Like many teenagers her age, 16-year-old DeNaijia Wesley checks her phone for notifications from her school on a daily basis.
The sophomore at Toledo Early College High School, a school that operates without bells or daily address through a PA system, receives multiple email announcements and reminders every day.
“If we didn’t have that what would happen? I wouldn’t even remember what to do the next day,” the student said.
For the others like DeNaijia who make up Generation Z, technology is more than just a useful tool. It’s an identity.
• The Pew Research Institute says Generation Z accounted for 25 percent of the U.S. population in 2016
• There are an estimated 68 million members of Generation Z, those born between 1995 and 2015
• 14 percent of Americans 12-22 have foreign-born parents, according to an analysis from the National Center for Family and marriage Research at BGSU
• Common Sense Media says today’s teens spend nearly nine hours a day consuming media
Generation Z is defined as those 22 years of age or younger who grew up cocooned by social media and Netflix and are adept at accessing the world from the palm of their hands. In their world, making connections with people or online databases is never an issue. Unless, of course, they’re at a coffee shop and don’t know the Wi-Fi password.
“I’m always on my phone, I’ll admit that,” confessed sophomore Sarah Sahmarani, 16. “I’m always checking it constantly. I take it everywhere.”
Generation Z arrives in numbers even larger than the Millennials they will one day replace, armed with new perspectives and motives.
Its members were born between 1996 and 2016. It’s a generation for whom being “plugged in” includes constantly sharing videos of random nothings across the platforms, or using words like “extra” or “IRL” (in real life) as part of day-to-day communication.
Social media platforms only seem to benefit her generation, said Grace Garand, 16. She said such platforms have shaped her and her peers’ political beliefs rather than encouraging them to regurgitate views held by their parents.
“If your parents were conservative Republicans, you’re probably going to grow up conservative Republican with no other influence,” she said. “If you’re a liberal Democrat, you’re going to probably grow up to be a liberal Democrat with no other influence [than from your parents]. Now that we're older and have social media it shows the different influences so we can make our own decisions.”
In a 2016 Washington Post video, the Pew Research Institute found that Generation Z accounts for 25 percent of the U.S. population.
It is a generation defined by diversity, said Krista Payne, social science data analyst at Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research.
Ms. Payne said nearly 14 percent of those 12-22 have foreign-born parents, compared to 7 percent among Millennials at the same age.
“They are going to be the most racially diverse generation we have ever seen,” the data analyst said.
Ms. Payne said some Millennial trends continue with Gen Z, including being slightly more likely to be living with their parents as they age and being more open to same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana. She also said those in Gen Z still want to get married but later in life than previous generations.
When asked if she could live without a cell phone, sophomore Ms. Wesley said it would be too difficult.
“How would we communicate?” she wondered.
She believes those in prior generations don’t understand the benefits of being heavily immersed in technology. Because of tech’s convenience, she is able to easily call her grandmother who lives in Texas and bond with her father by playing iMessage games on their phones.
“We're well rounded; that’s how tech is carving us to be as people,” she said. “It’s not that we don’t know how to live without [our phones], but we have learned to use it to our advantage.”
Whether listening to songs by Ed Sheeran or Camila Cabello on Spotify or watching shows like Stranger Things on Netflix, the latest generation regards streaming as a birthright, some researchers say.
Monita Mungo, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Toledo, said Gen Z has always perceived instant access to information as normal. Gone are the days of going to a library and rummaging through physical books.Now, it’s tap a search engine, find an article or document, and hit CTRL-F (a computer shortcut for instantly finding a specific word or phrase).
“Technology is life for them as long as they’ve been alive,” she said. “They have instant and on-demand access to everything. That’s their way of living.”
Ms. Mungo said younger consumers are more cautious in the products they use and aim to make a difference in the world.
“They’re heavily focused on making an impact on earth and being better people in [how they use products],” she said. “They’re more conscious in that manner.”
Camden Miller, 16, said he still remembers his life before a cell phone. That meant memorizing phone numbers instead of simply tapping a name from his contact list.
Now, he finds himself walking around his house while watching shows on Netflix on his phone.
“My dad always says to stop watching stuff on my phone,” he said. “I always carry it around with me. It’s a lot different [today]. Even a few years ago you would have to sit down and watch it on your TV. Now, it’s more mobile. You can take it wherever you want.”
Research suggests those from Gen Z also have mixed opinions about the necessity of a college degree.
Grace Garand, 16, who plans to pursue a career in computer coding, said she understands why those in her generation might opt out of higher education.
“A lot of people agree that it’s been an idea shoved down people's throats ... like four-year college, getting married right after, settling down, having a cubicle job,” she said. “A lot of people are realizing they don’t really want that path, so they figure they can just find their own way without going to college. I disagree with that because I want to pursue knowledge.”
Ms. Mungo said if a Gen Zer grew up wanting to be a lawyer, he or she will take the necessary steps to make that path possible. Others might see the crippling student debt their parents are still paying off as a problem worth avoiding in their own lives.
Although DeNaijia Wesley’s life revolves around technology, she sees it as her generation’s advantage.
“It depends on how accepting you are to change,” she said. “It's not about technology; it's about change.”
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