#Z7: A Youth-Led Agenda for the Responsible Tech Movement
Digital natives, many of whom were born after 1990, grew up in a world that was constantly “tuned in” and connected, resulting in increased exposure to global events, issues, and social movements. Multifaceted experiences with technology, including some harmful personal experiences, have led many of them to a desire to create a more positive Internet.
Over the past few months, we collaborated with Artefact, an award-winning human-centered strategy and design firm, to speak to young people about the technology issues digital natives care about the most. From there, we also identified the barriers and resource gaps that affect young people’s ability to create change, with the goal of exploring ways that philanthropy can elevate and support youth leadership in the responsible technology movement. To this end, we are co-hosting a virtual funder briefing with Hopelab and Susan Crown Exchange on Sept. 19 where youth leaders passionate about responsible technology will speak about the work they’re doing, elaborate on the barriers they face, and explain how funders can show up in partnership with their efforts. Here are some of the issues that will be raised.
Tech issues that drive digital natives to act
Our research identified seven issue areas that digital natives have prioritized, which we’ve dubbed the #Z7Agenda. While many young people care about discrete issues, Gen-Z is also attuned to the ways in which they’re interrelated.
1. Digital Wellbeing
Digital natives are concerned about the negative effects technology, especially social media, can have on people’s mental and emotional well-being. In a 2021 YPulse survey of 13 to 39-year-olds, “technology addiction” ranked as the third biggest problem facing their generations, just behind COVID-19 and racism/discrimination.
Our research found that electronic devices and online platforms are exacerbating young people’s anxiety, depression, and negative self-image. Yet, minimizing internet usage is not practical. Being online and engaging in social media is integral to how young people learn, socialize, and work.
Most young people are aware of the toxic effect that digital technology has on their mental health and there is a strong movement from young people to call out big tech on the harms that result from their designs. However, addressing the issue of digital wellbeing isn’t as easy as asking big tech to change the design of their platforms. A complex set of root causes, business interests, and power dynamics prevents change from happening at the scale needed to support young people’s well-being.
“(A college student told me), ‘I’ve had my Instagram account since I was in sixth grade. It is part of me, so when somebody tells me to put my phone down or delete my social media, it’s like asking me to be invisible.’ … Climate change is really easy to rally around because…there’s not a defense mechanism of, ‘I like my phone. I know it’s not good for me. I know it’s taking away from my sleep, I know it’s bad for my mental health, but I don’t want to give up my community. I don’t want to give up my friendships. No thank you.’”
– Susan Reynolds, Co-Founder and Board Chair, LookUp
“Being a creator on TikTok means accepting a lot of risk. I was doxxed. My address was publicly put out there by neo-Nazis who told people to come and kill me and sent pretty violent threats to me and my family. This happened seven times and by the end, I had to get the FBI involved, there was a police watch, it was a whole thing. And that has, maybe not to that degree, but that’s happened to a lot of other people. Getting Instagram to take down that post and TikTok to take down that post was so challenging.
– Aidan Kohn-Murphy, Founder and Executive Director at Gen-Z for Change
“People look at your social media platforms and your digital platforms as if it’s your resume. It gets you into certain rooms, certain people talk to you, and you’re more attractive even to other people based on how you post on social media, what you post on social media. And a lot of it is like, ‘Wow, this is just performative. Like, what is even going on right now?’ So we’re creating this whole culture around just being perfect, I guess, for social media.”
– Justin Calhoun, Gen-Z activist and content creator
2. Digital Rights
Digital natives have a nuanced relationship with data collection, privacy, surveillance, algorithmic bias, and censorship. More than 50% of Gen-Z participants (people born after 1997) in a University of Southern California study said they are somewhat or very concerned about data privacy.
Digital natives are tracked and traced from their earliest years, with largely no say in how that information is used. They recognize that surveillance and data collection have increased in both online spaces and schools, especially since the start of the pandemic. Some in Gen-Z though have not fully considered the harms that result from the lack of privacy, surveillance capitalism, algorithmic bias, and other forms of oppression. And many are fine with or tolerate signing away their rights in the terms and conditions associated with digital services. While others, especially young people whose job or social cause depends on these platforms, such as creators and activists, are deeply concerned about digital rights and the risk of being silenced on social media due to the platforms’ flawed content moderation practices and geopolitical concerns.
“As someone who grew up chronically online since I was eight years old, I just have all these footprints of accounts that I’ve lost, but I still have posts up… Obviously, that’s accessible to everyone. And we see a lot of different situations of people uplifting old posts of people, whether they are good or bad, just to dunk on them.”
– Jules Terpak, Gen-Z activist and content creator
“Digital rights is like feminism — both are rooted in a fundamental sense of care and liberty, and both are needed to truly liberate marginalized populations. However, in both cases, people often think: ‘I need to have a certain level of expertise to be able to champion the cause. How can I claim I care about digital rights when I don’t know exactly why I need privacy, what the hell antitrust is, or what my concrete opinions on surveillance are?’ These are psychological and systemic barriers to access. For example, right now in India, the most popular way to get into digital rights is to become a lawyer. I know that that intimidates young people in varied disciplines. I want them to know that they don’t have to spend four years in law school just to be able to care about something.”
– Sukhnidh Kaur, research fellow and activist
3. Alternative Systems and Economies
Despite the unknowns, digital natives see the potential for Web3 and the creator economy to create a more inclusive Internet and address an array of techno-social issues
Our research revealed that corporate dominance of the Internet, disillusionment around work and traditional means of livelihood, and a general anti-establishment critique have led digital natives to seek out technologies that give them greater agency and opportunity.
The promises of Web 3 and the creator economy — greater agency, opportunity and the potential to build something new — are linked to young people’s critiques of and lack of trust in corporations, financial institutions, and capitalism itself. Enthusiasts of crypto and blockchain believe they have the potential to build a new, decentralized Internet and wrestle control away from big tech. And the idea of monetizing their interests and the content they create resonates with Gen-Z’s desire for alternative career pathways.
“The thing about crypto is that it’s not figured out yet, which means that possibilities feel endless. And there’s a ton of energy, which just makes it fun. And people are talking about like systems redesign. We have an internet that is not dominated by the big platforms, whether or not this is true. Whether or not it’s actually more decentralized. We don’t know that could change, but right now it feels exciting that it’s not just like, ‘crush the thing we have now’, which — sure. And it’s not just, ‘be happy with the Web 2 centralized platforms, surveillance capitalism.’ We’re going to attempt to make something different. And so I feel like a lot of people I know (myself included) are excited about the opportunity, even if uncertain about that outcome. The uncertainty means we don’t necessarily know that it will be good or better than Web 2.”
– Jasmine Sun, co-founder of Reboot
“The reason that a majority of young people are getting into crypto is because there are very few other ways to build wealth as a young person right now.”
– Thanasi Dilos, co-founder of Civics Unplugged & Dream DAO
4. Digital Division
Digital natives are concerned about technology’s role in promoting misinformation, polarization, and broader erosion of discourse and democracy.
Many are aware of the algorithmic infrastructures that shift people toward sensational headlines, echo chambers, and extremism. The research explains that the sheer amount of information available, lack of traceability as content is reshared, and amplification mechanisms of platforms make it even more challenging for young people to find information and nuance.
The macro effects are also apparent to digital natives: the causes digital natives care about, including two on this list (social justice and climate change), are impeded by this information war, and tech-fueled polarization has resulted in real-world harm spanning the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol to the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.
“I’ve found that young people are more likely to believe and pass on misinformation if they feel a sense of common identity with the person who shared it in the first place. ”
– Jennifer Neda John, Gen-Z researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory
“The reason why me, my friends, and the people that I’m most interacting with are so animated about stopping fake news is not because we don’t know what is fake news, but more so out of concern for older generations, especially for…my parents; it can be easier for them to fall for something and think something’s true.”
– Noorie Dhingra, associate director of research at JUV Consulting
“Sadly what happens sometimes is that ‘all-holy pile on’ clicktivism can actually be a contributor to the distribution of unchecked/fake news. One person takes a quote they see on social media; they put a picture behind it and post it on their Instagram. Then a thousand friends see it, and 500 of them repost it. All of a sudden, you have unchecked news on a huge scale rapidly multiplying because the one person who first decided to share it, didn’t actually fact-check it and the one person who originally reposted it, really didn’t quite understand the full context.”
– Jenk Oz, founder of Thred Media
5. Social Justice
Digital natives are concerned about how systems of oppression and inequity are reproduced and amplified by technology and in the tech industry.
Many are keenly aware of how the inequities of our social, economic, and political systems show up in digital worlds. Our research shows how they’ve grown up seeing different people’s experiences and world events unfold before their eyes, unfiltered and in real-time, which fostered a deep sense of global empathy and a desire to act locally.
Digital spaces also serve an especially important role for people of communities that are historically marginalized; a chance to connect, express themselves, celebrate their identities, or mobilize support against the injustices they face.
Many digital natives want digital and physical worlds to be thriving, welcoming spaces for all. They are not only passionate about dismantling the current structures that perpetuate racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, but they also seek to avoid repeating these patterns in future technology.
“I was thinking about racism in the metaverse and how I was watching the news the other day and basically people were in there saying black slurs…they were recreating a lot of the social systems that exist in reality. So people take to their digital identities to manifest a lot of things that they have going on in their head.”
– Justin Calhoun, Gen-Z activist and content creator
“…For example, there are many cases where queer youth will go on TikTok and see videos promoting homophobia or transphobia on their ‘For You’ page because the algorithm understands that the user viewing this content is queer and the content of the video relates to queer people. When youth see that, there is an immediate fear, a very valid fear, that their content can just as easily be put in front of someone who is advocating to harm people of their identity. And so that fear is something that is very, very real for young people.”
– Mina Aslan, youth program coordinator at Headstream/Second Muse
6. Tech Worker Organizing & Activism
Digital natives believe technology workers should be able to collectively assert decision-making power over their working conditions and the outputs they produce. A 2021 Gallup poll found that 77% of young adults support the idea of unions.
Digital natives don’t stop examining the fundamental structures and systems when they enter the workforce — they carefully consider how the work they do aligns with their values. “Work in tech encompasses a wide range of roles and ‘classes’ of workers — including contract and gig works with fewer protections and benefits than salaried tech workers.” This trend is expected to rise in the coming years.
Young people told us that they are forced to balance financial security with ethics when deciding to work for traditional tech companies. Our research shows that when they do opt into the traditional workforce, digital natives seek to shift the systems and structures in place to ensure equitable pay, fair treatment and benefits for workers of all types, protection from harassment, and the right to build things that are overall good for humans and society, not harmful.
“No amount of money or bean bag chairs is going to give you a voice when it comes to the decisions your company makes. And tech companies have famously made some very bad decisions.”
– Tom Lum, software developer and former tech union organizer at Kickstarter
“I always want to be involved politically in some way, and I’ve realized that doesn’t necessarily have to be something external or policy-focused. Building power within your workplace is a totally legitimate way to enact change that affects not only you and your coworkers but the industry in general…”
– Angie Kim, former software engineer at The New York Times and an organizing committee member for The Times Tech Guild
7. Climate Change
Digital natives are eager to investigate the ways technology contributes to or can help address climate change.
Many in Gen-Z feel “climate anxiety” — or dread over the state of the earth and a grim environmental future. While the tech sector’s negative impact on the climate — such as energy use by data centers and crypto companies — is still a more niche topic among youth activists, digital natives anticipate that new technology has the ability to play a key role in powering climate solutions.
Increasingly, digital natives have shifted their climate activism beyond protests and brand boycotts to explore tech as part of the solution. They see emerging applications for artificial intelligence, blockchain, and big data as effective levers in addressing climate change.
“There’s a lot of nature-based solutions, a lot of technology-based solutions, that kids had absolutely no clue existed, basically. And we were like, ‘OK if we want to really excite young people about the possibility of a brighter planet, why don’t we expose them to technologies that are actually being used to solve issues right now?’”
— Thanasi Dilos, co-founder of Civics Unplugged & Dream DAO
“You’re a 22-year-old software engineer, to take a prototypical use case. You’re wondering, ‘where can I slot in somewhere that’s going to have meaningful impact?’ I think for climate specifically that’s a particularly difficult challenge to work your way up to: being an individual contributor in tech to affecting some of these macro concerns. Your personal subject matter expertise probably skews more towards AI or labor concerns than it does climate…The specific tech-to-climate intersections are quite niche individually, but also so vast in their entirety.”
– Nick Adeyi, investor at Congruent Ventures and climate mentor at Reboot
Young people are our present and future policymakers, civil society leaders, educators, designers, CEOs, and artists. They are both inheriting the problems of today and enacting the solutions of tomorrow, which puts them in a unique position to be leaders in the realm of technology and Internet culture.
Over the next seven weeks, we will be sharing more insights from the research on Twitter @OmiydarNetwork, including the voices of young people who are leading activism and action on each of the seven issues. Follow us and these leaders to learn more about the progress they are making as well as the challenges they face.
Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to request a copy of the research with Artefact, and/or express interest in attending the Sept. 19 “Amplifying Youth Voices for Responsible Technology” briefing for funders, which is co-hosted by Omidyar Network, Hopelab, and Susan Crown Exchange. And as you dive deeper into these topics, consider revisiting our previous post on the relational, infrastructural, and cultural barriers that we must all help overcome so young people’s ideas can help lead us into a safe, inclusive, and equitable technology future.