Christian,” with beliefs and practices that put faith front and center in their lives.* This is a significantly smaller percentage than their grandparents: 14 percent of Boomers are engaged Christians.

*For a complete definition of “engaged Christian” and other Barna categories, see Appendix B.

In Meet Generation Z, James Emery White agrees that Gen Z is the first “truly post-Christian generation.”12 The rise of the religiously unaffiliated, or “nones,” is symptomatic of a growing cultural apathy toward religion. He suggests that nominal Christians—those who identify culturally with the name if not with the commitment—are no longer the “center” between the poles of the religious and the atheist; the culture is secularizing, and those in the middle are shifting away from the religious pole. “As the cultural cost of being a Christian increases, people who were once Christian only in name likely have started to identify as nones, disintegrating the ‘ideological bridge’ between unbelievers and believers.” [13]

As we will see in later chapters, the bridge between believing and unbelieving teens is nearly nonexistent.

3. “Safe Spaces” Are Normal

As we will see, Gen Z teens do not like to make people feel bad—which is not, in and of itself, a problem. Their collective aversion to causing offense is the natural product of a pluralistic, inclusive culture that frowns on passing judgment that might provoke negative feelings in the judged. Two timely examples of this value are trigger warnings (written notices that content could provoke negative emotions such as fear or anger) and safe spaces (designated areas where such content is banned, either online or in physical space). The original intent of these concepts was to encourage awareness of content that could be psychologically harmful to victims of trauma or those with mental illness. Over time, however, use of trigger warnings has expanded in media and in classrooms. It’s not unusual to see notices about material that might be offensive or simply emotionally distressing. Safe spaces, in turn, have become designated areas not only to avoid information that could induce or remind one of trauma, but also to opt out of discussions that may in any way upset or provoke an individual.

The creation of trigger warnings and safe spaces was inspired by empathy, compassion and sound psychological principles—yet, when misused or overused, they ultimately do more harm than good. As Alan Levinovitz writes:

There is a very real danger that these efforts [to institute trigger warnings and safe spaces] will become overzealous and render opposing opinions taboo. Instead of dialogues in which everyone is fairly represented, campus conversations about race, gender, and religion will devolve into monologues about the virtues of tolerance and diversity. Even though academic debate takes place in a community, it is also combat. Combat can hurt. It is literally offensive. Without offense there is no antagonistic dialogue, no competitive marketplace, and no chance to change your mind. [14]

In their book Good Faith, Barna president David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons argue, “Protecting people from ideas they’d rather not hear is not only laughable but also ultimately harmful to society. Religious liberty and freedom of speech are rights that can only be put to the test at the distressing intersection of differing ideas. If we run away from that crossroads, these freedoms are simply hypothetical.”15 (Kinnaman and Lyons were writing about Millennials, but the phenomenon has only grown more extreme since Good Faith was published.)

In focus groups for this study, Barna researchers heard time and again from teens, “I don’t know; I’m so confused” and similar remarks in answer to seemingly basic questions like “Who was Jesus?” (You will also see in this report that “not sure” is a popular option on a majority of multiple-choice questions.) Many teens are deeply reluctant to make declarative statements about anything that could cause offense, and thus they struggle with anxiety and indecision when it’s time to give an answer, or time to act on it. In many ways they are the postmodern version of ancient Nineveh, about which God asked the prophet Jonah, “Should I not pity that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?” (Jonah 4:11, ESV).

4. Real Safety Is a Myth

Although the tolerant inoffensiveness of “safe spaces” is a norm for Gen Z, the underlying anxiety that so many experience has led to a collective suspicion that true security is unattainable, or at least outside their control.

The Harry Potter books are, for many Millennials, a touchstone. Young adults came of age with Harry, who fought against and ultimately defeated the evil Lord Voldemort with the help of his friends and his magical abilities. If magic is a metaphor for inborn talent and “specialness,” Harry’s journey could be seen as an aspirational prototype for many twentysomethings—who, generationally speaking, are interested in working together to defeat the evils of social injustice.

Gen Z are not so optimistic, and are not altogether clear on what evils need defeating. Their social awareness began to dawn right around the Great Recession of 2008, and there is a dystopian slant on the books and movies popular among today’s YA audience that is very much at odds with the epic hero fantasy of Harry Potter. Many of these books are set in a post-apocalyptic future in which humanity has nearly destroyed itself and the earth. The resulting violence and loss of freedom offer bleak, authoritarian visions of humanity’s future. The best that the heroines of The Hunger Games and the Divergent trilogy can hope for is a quiet country life tinged by trauma and a violent death, respectively. Teens have never personally experienced a time when the norm was a dependable job with a livable wage and a reliable social safety net. After seeing their (mainly Gen X) parents struggle in the workforce only to earn financial stress, many young people express a strong sense of responsibility and entrepreneurial drive, likely in an effort to feel more in control of their future.

Financial expectations are only one of the cultural norms that have drastically shifted over the last several decades. Most in Gen Z do not remember the years before 9/11. They do not recall ever having lived in a country at peace. “As a group raised in constant war, contemporary youth may view the world with the belief that the world is ‘unsafe,’ yet at the same time, they may have greater global awareness as a result.”16 Between the financial crisis and perpetual war, they are apt to be distrustful of the future. According to analysis in Forbes:

Generation Z never had the luxury of a threat-free perspective so they’ve been forced to view life through a more guarded lens from the start. . . . The wary worldview of this group is further shaped by generation X parents, who came of age in the post-Watergate and Vietnam years amidst a time of economic and global uncertainty.17

Complementing, or perhaps exacerbating, their controlling streak are shifting cultural expectations about sexuality and gender identity. Not only are they collectively supportive of those who identify as LGBTQ but, as we’ll see in a later chapter, they are also more likely than adults to personally express some level of sexual fluidity or non-binary identity.18 As far as Gen Z is concerned, when it comes to gender expression and sexual orientation, there is no norm—and that can be deeply unsettling. If even your own body cannot reliably represent you to the world, is anything trustworthy?

5. They Are Diverse

As The Hunger Games and Divergent—not to mention Wonder Woman, Moana and Hidden Figures—demonstrate, the Age of Women in entertainment may have arrived at long last. And female success is ascendant elsewhere, too.

Where men at one time went to college in proportions far higher than women—58 percent to 42 percent as recently as the 1970s—the ratio has now almost exactly reversed. This fall, women will comprise more than 56 percent of students on campuses nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Some 2.2 million fewer men than women will be enrolled in college this year. And the trend shows no sign of abating.19

Q&A with Irene Cho

Program Manager at Fuller Youth Institute

Irene serves as the program manager for the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI). She holds a Master of Divinity from Talbot Theological Seminary and a BA in Christian education from Biola University, and is a PhD student in Fuller’s School of Intercultural Studies. At FYI, Irene is the point person for Urban Youth Ministry training and resources. Having served over 25 years in youth ministry, her passion is for the misfits of the world and to bring the gospel message to those who seem to fall through the cracks. In her minimal spare time, Irene enjoys a great book, movie or television show, hanging out with friends, former students and her new husband and, of course, getting some sleep.

Complete acceptance, and even elevation, of non-male and nonwhite is a generational marker. Gen Z “are experiencing radical changes in . . . family, sexuality, and gender. They live in multigenerational households, and the fastest-growing demographic within their age group is multi-racial.” [20]

The Census Bureau found that 48% of Gen Z is non-Caucasian. The next most-diverse generation is the Millennials, 44% of whom are non-Caucasian. Members of Gen Z are also the most likely to say they have friends of a different sexual orientation (59%, versus 53% of Millennials and smaller percentages of the older generations). [21]

Racial demographics from Barna’s research closely mirror federal data trends (see chart on page 30). The kindergarteners who started school in 2016 were the first American class in which minority ethnicities made up a majority of students, and whites the minority. For the next generation on the brink of American adulthood, different is ordinary.

6. Their Parents Are Double-Minded

In assessing the parenting approach of Gen Z’s mostly Gen X parents, observers seem to fall into one of two camps. In one are those who believe Gen Z’s caregivers are of the “helicopter” variety: overprotective, hypermanaging and fearful. On the other are those who suggest just the opposite: that most Gen X parents are, in fact, underprotective because they are so keen to avoid the helicopter label. The truth, however, may be a combination of both extremes, a parenting dichotomy: overprotective in some ways and underprotective in others (especially in digital spaces). The apostle James warns against being “double-minded” because wavering and vacillation make a person (or parent) unstable. Could that be what’s going on here?

Those weighing in on the first side of the debate include investigative journalist Hannah Rosin. She argues that “a preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer.”22 She believes childhood norms have shifted dramatically in a single generation, with parents becoming significantly more protective over a short period of time. For instance, “in 1971, 80 percent of thirdgraders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower.” The problem is, the world is not more dangerous; we just perceive it to be that way. She goes on to suggest that parental supervision is now overwrought. The result is a “continuous and ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore in their own chosen ways.” As a result, children have become “less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.” Ultimately, suggests Julie Lythcott-Haims in her book How to Raise an Adult, “Kids with overinvolved parents and rigidly structured childhoods suffer psychological blowback in college.”23 Some evidence bears this out: A 2011 study from University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found that students with “hovering” or “helicopter” parents were more likely to take medication for anxiety, depression or both.

On the other side of the debate, James Emery White (among others) argues that “one of the marks of Generation Z is that they are being raised, by and large, by Generation X—a generation that was warned repeatedly not to become ‘helicopter’ parents. . . . As a result, Generation Z is very selfdirected.” 24 He sees Millennials as having been raised by overprotective (Boomer) parents, but Gen Z by underprotective (Gen X) parents. Gen X, White believes, would rather err on the side of being too loose than too strict. But the problem is that, in an age of social media, ubiquitous porn, self-harm, cyberbullying and sexting, children need greater protection than ever before— not less. Thanks to their parents, however, Gen Z is growing up too fast, and childhood has slowly evaporated in the name of independence and freedom. Instead of being formed and disciplined by their parents, screenagers are increasingly shaped by the media. (This is especially true of pornography, which is shaping sexual norms and expectations in radical ways.) If the teens in Barna’s research are to be believed, many don’t have much (if any) parental oversight of their Wi-Fi-enabled activities. The problems unique to Gen Z, White and others say, can be laid at the feet of hands-off parenting.

But what if both concerns are valid? Might it be true that Gen Z’s parents are overinvolved in many of the wrong ways and too detached in others? We might call this “double-minded parenting”—an approach that is wrongside-out if the goal is to raise resilient, emotionally intelligent adults.

These are the six trends Barna has identified that are powerfully at work to create the ethos of the next generation:

  1. They are screenagers.
  2. Their worldview is post-Christian.
  3. “Safe spaces” are normal.
  4. Real safety is a myth.
  5. They are diverse.
  6. Their parents are double-minded.

Under these influences, who is Gen Z becoming? Let’s look more closely at who they are and what’s most important to them.

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