Millennials and Gen Z live in two worlds. The time spent in the virtual world competes aggressively with life in real-time. It also means coming of age in two worlds.
For the past five years, I have followed the lives of 90 Millennials and Gen Z teens using social media tools. One of the pivotal things I learned is that the sense of self, that crucial psychological structure that defines identity, was being formed largely through online communication.
It hit me like a meteorite through the soul. And it made me wonder: Will young people struggle to develop a sense of human wholeness? I’m talking about the inner-coherence that helps in setting realistic goals and taking responsible action. After all, the dynamic of the Internet fractures up our identity and displays it across a constellation of sites. Consider also that there are 75.4 million Millennials in the U.S. alone, and Gen Z represent 25 percent of the U.S population. It comes down to this: These young people will redefine the future, and it’s worth giving some thought to the mark we will make on them.
Identity formation is a delicate process. The young people I studied were in the fragile phase of forming their sense of self, much of which occurred through social platforms. A confident self-image was associated with open communication with people who are important to them. But managing multi-channel communications was exhausting and disjointed. As one young blogger put it, “I struggle to keep up with the demands of my friends on Facebook and Instagram, but it doesn’t make me feel any closer to them. I get to see their best-looking photos and how awesome their lives are. But after awhile it starts feeling empty.”
I’m no luddite. And the digital culture is rapidly evolving with epic power to open up new worlds. Still, it’s time for the grown-ups to sober up and realize that the impact of digital time for the grown-ups to sober up and realize that the impact of digital on profound human processes such as identity formation is an important thing to weigh as we continue to push out more digital content.
This is a fertile area for brands and organizations. Foremost is to understand the role we play in forming and developing characteristics of personality in the young people. It is a fundamental shift that requires a new set of values for marketers. To be clear: What is novel here is an encroaching responsibility to convey values and principles that positively influence younger audiences, and not just try to sell them stuff. It’s about being aware of our potential to shape the future, and doing something meaningful about it.