Generation Z (or simply Gen Z) is the generation that follows the Millennials and includes everyone born from the mid to late ‘90s till early 2010.
Our aim is to question the generalised and derogatory terms often used to describe Gen Z members, to understand their characteristic traits and opinions and to empower their voices.
The project started in January 2022. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a response to Eteron’s invitation to comment on their research ‘Gen Z Voice ON ETERON’, from the perspective of the DigiGen H2020 project ‘The impact of technological transformations on the Digital Generation’.
The Eteron research was conducted by about people (data collection) on behalf of Εteron – Institute for Research and Social Change, between 10-18 December 2021. The data was collected using structured online questionnaires that were answered by a sample of 403 people aged 16-25 years old from the whole of Greece.
For the DigiGen project, we led a study on ICT and Civic Participation in Estonia, Greece and the United Kingdom focusing on adolescents 16-18Y of age, but also inclusive of older ages where that was contextually relevant using netnography (online content analysis, online interviews), digital story telling workshops, and digital citizenship policy analysis documents. Additionally, we contributed to a study on ICT and Leisure in Austria, Greece, Norway, Romania and the UK, where we co-researched with 9–15-year-old children, using interviews, app diaries and observation of their playing Minecraft.
In this response, I shall include results from the latter research that relate to Eteron ICT use results, only in the concluding section. As pertains to the Generation Z focus of the Eteron research, in both studies we have researched digital technologies on the youngest population of that generation Z, i.e., those born between 2003-2012, thereby spilling over to Generation Alpha.
This commentary on the Eteron research is structured in three sections. After this introduction, the second section explains our methodology and how our key findings from the ‘ICT and Civic Participation’ DigiGen research are positioned in relation to the Eteron one, with the caveat that we are mostly looking at younger population, as well as how certain findings regarding ICT use from the ‘ICT and Leisure’ DigiGen research relate to the Eteron research as well. The final section concludes with a policy discussion about several issues identified in both research projects that may inform future digital citizenship policies for Generation Alpha (born between 2010-2024).
Key similarities and differences in the results of Eteron and DigiGen regarding civic participation and general ICT use
In DigiGen, we examined the digital transformation’s impact on children and young people from the ages 5- to 18-year-olds in the domains family, education, leisure and civic participation, each sampling from specific age frames (2019-2022). In the work we led at the University of Leicester, we set out to assess the online political behaviour of young people accounting for socio-economic and gender considerations and their motivations for using digital content and devices to express political opinions and engage in political actions as they move to work and public life (digital citizens). Overall, we set out:
These translated to three major comparative qualitative phases. In the first, we produced netnographic research (online observation, content and 65 interviews in total) conducted between September 2020 and April 2021 in Estonia, Greece and the United Kingdom, comparing the reasons and the means by which youth engaged in online civic participation, focusing on online movements mobilising for racial, social and environmental justice (see Karatzogianni et al., 2021). In the second phase, focus group discussions were organised as digital storytelling workshops with young people involved in the production of online political discourse with the aim of identifying how they are affected by the online environment of their choice and key strands in youth ideological online production.
Within the workshops, a digital tool (PowerPoint) was used for the co-production of relevant material (photos, screenshots of relevant online content) to inform on the motivations, causes and means that young people find appropriate and meaningful for what they perceive as civic participation (as digital citizens) (see Karatzogianni et al., 2022a). In the third phase, we critically assessed digital citizenship in educational systems and in national digital citizenship documents (multimedia included) in the UK, Greece and Estonia, focusing on the inclusion and promotion of digital citizenship (see Karatzogianni et al., 2022b. Available here).
Here, it is worth summarising only the ‘ICT and Civic Participation’ results which relate to Eteron’s results, so that we can see differences and similarities, considering DigiGen included three countries Estonia, Greece and the UK and focused on adolescents but not exclusively, while Eteron focused only on Greece and included only partly adolescents but mostly young adults.
In the first phase in the three countries, we focused on dominant strands of civic participation, focusing on online movements mobilising for racial, social and environmental justice. In Greece, we collected primary data of youth mobilising against gen- der-based violence and against police brutality, in Estonia we focused on online youth activism regarding LGBTQ+ and Black Lives Matter (BLM), while we focused on anti-racist civic participation BLM Leicester and environmental civic participation Extinction Rebellion (XR and XR Youth) in the UK. In the latter case, we also interviewed older participants to find out how they were mentoring the youth in these organisations and their own experience of adolescent political education and ICT use development. In Estonia, speaking out for the marginalised is seen as a matter of responsibility and the only way forward to a better society, leading to other people becoming more informed and changing their minds.
Reasons for political engagement are linked to personal experience of discrimination that informs a person’s capacity for empathy, as well as cultural discourses surrounding social justice. In Greece, there is mistrust of political parties and governmental organisations and there is interest to do some things, not to change the world, but first to change everyday life. Activation and politicisation are triggered by personal experiences linked to the ways (multiple) gender identities are treated in a specific social context, but also in society at large. In the UK, there is adoption of new more effective approaches to environmental activism, anger about police brutality and fight for equal rights, because of widespread inequality: ‘people relying on handouts to feed their children in a rich country’.
In terms of organisational and communication aspects, in Estonia there is use of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, VKontakte and Tiktok, with participants not preoccupied with questions of surveillance and taking no extra steps to protect themselves. International (English speaking) accounts are seen as much better for informational purposes than local Estonian ones, which are often accused of being ill informed, narrow minded, even racist and homophobic. In Greece, there is use of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and messaging apps as well as video conferencing platforms. There is reluctance, distrust and criticism towards platforms and apps and preference for open-source software. Digital networks are seen more as means of (counter)information diffusion and less as a meaningful space where political strategies can be deployed. In the UK, there is innovation in organisation and communication, for example in XR and XR Youth (holacracy model, carbon neutral cloud, use of glassfrog, basecamp, mattermost), while at BLM Leicester we see pre-existing networks supporting very social media savvy young people. Adolescents tend to not use Facebook, unless they want to reach parents, but use Twitter and Instagram a lot for their in- formation, coordination and publicization of political participation.
Estonia is different to Greece and the UK, because participants are speaking out for the marginalised, but might not be themselves marginalised, and are less worried about issues of privacy and surveillance. Similarities include that their civic participation is linked to personal experience of discrimination and injustice and there is similar use of commercial platforms.
Greece is different to Estonia and UK, because there is far more distrust to political parties and commercial platforms, and ICT is seen as less of a space for organisation and strategy. A similarity here is that politicisation may be triggered by personal experiences. UK is different to Greece and Estonia, in that there is organisational and communication innovation, there is heavy reliance on pre-existing networks, and there is more systematic mentoring for the younger activists. The UK is similar to Estonia, in that there is anger about inequality, racial, social injustice, and with Greece in terms of a certain level of distrust of police and government.
Overall, we found that participants who are active members of civic society organisations which are robustly organised (decentralised or hierarchical) utilise specialised types of platforms for different activities and are mindful of internet safety and surveillance issues, while those that are members of less organised movements rely on more commercial and general platforms to organise, communicate, coordinate, and publicise their activities.
The key findings from the second phase co-researching with 12 young people between the ages of 15-18, using the technique of digital storytelling workshops conducted between September 2021 and January 2022 in Estonia, Greece and the United Kingdom: The aim was to compare the visual, discursive content produced by the participants and their interactions, on the topic of what inspires and challenges their civic participation when they use digital technologies.
In Estonia, the participants that self-identified as activists had a much clearer vision from the start on what they want to focus their stories on, while the youth who were interested in politics and considered activism important tended to stick more strictly to the two suggested themes of inspirations/motivators vs challenges. A participant who was involved in an LGBTQ+ organisation talked about her inner need to do something about the inequalities in the world, using images that were either photographs taken by the participant or illustrations from the organization’s Facebook page.
In contrast, the stories from the other young people were less coherent narratives and more presentations of things that make them want to be politically active and things that deter them from doing so or make political engagement challenging. The overarching rhetoric was that of positioning political participation as very important, even morally imperative, then confessing to not being as active as one would like, and offering reasons and justification for what was presented as ‘not enough’ participation. Participants spoke of the feeling that one has a choice to support local initiatives that one holds dear and to ‘speak with’ others about important problems such as climate change. All of the non-activist participants listed the lack of time as their predominant challenge when it comes to political participation, whilst fear of judgement or politics as such and lack of self-confidence were also mentioned as challenges to their civic participation.
Motivation for political participation was also linked to self-improvement, ‘being knowledgeable of the political situation and feeling as if I am included’, and the need to ‘do something about it’. In terms of similarities across activist and non-activist stories, they spoke of the desire for a better world and political participation as something that is edifying. They all talked about digital technologies as enabling their civic participation, being able to speak up and make their voice heard as motivating, however, one of the participants in their story placed importance to doing so anonymously, preferring to speak up as part of a crowd and not being among the few in the foreground.
In Greece, all participants chose issues that marked Greek society during the last decade, issues that revolved around violence: three of the participants chose the topic of fascist violence as it was manifested by the neo-Nazi political party Golden Dawn, while one built his story on sexist violence that occurred in the killing of the LGBTQ activist Zak Kostopoulos/Zackie Oh, by two men and several policemen. In all the stories, the role of mainstream media was discussed in a critical way, while coverage of the facts in social media was also part of each story presented by the participants. The first story focused on the Golden Dawn trial that lasted five years.
Details were provided through the narrative on the investigation whether Golden Dawn constituted a criminal organisation, and the three specific crimes that members of the organisation were accused of. The second story focused on one of the crimes of the Golden Dawn: the assassination of Pavlos Fyssas, a rapper with an anti-racist and activist background. The participant insisted on the immediate coverage by the mass media, which was significantly slow in presenting the assassination as a political assassination and underestimated it by portraying it as a fight around football. The third story focused on history of the Golden Dawn since the early 1980s. The participant showed the Neo-Nazi roots of the organisation and its gradual steps towards its consolidation as a parliamentary party in 2012. The fourth story focused on the killing of the gay activist Zak Kostopoulos/Zackie Oh and particularly on the media coverage, together with reactions of the LGBTQ community and other citizens who have been protesting against homophobic reactions by socio-political and media actors in Greece.
These story choices do not seem to follow theoretical or abstract ideological interest, but they seem to be based on extraordinary events that have marked the collective memory in the Greek society and for these young people. Their stories reflect on the quality of democracy and its institutions in a society scattered by social and political unrest, where young people grow up encountering severe cases of racist and sexist violence and their political participation is clearly influenced by the resulting polarised political culture.
In the United Kingdom, the three stories focused on racism, hate speech and police violence. The first story was about the wedding of Megan Merkle and Prince Harry, where the participant narrated how important was that a person that looked like her would become a princess, but also pointed out examples of racist posts attacking Megan Merkle by a well-known journalist, and included in her story a picture depicting the royal offspring as a monkey on social media. In this first story the participant pointed to comments on social media being made about the royal family and references to how dark the baby would be and she also talked about a later Oprah Winfrey interview with the royal couple. Other participants also reflected on what they saw as widespread racism across society in the UK and in the media environment.
The second story was about the tragic killing of a young person, George Nkencho in Ireland, the protests after his death, as well as false information circulating about him on social media. The participant identified that event as was ‘the key factor in me speaking about the rights of black people and what really got me engaging within the online community and talking about problems within our community’. He also pointed to the false information ‘spread by people who wanted to justify his killing, which caused me to speak out and speak against all of this information’.
The third story was about the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria, which triggered the participant’s political engagement due to photos of casualties of police brutality on Twitter and Instagram. She also talked about Aisha Yusuf, a co-founder of the BringBackOurGirls movement, as one of the main reasons of inspiration. She pointed out that the event was not visible in UK media or talked about by the UK government. She also felt that there was misinformation, and nevertheless that this event helped her connect to her homeland, as well as other people from the Nigerian diaspora. ‘I didn’t feel that a lot was being done on this side of the world. I felt like a lot of the education of the situation had to be done by myself’.
There are clearly common political concerns by the 12 young people who participated in the digital storytelling workshops. These concerns include political polarisation, violence, and securitisation be it racist (UK and Greece), gender-related (Greece and Estonia), or emerging environmental consciousness (Estonia). These issues echo the topics discussed during the previous research phase (see Karatzogianni et al., 2021). The Estonian participants identified challenges such as time constraints, fear, and lack of confidence, focusing more on themselves and their motivations and having their voice heard to improve society in the fight for more justice and against LGBT and racial discrimination, while in Greece and the UK, they chose to speak about violent events involving structural, institutional racism, gender-based violence and problems relating to media visibility, misinformation and police violence. This is in continuation with findings from the first phase, where Estonian participants where less mistrustful of government and the media establishment in general, in comparison to the Greek and UK participants, who perceive that they live in a much more polarized political environment, where misinformation, hate speech and securitisation is more widespread.
The key findings above from the first two phases confirm four key findings by Eteron’s research, namely:
Lastly, there is a key difference between Eteron and DigiGen results. Eteron presents findings such as ‘Regarding the protests that took place in February-March 2021 against the creation of a University Police Force, 48% said they agree with the protests, 18.8% disagrees, while a significant amount of people (31% – the largest number than on any other question) stated that they “Neither agree or disagree”. There are two main differentiation points here, according to the participants’ demographics (Graph 25). The first is gender: 54.7% of the women agree with the protests against a University Police Force compared to 40.6% of the men. The second (and certainly most unexpected one) is the employment status: 57.3% of people who are currently working support the protests as opposed to 41.2% of those who are currently unemployed.’
DigiGen results show significant anti-policing and anti-securitisation mobilisation and sentiment in this generation both in Greece and the United Kingdom, not so in Estonia. This can be explained as the political culture in those countries is highly polarised in the last decade, and there is widespread mistrust of both the political establishment and the news media industries.
Digital Citizenship for Generation Alpha
Demos, a cross-party think-tank in the UK defines digital citizenship as consisting of ‘the civil, political and social rights of a citizen in their online activities, their political engagement and action through digital means, and their membership of an online community that is a distinct source of identity (Reynolds and Scott 2016: 19). The report explained that digital citizenship comprises effective informed engagement of people within their local or digital environment on public issues in an educational context. Their definition encompasses both young people, children and adults. Whether political or civic, engagement appears a core element of digital citizenship. The use of digital citizenship as a thematic concept is closely associated with the works and interventions of NGOs and other third-party organisations working alongside other actors in the education domain.
In the last phase of the DigiGen ‘ICT and Civic Participation’ study, we critically assessed over forty policy documents relating to digital citizenship from Estonia, Greece and the United Kingdom. The analysis is conducted in the three countries focusing on the inclusion and promotion of digital citizenship. The focus is on policy documents by government bodies, educational organisations, and civil society actors where these are available.
We found that overall, there is a tendency to reduce digital citizenship to technical ICT competencies or at best digital competencies that focus primarily on using e-governance and other digital services as part of one’s everyday life as a citizen. We recommend a more involved definition of digital citizenship competencies that focuses on the use of digital services, the Internet, ICT tools and social media as part of not only living one’s life as a citizen but also as part of political participation, civic engagement and expression of personal political agency. Ideally, digital citizenship competencies should be more than the sum of their parts (e.g., more than digital competencies plus ICT skills plus media literacy).
It would be useful for future digital policy in anticipation for the digital citizens of the Generation Alpha to offer a few thoughts of how the overall results all the other dimensions of DigiGen (family, education and leisure can inform EU Policy, United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and best practices across the board.
In that sense, overall results (see Ayllón, et al., 2020; Ayllón, et al., 2021) point to the following factors, others impacting negatively and others positively on digital citizenship:
Overall, in terms of positive and negative practices for children or young people as users of ICT, results from our discussions in a recent Consortium meeting show the following (see also Eickelmann et al., 2021):
In terms of results indicating good practices enabling civic participation for parents, as DigiGen research into children’s ICT use and its impact on family life (see also Lorenz and Kapella 2020) indicated:
Results across DigiGen, show that school is the arena of first experiences of participation/activism. As a place of discriminatory experiences that lead to participation, an environment that affords or constrains participation/activism, but also as something keeping one from participation because it takes so much time. First participation in mobilisations occurs either at high school or university. As political awareness-raising often occurs through alternative information channels and/or social media, school as such is not considered useful to learn how to become an informed citizen. For that to change, in terms of good digital citizenship practices for educators for the use of ICT for students under 18, relevant DigiGen results (see also Eickelmann et al. 2021) emphasise:
Overall, in relation to industry practitioners, results point to the fact that ICT use enhances everyday communication and maintenance of friendships, even in extraordinary circumstances, such as the pandemic. Gaming and in general ‘screen time’ help strengthen one’s digital competencies (e.g. practising a language, reading coordinates, logical thinking, hand-eye coordination skills), which can have an enabling effect for digital citizenship. Children and young people may develop an interest in politics, obtain information through digital platforms (Twitter, YouTube or creating political memes), and influence the development of normative guidelines/moral codes of conduct, for example, when gaming, as they learn how to deal with conflicts online.
This is why the governance architectures for digital gaming, or other social environments that allow children, would need to consider that through them, children and young people can be trained toward enhanced or reduced political behaviour, as future digital citizens.
Ayllón, S., Barbovschi, M., Casamassima, G., Drossel, K., Eickelmann, B., Ghețău, C., Haragus, T.P., Holmarsdottir, H.B., Hyggen, C., Kapella, O., Karatzogianni, A., Lado, S., Levine, D., Lorenz, T., Mifsud, L., Parsanoglou, D., Port, S., Sisask, M., Symeonaki, M. & Teidla-Kunitsõn, G.. ICT usage across Europe. A literature review and an overview of existing data, 2020 (DigiGen – working paper series No. 2), doi: 10.6084/m9.figshare.12906737
Ayllón, S., Holmarsdottir, H.B. & Lado, S. Digitally deprived children in Europe, 2021 (DigiGen – working paper series No. 3), doi: 10.6084/m9.figshare.14339054
Eickelmann, B., Barbovschi, M., Casamassima, G., Drossel, K., Gudmundsdottir, G.B., Holmarsdottir, H.B., Kazani, A., Mifsud, L., Parsanoglou, D., Port, S., Sisask, M., Symeonaki, M. & Teidla-Kunitsõn, G. . The younger generation’s views on how their education is preparing them for the digital age against the background of COVID-19: Results of an exploratory study in five European countries. 2021 (DigiGen – working paper series No. 5). doi: 10.6084/m9.figshare.16669345
Karatzogianni, A., Tiidenberg, K., Parsanoglou, D, Olabode, S., Ostashow, N. (2022) DigiGen Policy Brief: Digital Citizenship Policy Analysis (Estonia, Greece and the UK). Online Available at: https://www.digigen.eu/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/Policy-brief-WP6-website-final-130322.pdf
Karatzogianni, A., Tiidenberg, K. & Parsanoglou, D.. Multimodal research: Youth becoming digital citizens, 2022a (DigiGen-working paper series No 7). DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.6382187. Online available at: https://www.digigen.eu/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/DigiGen-working-paper-7-multimodal-research-youth-becoming-digital-citizens-website-040422.pdf
Karatzogianni, A., Tiidenberg, K., Parsanoglou, D., Lepik, K.S., Raig, M., Suitslepp, M.L., Matthews, J., Symeonaki, M., Kazani, A., & Pnevmatikaki, M. Online Political Behaviour and ideological Production by Young People: A Comparative Study of ICT and Civic Participation in Estonia, Greece and the United Kingdom, 2021. (DigiGen – working paper series No. 4). doi: 10.6084/m9.figshare.14535156. Online available at: https://digigen.eu/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Online-political-behaviour-and-ideological-production-by-young-people-DigiGen-working-paper-series-no.-4.pdf