New Study Finds that Generation Z’s Views on Tech are Positive, but Complicated

November 15, 2021

Washington, DC -- Research released today by the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) explores the use of technology and online safety tools by Generation Z. 

Managing the Narrative: Young People’s Use of Online Safety Tools asked several cohorts, teens aged 13-17 and young adults 18-24, for details on their digital lives surrounding how much they know and use digital safety features, and what they think about citizenship and conduct online.

Findings show that Generation Z’s relationship with technology is positive, yet complicated. As citizens born into the digital age, there is widespread enthusiasm for connected life, with 89% of Gen Z’ers stating that they like using social media, and 87% excited about the impact that new technology will have on the future.

However, this positivity is tempered with feelings of over-dependence, discomfort, and fluctuating confidence in digital platforms. 

  • Over half (56%) of teens and young adults admit to spending too much time on social media, with 61% reporting efforts to unplug at least a few hours each week.
  • When they are online, half of Gen Z users (51%) are similarly as concerned for their personal safety as they are for the safety of their data.
  • 52% find the process of managing their personal online safety to be overwhelming.

When it comes to staying safe on the social media platforms where they spend much of their time, there were varied responses on how problematic behavior is dealt with, when to use safety features, and whether social media companies do enough to support users.

  • According to Gen Z’ers, their personal interactions (90%) and the content they see on social media (73%) is mostly positive. 
  • However, two-thirds (66%) still reported feeling “uncomfortable” at least some of the time that they spend on social platforms.
  • Almost eight in ten (78%) of Gen Z’ers who use social media agree that companies don’t do enough to punish users who abuse their platforms (e.g. predators, bullies, scammers).
  • At the time of survey, only 56% of Gen Z social media users were aware of any safety tools within the social media platforms that they use most. 44% were not aware of any safety tools.
  • Among those who were aware, most (69%) express at least some satisfaction with these tools, but only 19% are very satisfied.

“These findings show us that Generation Z wants to participate in all the benefits that digital life has to offer, but that they still need further support to do so,” said Stephen Balkam, FOSI CEO. “Responses on safety questions and social media use illustrate that they enjoy and see value in these spaces, but that there is more work to be done when it comes to ensuring that safety tools are effective, that young users are easily able to use and understand them, and that follow through from platforms is strong.”

Notably, Generation Z is observant of the ways that using online safety tools might impact them socially, especially when it comes to their personal sphere.

  • The majority (68%) are more comfortable taking action against bad behavior (i.e., inappropriate or hateful posts/messaging) that they see happening to others, compared to bad behavior that they personally experience.
  • Over one in three worry about what their friends will think if they take action against bad behavior on social media (34%) and feel pressure not to act when someone they know personally behaves badly (39%).

Teens and young adults tend to feel that the challenges of bad actors online are too big a problem for them to tackle, though they are more vigilant about curating experiences within their own personal online spaces. Over eight in ten (82%) also feel that digital citizenship and responsible conduct online are important. 

"This year's FOSI research results reinforce that online safety requires a 'whole-of-community' approach, with tech platforms, parents and young people all playing key roles,” said Jacqueline Beauchere, Global Head of Platform Safety at Snap Inc. “Platforms need to create tools for parents and teens to work together to preserve safety and wellbeing online - much like parents prepare their kids in real life. The survey findings are invaluable in helping to inform new features to help keep our community safe and confident, including new tools we're currently developing to give parents more insight into the friends their teens are connecting with on Snapchat."

The report also reflected a clear feeling that Gen Z is, particularly in the instance of young adults, surpassing their parents when it comes to leading the way on safety education. Three out of five (61%) Generation Z respondents felt that they currently teach their parents more than their parents teach them. Notably, this was also confirmed by parents themselves, with 50% agreeing that they learn more from their children on these issues than they teach.

This study depicts Generation Z as a highly connected, forward-looking cohort that has grown up online and is committed to being part of the changes and fast-paced life that technology offers. While there is uncertainty around certain elements of social media use, Gen Z shows confidence in their ability to control their personal space in the digital ecosystem. Teens and parents are learning from each other about the best ways to move through the online world, and their feedback about what remains difficult can provide industry with better blueprints to continue creating solutions.

The study was supported by Snap Inc., and conducted by The Harris Poll. Topline findings will be presented at FOSI’s 2021 Annual Conference, Recovery & Renewal: Creating a path to a new normal.

Each year, the FOSI Annual Conference convenes leaders from across industry, government, academia, and the nonprofit sector to discuss a wide spectrum of topics. This year’s event will include panels on international technology policy, privacy, digital parenting, virtual learning and the effects of technology on mental health and wellbeing. The agenda will include reflection on the societal impacts of several years living with COVID-19, and how best practices can be cultivated in the online safety community to continue prioritizing making the digital world a better, safer place. 

Family Online Safety Institute
Emily Mulder