Do you have any friends you’ve met online? Have you met someone through a social media outlet or online gaming, but that digital connection has turned into an authentic friendship IRL (in real life)? Has Bumble BFF or a similar app helped you connect with a person you now consider to be part of your community?
Friendship was once limited to who was in our direct geography or proximity, and then by whose phone number or mailing address we had, but now the physical boundaries of friendship have been transcended by technology. This experience is well-understood by the next generations: Gen Z and Gen Alpha. The primary purpose of using social media is for relational and communal purposes: for connection, not information.
However, the experience of developing friendships online has varying familiarity to Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers. Though older generations are charged with stewarding the next ones, there is a lack of mentoring in the area of digital community and relationship-building. There is a barrier to an increasingly important need for discipleship in the digital space.
The generational barrier? Technology.
Labeled digital natives, Generation Z (born 1999-2013), grew up with access to smart, interactive technology, integrating the digital world into their worlds from an early age. By 2018, 95% of adolescents had access to a smartphone, a digital world that comes with its own cultural mores, taboos, etiquette, language, and relational dynamics.
Voices from around the world speak to Gen Z through YouTube, social media, and other online platforms. This is fundamentally different from previous generations of young people, who only heard from those in their school or community, or those who had access to read the headlines in print or television news. Social media, by design, is addictive, making it easier to endlessly scroll rather than engage IRL. Countless voices are crowding Gen Z and Gen Alpha, and adults around them are mostly in the dark as to what they are experiencing, listening to, learning, or adopting.
Due to lack of understanding, or awareness, surrounding digital and social media, older generations have pulled back, leaving Gen Z to fend for themselves in the digital world — throwing their hands in the air with a collective, “You’re on your own, kids!” The result is right before our eyes: increased anxiety, loneliness, depression and suicide.
Did you catch that? Kids are dying, in more ways than one, because they have been left to their own devices (pun intended).
This is not an option.
If social media is where the next generation is, it is time for adults to enter into that space to better understand, communicate with, and care for them. To do so effectively, it must be done relationally, and this means learning to speak the language of the next generations. Starting a conversation doesn’t mean knocking on the door, but liking, following, or commenting on social media. It is opening a digital door to real-life friendship and mentoring.
Ben Boelter, a Young Life staff associate at Fresno State, refers to Instagram as a new version of the football game: it is where people connect, gather, see others and are seen. So, when Destyni was a scared freshman, moving away from home to a college in a different city, and lost in how to find friendship and community, she was found on Instagram. The Instagram account for Young Life at Fresno State gave her a follow. Behind the screen was Ben, who made sure to enter the venue of social media to proactively invite college students to events and community.
She received a short message in her direct messages, “Hi Destyni! Thanks for following us. My name is Ben, and we’d love to invite you to our next event.” This individualized invitation in the digital space resulted in a meaningful in-person interaction.
Destyni showed up. She felt embraced by the community and upon reflection, she recognized she would not have the community or faith she has today without the social media invitations she received. But it took a caring adult to enter into the digital space and knock on her digital door.
Almost three-quarters of Gen Zers want to consult older generations when making big or difficult decisions, according to a 2022 Barna study. Mentorship is consistently listed as a top criterion for emerging adults when looking for job opportunities. Gen Z wants to learn from us, and if we can learn to enter into their world and understand their language, we can begin to serve as translators.
To enter their world, we first must understand what’s going on inside of it, and inside of us. To do that, we can ask ourselves relevant questions, such as: what is my relationship with technology? Am I using it as a tool to facilitate meaningful relationships? What are the limits to healthy relationships and technology? Am I aware of current social media trends so I can come alongside my Gen Z friends as they grapple with technology-related challenges?
As we understand the heart of the next generation, the questions they are asking, and the context for those questions, we can translate wisdom, truth, and the matters of God in a way that is not only understandable but attractive, to the next generation.
When Gen Z is known by us, we can help God be known to them.
Dr. Tanita Tualla Maddox is an Associate Regional Director for Young Life and a Gen Z expert.