What Skills Do Gen Zers Need to Navigate Their Digital Worlds?

Serie Jimenez

The year 2020 will not be forgotten any time soon. For years to come, people around the world, of every age and from all walks of life, will remember the series of life-altering events that took place during these 12 months. For many, these incidents unfolded online and on social media: From our homes we have watched devastating wildfires in Australia and the Black Lives Matter movement that took the world by storm following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The backdrop to all of this has, of course, been the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic that has caused more than 1 million deaths worldwide, and taken a huge toll on the livelihoods, education and well-being of so many, with potential consequences stretching far into the future.

Gen Z, or people born after 1996, are often referred to as "digital natives", given that they have been exposed to the internet their whole lives. Social media is a normal part of their everyday interactions with the world. The creation of social media accounts is not a question, but a rite of passage for these young people. Not have Gen Z developed a strong grasp of the technical aspects of using social media – like how to apply an Instagram filter or make a viral TikTok dance video – but underpinning every aspect of their online experience is a constant sharing of different personal perspectives, new information and schools of thought that they are free to explore.

Unlike generations past, where traditional models of education provided centralised flows of information and learning, young people now can interact with anyone from anywhere, often learning firsthand about people's direct experiences of human-rights issues, inequality or even their sources of joy in their home countries. By simply existing in online spaces, they learn about different cultures, beliefs and global issues every day. The things they see online and the people they meet through social media can significantly influence their world view.

For most young people, this shows positive outcomes: Gen Z are on track to be the most educated generation.They show more empathy to diversity and difference, they are more connected to ideas of social justice and action on climate change. Gen Z is passionate, connected and active, with the power of social media in their hands.

At the same time, social media and online spaces have also shown an ugly side. Cancel culture, fake news, cyberbullying and online hate speech all contribute to making online spaces uncertain and sometimes dangerous places for young people to navigate. Young people are still developing their beliefs, value systems and identities – being 'called out', shamed or bullied online can cause significant damage to a young person's self-esteem.

Similarly, limitless access to information, without stewardship or curation from educators or communities, can cause harm if young people are not trained and equipped with critical thinking skills, to discern, moderate and investigate the information they encounter.

Increasingly education systems have recognised the importance of these skills, seeking ways to integrate them into curricula. Generation Global's Ultimate Dialogue Adventure is used by teachers and young people in 30+ countries around the world. When we set about creating this online space to help young people build their global competence skills and navigate differences through dialogue, we knew it had to have two important features:

First, we made sure it was a safe space for young people to ask questions without fear of being 'cancelled', bullied or shamed for speaking from their own perspectives and lived experiences. Early evidence from the platform suggests that students appreciate a forum to talk about meaningful content where they are not being evaluated by a teacher.

Second, it needed to provide access to researched information about important topics that featured diversity and different cultural perspectives alongside the opportunity for young people to add their own experiences and questions to the dialogue. Our team of education experts have carefully curated information on a growing number of critical topics, such as human rights, hate speech and fake news, while also facilitating dialogue between young people through forums and video conferences.

This year will be a defining moment in this generation's history. Now more than ever, young people need support and guidance in harnessing their digital and dialogue skills to meet the challenges ahead. Though young people may not yet hold political power, their voices, their influence and their knowledge are powerful assets. We've seen that movements of change and activism have no age limit. Young people are already engaging in difficult conversations and are empowered to use their platforms on social media to interact with each other and combat injustice. We must continue to teach empathy, listening, critical thinking and questioning. Gen Z has so much potential. It is our job to ensure that they are prepared.

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." – Nelson Mandela

This article originally appeared on the Tony Blair Institute site on 19 November 2020.