Making connections, grappling with misinformation: How Gen Z is using social media during the pandemic

While it's still too early to tell what the lasting impact of the pandemic will be on Gen Z, experts and historians say it will undoubtedly affect young people for years to come. — Dreamstime/TNS

When Central Bucks South became one of the first Philadelphia-area high schools in the United States to close due to fear of coronavirus exposure in early March, 16-year-old sophomore Andrew Chen knew that things were not going to return to normal as quickly as some of his peers hoped.

But still, the transition from seeing his friends on the swim team during daily practices to learning alone at home was jarring.

“I only have three years here at South, and it pains me to see one of them being wasted,” Chen said.

The coronavirus has upended everyone’s lives, but for Generation Z, those born between 1997 and 2012, the disruption feels particularly acute. Schools closed and graduation ceremonies were cancelled. Summer plans, like camps and internships, are up in the air. And for recent college graduates, entering the job market in a time of unprecedented unemployment rates is no easy task.

While it’s still too early to tell what the lasting impact of the pandemic will be on Gen Z, experts and historians say it will undoubtedly affect young people for years to come. But right now, many Gen Zers are trying to stay connected, grappling with misinformation, and figuring out the best ways they can help – all through social media.

Data show the coronavirus is less deadly in young people, which leaves many teens with the sense that they are in a unique position to help others. Teens around the country have pitched in by teaching seniors how to use video technology to stay connected to their families, creating food pantries for hospital staffers, and writing letters to nursing home residents. A freshman at Episcopal Academy in Newtown Square borrowed his school’s 3D printers to make face shields for local hospitals in his parents’ basement.

For Josh Harycki, a junior at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, the best way to contribute was to create a “social distancing pledge” for young people.“I saw a lot of younger generations not paying attention,” he said. “They were... still going out, hanging out with people. I thought that there had to be a way to reach younger folks, who were probably not watching the news.”

Harycki launched a call to action on social media and then built a website with a map that tracked the locations of people who’d signed the pledge. The site also shares links to accurate sources of information like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Going from being around friends for eight hours a day at school to being isolated at home all day wasn’t easy, said Harycki.

“We’ve definitely had times when we feel kind of bored at home,” he said. “We’re very social beings, and we’re used to having that school experience.”

Harycki knows that his peers are worried they can’t connect with their friends in the same way, so he created the social distancing pledge to reinforce that while everyone might be physically distant, they’re still connected.

“Part of what we’re highlighting is that you might feel like you’re the only one taking this seriously, but our map shows that you’re not in this alone,” he said.

One challenge health officials have faced when trying to get young people to take social distancing seriously is misinformation. Instead of getting information about the coronavirus from the news, many teens are turning to social media for updates, where unproven treatments are being touted as cures and conspiracy theories are left unchecked.

TikTok, one of the most popular social media platforms for teens, has tried to combat misinformation by prioritising content from organisations like the World Health Organisation and the British Red Cross.

“Like everyone else, Gen Z and millennials are trying to make sense of this phenomenon,” said Jessa Lingel, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania studying digital culture.

“What I’ve noticed is that on three of the main platforms – YouTube, Instagram and TikTok – there’s a lot of messaging, but not a lot of information,” Lingel said.

“There will be a meme on Instagram on how to best wash your hands, or a 10-second TikTok video on what social distancing really means, but on the negative side, someone will share a TikTok of empty shelves in stores, which creates panic buying and promotes bad behaviour.”

Lingel cited Gen Z’s distrust of older generations as a “real battle for sending out legitimate information”, but said that enforcing generational divides are also not helpful for combating misinformation. She noted that there are people in every generation not taking the pandemic seriously.

“Gen Z and millennials put a lot of faith in sources like celebrities,” Lingel said. “I’ve been relieved that the late night talk shows have been producing at-home content because it’s a source of news for a lot of folks. Young people... trust John Oliver more than Anderson Cooper.”

Chen, the Central Bucks South student, said that he’s trying to avoid misinformation on social media, opting instead to ask his parents if he has questions about coronavirus and doing his own online searches.

“I would never use social media because details can be exaggerated easily or may not be accurate at all,” he said.

Lingel’s greatest concern is whether technology can provide a sense of community for young people in the long run. She said that while Gen Z is used to living their lives on social platforms, they’re also used to having a lot of face-to-face contact, so it’s unclear how long technology is going to be able to mitigate the effects of isolation.

“This is a generation that’s already having less sex, doing less drugs, drinking less,” Lingel said.

“Covid-19 might push people to build all communities online, which is kind of concerning. I believe online communities are great, but they’re not meant to be our entire social worlds.” – The Philadelphia Inquirer/Tribune News Service

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