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The creation of the Internet has transformed society in every way imaginable, and 84% of us use it every day.[1] The two generations that grew up with the Internet are millennials and generation Z. You may be surprised at how differently these two groups use it, and how it’s affected them as human beings overall. Today’s GKIS article highlights the difference between teens and young adults and those who are 25 and older. If you’d like to help prepare your gen Z’s for healthy Internet media consumption by building good habits and communication, check out our Screen Safety Essentials Course. 

What defines a generation? 

A generation refers to all people born and living around the same time. The average period of a generation is 20 to 30 years, and the cutoffs are defined by when people become adults and start having children of their own. Although the specific years that group a generation is often up for debate, for our purposes we define millennials to be anyone born between 1981 and 1996 and generation Z to be anyone born between 1997 and 2012. That means millennials are currently between the ages of 26 and 41, and Gen Zs are between the ages of 10 and 25. Millennials were in their teen years when they first started using social media and gen Z’s were still children when they ventured into online neighborhoods independently. 

Millennials and the Internet: Jackie’s POV 

To gather better insight into how millennials view and interact with the internet, I interviewed Jackie (age 25).

Jackie started using Instagram and Facebook when she was 16 years old. She considers the biggest impact social media had on her was the comparison. Comparing her social media posts to others’ posts was the biggest issue she thinks she faced. It’s an issue for her because when she would compare posts, insecurities often arose. She said that constantly seeing others’ posts of selfies, vacation pictures, and pictures with significant others and friends made her feel inadequate, especially when she was much younger. She overcame those issues by no longer using social media as often. 

Gen Z and the Internet: Sophia’s POV 

To better understand gen Z’s views and interactions with the internet, I interviewed Sophia (age 12) about her experiences.

Sophia started using social media when she was 10 years old, specifically Snapchat and TikTok. She feels that the biggest impact social media had on her was the concern of appearing ‘cringe’ online and in front of others in real life. Micro-managing one’s appearance and mannerisms is another problem many gen Zs face. Snapchat and TikTok often contain videos of people recording others doing things, sometimes without their knowledge. Certain behaviors are labeled as ‘cringe’ or ‘embarrassing’ by others in comment sections. Nowadays, she says she still uses social media often but not as much as she used to, claiming she used to be glued to her screen 24/7 when she first started. 

Compare and Despair

The biggest similarity between the two is the micro-management of what is shared online. Many are concerned with how they’re perceived on social media in addition to comparing their lives to others. Curating the perfect image or life is something that seems to be an issue for many social media users regardless of age. 

The negativity and insecurities that come from social media aren’t age-restricted. However, it can have a particularly heavy effect on tweens and teens. Our Social Media Readiness Course can help with that. By teaching kids the red flags of digital injury and clinically tested psychological wellness tools, we can help prepare your kids for safer screen use and prevent feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and the desire to compare online. 

More Access and More Influence on Self-Identity 

Taking both interviews and research into consideration, it seems that there are both similarities and differences in how both generations interact with the Internet. The biggest difference is that gen Z has been exposed to social media much younger than millennials before they solidly formed self-identity. Further, more social media platforms and sophisticated personal mobile devices were available to them – giving them almost constant, on-demand, mutual contact with peers and strangers.

Parent Replacement 

In addition, more parents were inclined to help introduce technology to gen Z children. Smartphones became a sort of transitional object assigned by parents as their substitute.[2] This is something millennial children never experienced because smartphones weren’t around when they were toddlers and young children. 

More Competence and Confidence Online 

Those exposed to the Internet at younger ages tend to be more savvy and aware of online dangers. Research demonstrates that gen Zs tend to have more confidence protecting themselves online than people who are 25 and older.[1]. 

Self-Guided Learning Opportunities 

Those who love to self-direct their learning argue that early browsing offered opportunities that older generations didn’t have. They say that the internet offered them a tremendous breadth of opportunity and a depth of learning as they directed themselves into deeper and deeper learning.[3]

However, from a developmental stance, gen Z kids who use such advanced technology to assist them in critical thinking and comprehension can have downsides. One is known as the Google Effect, also known as digital amnesia. By using the Internet, we end up storing less information in our biological memory, becoming less knowledgeable overall.[4] Another problem is that gen Zs use advanced search engines and smartphones to cheat by looking up answers to homework and quizzes. Learn more in our GKIS articles, The Google Effect. Because Memorizing is So Yesterday and Siri and Alexa Help Kids Cheat on Homework.

Social Impacts 

Internet access at young ages can have developmental effects on social development as well. Positive aspects include convenient social management tools during interpersonal conflicts, like pause or block options for regulation and impulse control, and the creation of virtual identities for experimentation and practice.[2] 

Potential negative effects include feelings of social inadequacy and exclusion, increased risk of body dysmorphic disorders, and exposure to cyberbullying and interpersonal exploitation. Insta-Famous Brings Insta-Anxiety is a GKIS blog article that touches on the risks that can arise from using social media.

GKIS Tools That Can Help

Our free GKIS blog articles are an excellent source of information, from parenting tips to media headlines, child development, and much more.

Our Screen Safety Toolkit offers a great resource guide so you can find the tools necessary to implement proper management, monitoring, and supervision to navigate the Internet more safely. 

To access all GKIS content and get everything you need in one place, check out our Screen Safety Essentials Course.

Thanks to CSUCI intern, Tracy Pizano for researching and writing about generational differences within Internet digital media consumption. 

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe. 

Onward to More Awesome Parenting, 

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty

       Works Cited 

[1] Jiang, M., Tsai, H. S., Cotten, S. R., Rifon, N. J., LaRose, R., & Alhabash, S. (2016). Generational differences in online safety perceptions, knowledge, and practices. Educational Gerontology, 42(9), 621–634.

[2] Leskauskas, D. (2020). Generation Z—Everyday (living with an) auxiliary ego. International Forum of Psychoanalysis, 29(3), 169–174.

[3] Ransdell, S., Kent, B., Gaillard, K. S., & Long, J. (2011). Digital immigrants fare better than digital natives due to social reliance. British Journal of Educational Technology, 42(6), 931–938. https://doi-org.ezproxy.csuci.edu/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2010.01137.x 

[4] Heersmink, R. (2016). The Internet, cognitive enhancement, and the values of cognition. Minds and Machines: Journal for Artificial Intelligence, Philosophy and Cognitive Science, 26(4), 389–407. https://doi-org.ezproxy.csuci.edu/10.1007/s11023-016-9404-3 

      Photo Credits 

Photo #1 (https://www.istockphoto.com/search/2/image?phrase=millennials

Photo #2 (https://www.istockphoto.com/search/2/image?phrase=teen+on+phone

Photo #3 (https://depositphotos.com/102799740/stock-photo-children-using-mobile-phones.html)

Tracy Pizano
Tracy Pizano