“What do adults not know about my generation and technology?” MIT Technology Review posed this question in an essay contest open to anyone 18 or younger. We received 376 submissions from young people in 28 different countries. Many were angry; some were despondent. We think the winning essay, by Taylor Fang, presents a nuanced and moving view of how technology can be harnessed in the service of a richly realized life. We hope you agree.
Screen. To conceal, protect, shelter. The word signifies invisibility. I hid behind the screen. No one could see through the screen. The screen conceals itself: sensors and sheet glass and a faint glow at the edges; light, bluer than a summer day.
The screen also conceals those who use it. Our phones are like extensions of our bodies, always tempting us. Algorithms spoon-feed us pictures. We tap. We scroll. We click. We ingest. We follow. We update. We gather at traditional community hangouts only to sit at the margins, browsing Instagram. We can’t enjoy a sunset without posting the view on Snapchat. Don’t even mention no-phone policies at dinner.
Generation Z is entitled, depressed, aimless, addicted, and apathetic. Or at least that’s what adults say about us.
But teens don’t use social media just for the social connections and networks. It goes deeper. Social-media platforms are among our only chances to create and shape our sense of self. Social media makes us feel seen. In our Instagram “biographies,” we curate a line of emojis that feature our passions: skiing, art, debate, racing. We post our greatest achievements and celebrations. We create fake “finsta” accounts to share our daily moments and vulnerabilities with close friends. We find our niche communities of YouTubers.
It’s true that social media’s constant stream of idealized images takes its toll: on our mental health, our self-image, and our social lives. After all, our relationships to technology are multidimensional—they validate us just as much as they make us feel insecure.
But if adults are worried about social media, they should start by including teenagers in conversations about technology. They should listen to teenagers’ ideas and visions for positive changes in the digital space. They should point to alternative ways for teenagers to express their voices.
I’ve seen this from my own experience. When I got my first social-media account in middle school, about a year later than many of my classmates, I was primarily looking to fit in. Yet I soon discovered the sugar rush of likes and comments on my pictures. My life mattered! My captions mattered! My filters! My stories! My followers! I was looking not only for validation, but also for a way to represent myself. Who do I want to be seen as? On the internet I wasn’t screaming into the void—for the first time, I felt acutely visible.