Digital Natives or Digital Naives? Why Gen Z Couldn’t Code Their Way Out of a Paper Bag
Subtitle: Old Man Yelling at Digital Cloud / Klout
Here they come: the TikTok trendsetters, the Snapchat savants, the Instagram influencers — Generation Z in all its digital glory. This generation knows how to capture the perfect selfie, slap on a filter, and accrue likes faster than you can say “boomer.” On the surface, they appear to be the wizards of the World Wide Web. But don’t let the screen time stats fool you. When it comes to truly understanding the tech that fuels their daily lives, we’re looking at a generation that’s essentially “swiping in the dark.”
Gen Z lives much of their lives through smartphones and apps. They can fluently use social media, streaming, messaging, and more. But using technology is not the same as comprehending it. Despite their digital immersion from a young age, many Gen Zers lack insight into how their favorite platforms function behind the scenes. They are adept at using technology, but struggle to explain the algorithms, data practices, and designs that make it work. For a generation hailed as “digital natives,” their tech literacy remains surprisingly shallow.
“But We’re Digital Natives!”
Ah yes, the term “digital natives,” the modern-day badge of honor for Gen Z. They can’t remember life before smartphones, Wi-Fi, and constant connectivity. Touch screens, digital assistants, wireless earbuds — these are technologies they’ve been raised on from birth. They’ve never had to suffer through the screeching tones of dial-up internet or had patience tested by a crawling 56k modem.
Yet, despite all this digital immersion from their earliest years, how many Gen Zers actually understand the algorithms that serve up videos and content on YouTube or TikTok? How many could describe how A.I. powers the voice recognition of Siri or Alexa? Let’s not even get into explaining blockchain technology. The truth is, Gen Z lives fluently on the surface of technology, but lacks the knowledge and curiosity to comprehend what drives it beneath the slick interfaces. They are not inherently tech-savvy just by virtue of being born in an era of digital ubiquity.
Gen Z is Ghosting Tech — It’s Time to Commit
Look, I love my Gen Z students. But it’s time for some real talk about their relationship with technology. They swipe right on any new app or device that catches their eye, obsessed in that honeymoon phase. But once the initial novelty wears off, interest starts fading. Their passion turns to passivity and engagement gives way to…ghosting.
Do they need to become full-on technophiles? Absolutely not. But taking time to learn how that addictive app is designed, or how their personal data gets harvested in exchange for free services, would reveal so much more about their digital world. They could evolve from passive users to empowered digital citizens, aware of how technology seeks to influence them.
Companies benefit tremendously from users who understand just enough to keep passively clicking and scrolling, without digging deeper. But Gen Z has the power to demand more from technology, to ensure it works for their benefit, not just for shareholders. They simply need to commit to moving beyond the surface level, gain insight into the real impacts of technology, and engage critically with the tools they use every day. It’s time to have an honest conversation about their relationship with technology and where they want it to go next.
How Many Apps Does It Take to Screw in a Light Bulb?
Here’s a fun exercise: take stock of the apps downloaded on your phone. Now think about how many you understand inside and out — not just how to use them, but how they actually work under the hood. Most Gen Zers interact with apps on autopilot, mindlessly swiping and tapping like playing a digital version of Simon Says.
But have they ever stopped to consider how apps harvest their personal data? Or how machine learning algorithms determine which content to show them? Every random personality quiz taken or filter applied gives away more personal information than they realize. And that data fuels the business models of “free” apps that pervade their digital lives.
Understanding how apps operate, make money, and leverage your data is key to using technology consciously and avoiding exploitation. But Gen Z remains largely in the dark, failing to think critically about the digital platforms that want to shape their behaviors.
Why Gen Z Needs to Stop Ghosting Tech and Commit
Critical thinking is essential as technology becomes more deeply embedded into society. Yet too often, technology companies benefit from passive Gen Z users sleepwalking through the slick interfaces and feeds designed to maximize their attention. The truth is, the goals of the tech industry are misaligned with the interests of users. Their objective is to consume more user data and time, not empower individuals.
It’s time for Gen Z to wake up and realize the digital tools they love do not have their best interests in mind. They need to understand the incentive systems and business models shaping their digital experiences. Only then can they take control of technology instead of being controlled by it.
Rather than mindlessly swiping, Gen Z needs to commit to understanding what happens behind their screens, studying topics like algorithms, privacy, manipulation techniques, and societal impacts. They have the power to demand technology serves them. But first they must elevate themselves from passive consumers to informed digital citizens. The time has come to move beyond the surface level and develop a richer relationship with technology.
Algorithms: Not Just a Cool Band Name
When was the last time you questioned how your social media feed was curated? Or pondered why a certain ad follows you around the internet? Chances are algorithms shaped your experience, but you barely noticed their influence. These behind-the-scenes formulas impact everything from credit eligibility to music recommendations, but remain mysterious to most Gen Zers.
Ask a teenager to explain even the basic functioning of algorithms and you’ll likely be met with blank stares. But failing to understand these programmed rule sets means forfeiting control over significant aspects of one’s digital life. Algorithms make high-stakes decisions without accountability. Only by shedding light on their design can society address issues like bias and optimize for human well-being. Gen Z can lead the way, but first they must dig beneath the surface and commit to decoding the algorithms shaping their world.
Why Should You Care?
Let’s get honest: Understanding technology is not just an academic issue for Gen Zers. It’s a matter of safety, privacy, and avoiding manipulation. Operating apps without comprehending how one’s data, location, and behaviors are tracked and monetized is reckless naivety. Just because you know how to post a photo doesn’t mean you should be ignorant of how that platform profits from your personal information.
Navigating life digitally means understanding the incentive systems and agendas shaping your experiences. If technology is designed to maximize addiction and data extraction, shouldn’t you be informed before mindlessly buying in? Instead of assuming benevolence, Gen Z needs to learn to ask key questions — who benefits from this app and how? How is my data leveraged? Who profits when I engage? Only then can they operate technology on their own terms.
Time for Schools to Step Up
Schools play a pivotal role in developing digital literacy and ethics. We rightfully added coding into curricula to teach practical skills. But what about classes on the societal impacts of tech, data privacy, security, critical thinking around algorithms, and moral reasoning online? The core subjects need a digital upgrade focused on nurturing citizens, not just consumers or passive users.
Understanding technology is too vital to be left to the tech industry alone. Their incentives are misaligned with society’s best interests. Schools must embrace a broader concept of digital literacy that empowers the next generation with knowledge and elevates their relationship with technology to one based on agency rather than addiction. Gen Z deserves an education tailored to the digital age.
Final Thoughts: The Ignorance Clock is Ticking
The time has come for Gen Z to advance from operational tech users to empowered digital citizens. Each tap, swipe and click comes loaded with unintended consequences in the absence of understanding. Are you the master of your digital domain, or just another pawn in someone else’s game?
Let’s swap the filters for critical facts and elevate our relationship with technology. Gen Z possesses immense leverage to demand ethical, accountable tech designed for users’ benefit. But first they must care enough to comprehend the forces seeking to use them. The ignorance clock is ticking. Will you take control, or be controlled?