I watched my 15-year-old sister, Megan, sit at her desk after school and respond to the seemingly endless stream of Snapchats she received during the day.
“Why are you responding to all of them?” I asked.
“Because,” she said. “I need to keep up with my streaks.”
I continued to stare at her in utter fascination as she sent the same photo to every person on her Snapchat list. Whether you were her best friend or a mere acquaintance, you got a picture of Megan’s face in her dimly lit room with no context whatsoever, just to make sure she kept her streaks, which are the amount of consecutive days she Snapchats a person.
Despite being only five years younger than me, Megan interacts with technology much differently than I do. She is part of Generation Z while I am a Millennial. She’s had access to more progressive technology than I did growing up, changing her habits and preferences.
When we were younger, my mom had rules regarding our consumption of technology. During the school week, my siblings and I were allowed to each choose one TV show and watch it. We had the option to just watch our show or watch all three shows. During this time in front of the TV, my mom would make dinner. On the weekends, there always came a certain point in the day when the TV was turned off and my siblings and I had to find other activities to do. During the summers, we had to read for at least one hour in the morning. My mom often planned games for her to play with my siblings and I to teach us social skills and other skills we needed. My family also had regular family game nights when my family would play board games with each other. She intentionally planned these nights to get us away from the TV and have us spend time as a family.
My parents were very conscious of where they placed technology. They decided not to put TVs in our bedrooms because they would disrupt sleep and be a distraction from homework, responsibilities, sleep, and friends. My parents also placed the family computer in the dining room, a room that my parents passed often and could monitor our use of the computer.
Megan does not remember any of these rules or even the conscious effort my mom made to have us read and play rather than watch TV. My mom’s explanation for this is, “By the time Megan came, I was tired so the rules were more lax.”
Not only did the rules become more lax due to exhaustion, but my mom found it harder to control our screen time once we started adopting portable technologies, such as smartphones, laptops, and iPads.
“When it was just the TV and family computer, I could watch what you watched and what websites you visited,” my mom said. “I could set timers and make sure you didn’t go past your limit. But once you had a laptop you could bring to your room, we couldn’t control you as much anymore.”
Due to the quick progression of technology, Megan often got technologies at an earlier age than I did, greatly altering her experience as an adolescent and technology user.
In my family, I am the oldest child. Megan and I got our first phone at the same age: the summer between fifth and sixth grade. Our parents got us a basic phone with calling and texting functionalities. They were meant to be used to keep our parents updated with our whereabouts, and also allowed us to text our friends.
Our obtainment of a smartphone, however, came at very different points in our lives. I did not get my first smartphone until I was 17-years-old and preparing to go to college. Megan, on the other hand, got her first smartphone a few months after me at 12-years-old. About 96% of Gen Z-ers, who are generally between the ages of 13 and 17, have smartphones. Unlike me at 12-years-old, Megan had a personal, portable technology she could use to download apps, communicate with friends, and access media.
Though a laptop made it harder for my parents to keep track of my habits, a portable technology of my own was increasingly necessary as I progressed through school and the workload not only increased, but more work required the Internet or computer programs. In the middle of my junior year, my high school introduced iPads to the student body to try and take advantage of all the tools the Internet offers the classrooms. In 2014, the year after iPads were introduced to my school, 33% of high schoolers across America had a school-assigned tablet. During the years that I had a school-assigned iPad, the school was trying to figure out how to control iPad use as well as incorporate them into the curriculum. Some of my teachers tried to create lessons that implemented the iPads for their intended use rather than a glorified notebook. However, many teachers still preferred students keep their iPads in their bags.
By the time Megan entered high school and received her iPad, the school had iPads for three years and had a better idea of how to incorporate iPads successfully into the curriculum. The school began blocking apps that were not conducive to a learning environment and teachers made better use of the resources available to them and the students. Many classrooms now distribute ebooks rather than textbooks.
The high school Megan attends is comprised of two districts: Mountainside and Berkeley Heights. Megan said she and her fellow classmates from Mountainside prefer to read and take notes from paper sources because that is what they have used in school up until this point. Students from Berkeley Heights, however, prefer the ebooks because they used iPads in middle school as well.
Communicating with friends
The most noticable difference between Megan and I in terms of technology is our virtual communication with friends. To communicate directly with friends, I use the texting function on my phone or texting apps. If I have something lengthy to say, I will call my friend to update them. Megan and her friends use group chats on Snapchat to communicate with each other. They prefer to type messages on Snapchat rather than a texting app.
Megan and her friends are very visual when it comes to their communication and social media use. Her favorite social media platforms are Snapchat, Instagram, and Pinterest, which are all highly visual forms of social media. She says no one uses Facebook or Twitter, which are the social media platforms I use more often. Generation Z as a whole prefers Instagram and video platforms over other forms of social media.
Though all forms of social media are visual, the platforms I use have an important text element to them, the platforms Megan and her friends use mostly rely on visuals to communicate. As a whole, Megan says she prefers to watch something to receive information rather than read the information.
“If there is an article with a video, I would much rather watch the video than read the article,” Megan said. “I prefer to watch the video because video uses audio and images. I grasp the concept better with a video.”
Megan and her generation’s preference of images rather than text stems from their access to smartphones and other portable technologies from a young age. They had the ability to take and exchange photos more frequently than millennials did.
I don’t think I’ll ever understand why my sister Snapchats what seems like half the school every day. Due to the rapid progression of technology, I already feel like an old woman at 20-years-old. Megan and her generation has adopted apps and technologies that are not appealing to me and my friends. As technologies continue to get better at lightning speed, generations, like Millennials and Generation Z, will be smaller and have bigger culture gaps, similar to what has occurred to my sister and me. I look forward to seeing what the next five years bring.