Building Social Media Bridges for Generations

We are quick to judge negatively the use of technology by younger generations.

As a university student in the late 80s, walking into the pit of a lecture theatre and staring at the elevating pitch of chairs was a great experience. Fast forward 27 years, ‘plugging-in’ for a guest lecture about the impact of social media and leadership online is nerve-wracking.

Not a pen or pad in sight for this group.  Born 1996 and after, they are the iGen, Generation Z, the Centennials, and they are social media savvy and data hungry. The challenge is to earn their attention and engage their minds in a face-to-face conversation. The competition is their screens.

Will the lecture engage, help and keep them from retreating to the haven of their online world? Or can a generational bridge be built across the digital divide?

They left me in no doubt that hearts, minds and a face-to-face conversation can still upstage a screen. They quickly remind me that ‘…as a fundamental element of our human behaviour, social media will not replace face-to-face interactions’.

However, there is a twist.

Generation Z does not see social media as media. A US study by The Centre for Generational Kinetics (2016) says Generation Z use social media ‘…for connecting, learning, showing off, expressing oneself, debating, dating and so much more’. Generation Z views social media affecting how people see you, your level of popularity, your self-esteem, your job opportunities and your ability to date.

When asking Generation Z about the appropriate use of a mobile phone, they feel it is appropriate to use it in any way when: 

  • riding a bike 
  • running on a treadmill 
  • at a religious service
  • eating dinner with your family 
  • meeting your significant other’s parents for the first time 
  • at a job interview 
  • having a dinner date
  • at your own wedding ceremony 
  • applying for a home loan.

Their only concern surrounding the use of a mobile phone is in the workplace and at the movie theatre.

These characteristics should not harden our opinions of Generation Z but be a pivot point for older generations to acknowledge the effect of mobile phones and social media. It provides an opportunity for older generations to model and uphold the importance of a face-to-face conversation.

A judgement of Generation Z will only crush their voice and leave them without validation.

So how can we bridge the generational, digital divide ensuring a balance between face-to-face and social media communication?

No matter which generation defines us, it is important to understand the impact of social media. Social media is like a mirror ball. Using social media shines a light on all aspects of life reflecting its highs, horrors and complexities to any audience that shows interest. It enables us to communicate with text, audio, video, and photos at anytime, anywhere (when connecting to the internet). In extreme cases, it can be addictive. When you post something about yourself and there is a corresponding, ‘bing’ there is a release of dopamine. A chemical is triggering the same ‘pleasure’ sensation associated with food, money and sex. Social media also acts as a filter. We tend not to post life’s lumps and bumps keeping our social media as a highlights reel creating ‘good-time’ envy or FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) in our audience.

Understanding these basics helps to establish boundaries for the use of mobile phones and social media in our personal and professional lives. And it is these limits which are critical to create balance.

Generation Z is the first group born knowing only of a mobile-device run, cloud-connected, online world and this presents the rest of us with a challenge. Not to ‘lock and block’ the use of mobile phones and social media but to establish a balance to manage their use. In the wake of this digital information overload, there is now a higher value on face-to-face communication. Just as email replaced the traditional handwritten letter, it also put a higher value on writing in ink. In the same way, the rise of mobile phones and social media has put greater value on face-to-face interaction.

Not only are we more selective about where and how we spend our face-to-face time, when we do spend it, we want to make sure it counts.

Everyone has a leading role to play.

As parents, we can gain a greater understanding of social media by simply talking and listening to our children. They will provide an excellent insight into the context of why they use social media, what they use it for and know some of its pitfalls. Around the home, model the use of technology you wish them to adopt. Charging devices outside the bedroom, taking time out from using devices and ensuring there are enjoyable and productive activities where there are no devices will help develop boundaries and provide opportunities for important face-to-face conversations. Ideally, state your rules for use and stick to them.

Schools must adopt social media as a tool to engage their parents, teachers and students. It is an exceptional way to celebrate what happens each day and establishes the organisation as a digital role model in the community. To be a high-performing school online requires careful planning, an ongoing commitment to build parent support and to limit risk. Additionally, it provides students and teachers with a context to create authentic stories and use social media in a community context beyond themselves.

Leaders with roles and responsibilities in the face-to-face world need to overcome their fear of social media and to lead online. Leaders in our educational organisations, workplaces, councils, sports, arts and more need to own their online space to ensure there are high-quality role models for our girls and boys. They need more than rock stars and celebrities; they need authenticity.

No matter the Generation in which you anchor, there is a part for us all to play in balancing the art of face-to-face and online communication.

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