Learning digital lessons from ‘Generation Sensible’

Russell Haworth, CEO of Nominet, discusses Gen Z’s real-world approach to technology and its impacts

Young people today are digital natives in all aspects of the term. They possess a comfort and ease with technology that can seem alien to those of us who remember having to send faxes to close deals or visit the travel agent to book a holiday. This brings envy but also unease – yes, they can use it, but they must master technology, rather than be enslaved by it.

There has been a growing concern over the influence that digital infiltration is having on young people and the long-term damage it might be doing to their wellbeing. Indeed, the rising incidence of mental health issues among young people, with many commentators linking internet behaviours such as social media use to the upward trend, has added fuel to the fire. This is why we are working with the Samaritans, supporting their important work with technological expertise to help them reach young people more easily.

Reassuringly, young people themselves are upbeat. More than three quarters of those aged 11–24 believe that technology has helped them in all aspects of their lives. The recognised benefits include access to the facts that allow them to make up their own mind, and enabling people of all backgrounds and ages to communicate with each other and learn new things. The youngest portion of the group (11–17 years) are the most effusive; 81% attest a positive effect and 69% expect technology to create job opportunities for them, as likely it will.

More than three quarters of those aged 11–24 believe that technology has helped them in all aspects of their lives.

These statistics are taken from our new Nominet Digital Futures research, recently undertaken to delve into young peoples’ digital behaviours and attitudes, which we hope will encourage debate on what matters most as we shape our digital future, of which young people are a crucial part.

The youngsters we spoke to are positive about technology, but they are not naïve. They are largely aware of the shortcomings of technology and the potential for harm, with over half of the older group (18–24-year-olds) worrying technology is destroying the art of conversation while 63% are concerned that children will become loners due to screen addiction. There are also concerns across the whole age group (11–24) that social media is increasing social and political divisions in society (55%) and driving fake news (74%).

Concern extends into a willingness for regulation and change. Six out of 10 young people agree there should be a national policy on limiting access to smartphones and social media in schools, with 68% believing there should be lessons on how to use social media appropriately. No doubt some of this comes from a proximity to cyber bullying; seven in 10 of those aged 11–24 know someone who has suffered. Thankfully, these needs will soon be catered for, as recent government announcements have confirmed that compulsory health education lessons will include guidance on online safety.

Six out of 10 young people agree there should be a national policy on limiting access to smartphones and social media in schools.

Our young people may be wary and critical of some aspects of the digital world, but they remain optimistic about its potential and are willing to try new things. Nearly half of those aged 18–24 are excited about the benefits of AI, for example. This is encouraging considering this new tech will likely be a feature of their adult lives.

The overall conclusion we can draw from the research is that our young people are doing well considering the pressures and unique challenges they face. They deserve credit for their mature approach the constant technological innovation and we should applaud and be inspired by their optimism and open-mindedness. Undoubtedly support and guidance from elders will remain important to help them – and schools will take a key role in educating and encouraging debate around these important digital challenges – but we can take comfort in the fact that the next generation have got the right attitude towards the things that matter.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised; they have, after all, been labelled ‘Generation Sensible’. They are drinking and smoking less, taking less drugs and having fewer teenage pregnancies than previous generations. Teenage rebellion is losing its cool, apparently, and a smart, savvy and sensible generation is coming of age – it’s a reassuring thought for the digital society for tomorrow.

View the Digital Futures report here: www.media.nominet.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/14125727/DFI-Youth-Report.pdf