News in the time of Generation Z

Group of teenagers on their phones

Picture: Nben54, Wikimedia Commons

I’m not sure I care much for the “generation” way of looking at the world. Baby boomer, Millennial… who cares, we are all people really.

These sweeping generalisations are not often useful – but I think there might be an exception: the cohort of people apparently called “the Linkster generation” or Generation Z. (Linkster? Surely not. I will be sticking with Z.)

The London Independent reckons that Generation Z makes up about 18 percent of the world’s population. These people grew up with social media, smart phones and apps. “Not only this, but someone born in 2002 is just going to have turned 15-years-old meaning they are developing into adults surrounded by both the help, expertise and pressures of social media, the internet and advanced technology.” (Wikipedia gives a wider date range for the birth years of Gen Z:  “demographers and researchers typically use the mid-1990s to early-2000s as starting birth years.”)

I am interested in Generation Z for two reasons: I have a 15-year-old son, born in December 2002. And I think that the journalism profession is spending a a lot of time focussed on the rather horrible present – but coming at us in the rearview mirror are our Generation Z teenagers, and the way in which they consume media will be a vital factor in the way in which media develops (or doesn’t) over the next 10 to 15 years.

My caution about over-generalisation remains – but the gap between the way most adults interact with media and the way in which Gen Z kids do it is big, and interesting. So seeing Gen Z as a group might be useful, even if just to start to discern some trends.

With that in mind, I decided to ask the resident 15-year-old (Jack) to tell me how he gets information online. Needless to say, he had no desire to discuss this with his mother, so what follows in an amalgam of his very brief thoughts and my observations. He did, however, venture the opinion that the term Linkster is “dumb”.

INTERVIEW

Q : What phone apps do you spend the most time on?

Probably WhatsApp, talking to friends – and bit of Instagram.

Q: What websites do you spend the most time on?

YouTube.

Q:  Who do you follow on YouTube and why?

A bunch of people…. people with good editing skills. Fast-paced, subtitles, over the top. (He follows or watches  a lot of people and channels, but when put on the spot couldn’t bring them to mind, though he did come up with something called SovietWomble)

Q: How do you get news from the world, if any?

YouTube – news that I am interested in is just there when I go to YouTube. Otherwise it is people I know telling me what’s going on (my observation: this latter “people I know” source is on WhatsApp and Instagram).

Q: What kind of news do you care about?

I don’t care about news. (Observation: He lives in a household where politics and other news of the day is talked about a lot, so he is getting news over the family dinner table, and often already knows about it, and is always able to discuss it intelligently. So “news” might be something he doesn’t recognise as a “thing”, it is simply part of everything he does.)

In a subsequent discussion at family supper, we talked about all this a bit more. I told him I was trying to figure out how he understands the different media platforms he uses, and he just looked puzzled. Eventually, he said: “Mom, we are just everywhere.” And that I think is the key takeaway: to Gen Z, the online world is not compartmentalised. It is one seamless experience.

WHAT CAN JOURNALISM LEARN FROM THIS?

Probably not a lot, based on a sample of one.

But it seems to me that there are some patterns to be thought about. The platforms that matter to Generation Z are (tentatively) YouTube, WhatApp and Instagram – not Facebook and Twitter. So news organisations should be deepening their understanding of those platforms and figuring out ways in which their content gets surfaced on those channels.

What I see happening as Jack goes about his daily business is a seamless weaving between phone, tablet and PC, between games and videos and chats. So a compartmentalised view of the world (news vs entertainment, computer vs mobile) is simply not relevant to him. So, thinking of news as a distinct product might soon be outmoded thinking?

I am not sure it is possible for someone over the age of 15 (or 20) to understand what all this is like. Perhaps we will need to wait until Generation Z gets its hands on the official means of production (of course, they already have their hands on many, many means of production). And in the meantime, we should be doing a lot more to understand how this generation thinks and feels. They are the customers of the future.

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