Growing Up On The Internet: Unpacking Gen Z’s Reluctance To ‘Touch Grass’
"I just feel like I wanna meet someone who's totally ignorant of... the discourse."
- Portia (White Lotus' 22)
On hearing these words from Portia while obsessively bingeing a TV show on my laptop and simultaneously scrolling through social media on my phone; I was suddenly made hyper-aware of the over-stimulation that was now an accepted norm. At the same time I also closely resonated with the statement and questioned our shared inability to separate ourselves from the internet and its ever evolving discourse.
In spite of the fact that almost every individual who actively partakes in the charade of social media is experiencing a similar dilemma, the situation is quite different for a generation that grew up in the lap of internet frenzy. Personally, I was first allowed proper access to the world wide web at the age of 11, when a PC was finally installed in our house. This was an interesting part of growing up as the access was restrained with child safety locks and strict time frames. In hindsight, it was the most productive use of the resource I've experienced to date.
At this point, the internet greatly benefited my quest for knowledge in the realms of fashion. As I could dive deep into the history of clothing through visually stimulating videos available on Youtube and a particular series hosted by writer, Alexa Chung introduced me to the exciting world of fashion journalism. I still vaguely remember the elaborate word documents on the different periods of costume design carefully curated through my research on google, that I later printed out as visions for the future; embellishments on my childhood study table.
I can also look back at this period as my first oversight of trusting random sources on the internet. Treating the web as my personal library meant indulging with a myriad of unchecked opinions on a daily basis; leaving very little room for facts. It's a problem that still stands to consume our shared beliefs in the age of over-saturated information. As I stepped into my teens and struggled with the angst encountered by almost every young person in this age group that came before me; the available exposure to the internet led me into a rabbit hole of unsolicited mental health advice from proclaimed 'professionals' that were really just content creators.
A closer look at the general outlook of my entire generation points me to the fact that even though today we are the most staunch supporters of fact-checking and transparency, very few of us have questioned the fragility of our ‘beliefs’ and their source. For the longest time I was under the illusion of my ‘well informed persona’ who was always up to date with the general discourse. In contrast, this was the root of two major issues plaguing my general well-being and understanding of the world.
The internet makes us all believe in the myth of awareness, especially if all you've ever known is relying on it for school projects and quick searches. While some of it could actually be true, it is in our failure to treat the web as a fickle source and not a haven of truth. It took a lot of ‘radicalised opinions’ and passing of my formative years before I could finally consider the possibility that maybe a singular narrative, peddled by similar social media pages might be forming all my opinions.
Another major disadvantage of my early exposure to the internet lies in the constant need for hyper-awareness. While we as citizens of the world share a responsibility to care about society and make contributions towards change, the problem lies in the need to absorb immediate and excessive news. This state of constant alertness was completely unproductive in channelling real change and rather led to extreme anxiety. Yet like so many other young people around me I could not unplug or if I may use internet lingo, could not ‘touch grass’.
There is something to be said about an entire generation being riddled with anxiety and self-doubt, particularly when we grew up with the pressure of maintaining a curated image on social media. As one of the last few people in my batch to receive a personal phone and a social media account back in school, it was worrisome how the acquired access still had jarring effects on my nervous system and in impacting my need for outward validation. As much as we deny it, a lot of our self worth is dependent on the number of followers, likes and comments. If our brain chemistry was developing side by side with regular social media usage from an early age, the platforms definitely had a certain impact on our physical and mental health.
I have personally reached a stage where even limited use of apps like WhatsApp can feel overwhelming due to the urgent nature of the interface. This is definitely not the case for my parents or even for my cousins who interacted with social media at a much later stage in life. While the internet has greatly benefited young people in forming communities and finding like minded people, the dark side of its usage has left a persistent shadow; one that has overwhelmed our social abilities and also hindered our formative development. As I look forward to a future of more intuitive and responsible consumption of the internet, the only hope lies in the fact that the next generation would be able to form a healthy relationship with this inclusive medium. One that is based on reaping its benefits without letting it overpower their humanity.