Michael Jackson’s album version of “Black or White” begins with a dad banging on his son’s door and shouting, “It’s too late for this. Turn it off!” The stereo stops. The kid mumbles, “Yeah right. Too late. Sure. Eat this.” He inserts a cassette and the song begins with a loud guitar intro.
This kind of teen rebellion repeats every generation.
They play loud, defiant music. They sneak out at night, itching to get their parents off their back. They rush to reach the promised land of a driver’s license. They long to drink at a friend’s house party. They can’t wait for their first kiss.
But not Gen Z.
One journalist quipped that they are Generation Yawn—risk averse and sunken into a digital world, often void of real-world experiences. They are generally less rebellious than previous generations at their age, among some other surprising behaviors.
What other ways are they different from their predecessors at their age? What else should we understand about Gen Z?
1. Gen Z lives digitally as “screenagers”
Gen Z is defined as the cohort born between the mid to late 1990s and 2010s. Dr. Jean Twenge is a professor of psychology who writes extensively on “iGen” (Gen Z). She writes that Gen Z teenagers talk about their phones “the way an addict would talk about crack: ‘I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help it,’ [a teen] said about looking at her phone while in bed.”
High schoolers spend on average over seven hours on entertainment on screens every day, not including school and work. High screen times make them feel more isolated, insecure, and self-critical. Teens are self-aware about their problems, and most agree that they spend too much time on social media, but that doesn’t always help them put their phones down.
High screen time tends to replace reading books, socializing with friends, and sleep. Gen Z’s SAT scores are slipping, especially in critical reading. (I’ve written more on the negative effects of living digitally in “Why are teens sadder, lonelier, and more depressed than ever before?”)
On a potentially positive side, Gen Zers can reach thousands or millions of people for good through TikTok and Instagram. They often use social media to enact what they believe is a positive change. Harry Beard, a seventeen-year-old entrepreneur, said in a TED talk: “We are able to pursue our passions at any location at any time . . . most importantly at an uncapped level.”
They are also globally aware and are likely highly affected by negative news bias. Again, this probably helps make them more anxious. Gen Z strongly desires for brands (and churches) to be consistent, transparent, and authentic. Forbes aptly says, “Brands can’t hide; everything is visible.”
2. Gen Z views sex liberally but has lower sex drive
Typically, Gen Z teens believe that any sexual activity between consenting partners is morally acceptable. Despite this liberal view, they actually have sex with fewer partners than Gen Xers did at their age, and Gen Zers have sex for the first time later in life. Dr. Twenge writes, “So Millennials and iGen’ers, the generations known for quick, casual sex, are actually having sex with fewer people—five fewer, on average.”
While we might celebrate this as a move toward discretion, another cultural problem may be to blame. The largest attributor to this factor is likely the pornography epidemic. Young men (and many young women) are afflicted by addiction to pornography and thus incur a falling sex drive. Many girls feel pressured to publish sexually suggestive posts on social media. Now, it is not entirely uncommon for high schoolers to send nude pictures of themselves to their significant others or their crushes.
When asked whether one eighteen-year-old was curious about sex, he responded, “I’ve seen so much of it [in pornography]. . . . There isn’t really anything magical about it, right?” This follows the trend that Gen Z tends to migrate life from the real world onto the internet. They do this with friendships, reading, work, and relationships; sexuality is unfortunately no different.
More Gen Z teens are identifying as LGBT. “The percentage of adult Americans with bisexual experience during their lifetimes tripled between 1990 and 2016, from 3 % to 11 %.”
Overall, sexuality is far more important to their self-understanding than previous generations.
3. Gen Z grows up later in life, putting off responsibility
Children eventually become adolescents, and adolescents become adults. Much of Gen Z is staying in the childhood and adolescent levels of maturity for longer.
In basically every marker of adulthood, they are pushing farther. For example, twelfth-graders in 2015 were going out on dates less often than eighth-graders from previous years. This leads to some positives. For example, Gen Z cut teen pregnancies in half from their peak in the 1990s. Teenage binge drinking also halved (although it stayed consistent in college). Perhaps most tellingly, nearly all Boomers had driver’s licenses by their senior year of high school, but only 75 percent of Gen Z do.
More and more teens don’t have jobs, even during the summer. It dropped from 70 percent in 1980 to 43 percent in 2010. Gen Z tends to experience less freedom from their parents, and they get out of the house less. Also, fewer Gen Z teens are even getting an allowance.
Dr. Twenge writes, “When I asked twenty iGen’ers [Gen Z] why being a child was better than being an adult, almost all said that being an adult involved too much responsibility.” She suggests that these trends are not positive or negative; they simply reflect a changing “life strategy.”
While that’s true, avoiding responsibility and a higher purpose has become an endemic problem in Gen Z. This seems to partially come from their high levels of caution and lack of coping skills.
4. Gen Z yearns for physical and emotional security
Counterintuitively, Gen Z does not find meaning in work as much as Millennials do. They tend to view work as very practical and highly value financial security in their lives. Since Gen Zers live in a post-2008 recession economy with expanding inflation, high rent, and massive student loans, they value a secure job over a meaningful one. They do not remember or know the world before 9/11, and they are constantly in touch with global issues, wars, famines, and humanitarian crises from moment to moment.
All of these factors and more lead them to highly prize safety. In fact, stability is one of their highest priorities in life. Nearly everything is filtered through the question, “Is it safe?”
Additionally, debate rages around whether Gen Z’s parents are too strict or unrestricted. It might be a combination of both. Parents of Gen Z tend to be unrestricted on the digital side and overly protective in the real world. Regardless, most Gen Zers expect and desire to be more coddled in college.
They generally take mental health risks seriously and are far more likely to be aware of and discuss their feelings. This tendency seems inherently positive, but often Gen Z is less emotionally resilient and overall unhappier. Being able to talk through emotions is important, but it cannot lead to emotional durability on its own.
How should Christians respond to Gen Z?
It’s easy to judge Gen Z for their over-sensitivity, avoidance of responsibility, and slavish screen-watching, yet they have a massive amount of untapped potential.
While parents might naturally react to this news by becoming stricter and more achievement-oriented with their children, forget it. Teaching principles of responsibility and trusting them more is key, not trying to perfect them through yet another after-school practice of some kind. This teen “rat race” is counterproductive, leading to greater anxiety while still not allowing them freedom.
Instead, limiting screen time, instilling a love of reading, and giving them opportunities for experiences in the real world will help produce resilience. Teaching them about God’s purpose for their life is absolutely essential. Instruct them about courage and model it in your own life. Encourage them with their ideas for making positive change. Again, trends show that parents are giving kids less responsibility when they should be giving more.
When he was fifteen, my younger brother used groups on the YouVersion Bible app to help lead Bible studies with his friends. This is a perfect example of a Gen Z teen using their skillset to lead for God’s kingdom. Technology, if used properly, can redeem the digital world. But as churches and families, we must not let it replace face-to-face interactions.
Gen Z is ready to use social media and their limitless information resources to make the world a better place.
So, we must teach them how to discern, learn wisdom, and reign in their addictions (Proverbs 25:28).
We must teach them sacrifice and responsibility, reminding them that the world does not revolve around them (Philippians 2:3–4).
We should encourage them in their desire to make positive change (1 Thessalonians 5:11), and we should be ready for emotionally deep conversations.
Ultimately, they desperately need the gospel—just like every other generation.
For more on Gen Z, see:
- How did Gen Z vote in the 2022 midterms?
- What does Gen Z value? 4 truths about what they believe
- The Denison Forum Podcast: Digging into doubts and how to minister to Gen Z: A conversation with Barnabas Piper