by Morganne Grutsch
Being born into technology and power of the internet gives Generation Z the ability to have questions answered at the click of the button, connection to friends as fast as they can send a DM and unlimited access to swarms of information with a quick swipe through TikTok. But does growing up in a world of technology feed innovation or falter in promoting resiliency for Gen Z students?
As a higher education professional, and a member of Generation Z, I hold a unique perspective on how our generational trends impact the success of students. Alongside the students I work with, I often feel emotionally drained by the way news and negative communication plague the media, and when finally given the moment to breathe and focus on the task at hand, my brain is already exhausted from the worries of the day. In studying social media information overload, Shaohai Jiang found that
when exposed to the increasing amounts of media and online information, our brains experience decreased cognitive processing capacity. This brain drain and information overload can lead to further information avoidance as a defense against further psychological exhaustion. Our Gen Z students are not lazy, they are exhausted. Some may say that limiting screen time, focusing on yourself, or practicing self care are all the answers, but I argue this isn’t enough. Now, don’t get me wrong I preach the same thing to my students, taking time for yourself is just as important as focusing time on your studies, but why the is onus of responsibility always placed on the individual affected? How can we help our students in this practice, guiding them to understanding that everyday there will be another news story, each minute something across the world is upsetting, but through it all - to lean into resiliency? As a generation so deeply invested in the betterment of society, taking time to validate these experiences while developing a culture of resiliency in our students is one method of combatting the negative affects of information overload.
In my experience, Generation Z often gets a bad reputation for being lazy and unmotivated without encountering the “real” problems. According to Stanford News, studies have shown that Gen Z-ers are pragmatic, direct and appreciate a sense of flexibility to adapt to new and changing environments. Generation Z may have different approaches to understanding how the world works from their older counterparts, but their appreciation for diversity and collaboration makes them a valuable asset in innovation and problem solving. Now what some may see as generalized unmotivated or lazy schoolwork,, in the experience of the young people, this is extreme focus and passion towards evolving problems and concerns of the generation. Students are viewing their education as a means to an end to make their idealized goals come into reality, while being burdened by the mental toll of constant information exposure, which generations before them lived blissfully without. For Gen Z college students, the challenges of student life are not necessarily spending time in libraries navigating shelves for specific rescuers, but rather experiencing information overload and brain fatigue by being inundated with information from all angles of life.
While there is research exploring how Gen Z-er’s differ from other generations, there is also important impacts in the classroom that are specifically worth focusing on. Because they have grown up in a wold of immediate knowledge and answers, Gen Z students crave prompt feedback from their instructors. The University of Massachusetts describes the importance of providing rationales and quick feed back for Gen Z students, “explain[ing] upfront why a lesson is important and how it’s applicable in the real world” helps students navigate their own priority of their education. Communicating this with Gen Z students’ and providing clear expectations and when feedback may be expected, is an important accommodation we can provide to Gen Z that will not discourage future academic responsibility. In past decades, college students were able to find opportunity and develop lives away from home in search of advancing their education and opportunities, while focusing on their personal priorities. However, today, many first generation students are not only being tasked with academic challenges and personal conflict, but the mental toll of student loans, climate change, racial inequality and political turmoil.
Higher education is no stranger to its students investing their time, energy, and newfound passion for current events. But with the doomsday epidemic of news stories, TikTok rants, and twitter updates, students are constantly being pulled into the world’s conflicts, rather than being able to focus on their own lives. This is not to say political engagement or investing time into the worldwide news is not important, but the level of emotional and psychological toll on a generation with already statistically higher levels of mental health concerns is a problem. From the Pew Research Center we understand that Gen Z students are experiencing the highest rates of depression and anxiety than any other generation. This isn’t moody and unprofessional behavior, but a mental health epidemic that is impacting how students find success. Now, more than ever for Higher Education professionals need to learn about this generation’s strengths and motivations. Studies are showing that Generation Z is on track to becoming the most educated generation. With impressive increase of post high school education - Pew Research Center stating that compared to Millennials at 52% and Gen X at 43%, of Gen Z young adults in 2018 "57% were enrolled in a two-year or four-year college.” The more Higher Education professionals can encourage the use of accommodations and resources, the more students can still meet academic expectation without increasing the amount of mental and emotional harm.
While on a national level research is finding depression is growing in young people, the affects are exemplified even in the cohort of students I serve. Each year, our office conducts a small survey regarding the mental wellness of our incoming first year students. As time has passed from pre-pandemic, the levels of self reported depression and anxiety have increased each year. From survey results, we are able to craft more intentional programming and curriculum intervention to point at the areas students report being the biggest concerns, but we are beginning to realize sharing these results out with rest of campus will truly make the biggest impact. Creating a campus culture to treat depression and anxiety as the barrier it builds for student success, is an important aspect of changing the dynamics of the educational instructions as our student cohorts change. With increased ease of communicating student concerns and relevant wellbeing data as educational need to know, we can begin to support students across campus according to their specific wellbeing needs and levels of emotional burnout. If we know as an institution, more and more of our students are coming to their first year on campus with mental health concerns, building those resources and preventative accommodations as a baseline, rather than having to be specifically sought out, could vastly increase the success of Gen Z students.
As I coach students through academic and personal challenges, I strive to also help students build connection between their academic focus areas and the current events and political issues they are passionate about. Students are more motivated when they are allowed (and encouraged) to connect the content they are learning to their own lives and unique perspectives. As higher education professionals we have to recognize that the key to unlocking the superpowers focus and passion of Gen Z onto their studies, is built through weaving the issues and values they identify with into the content. Understanding that Generation Z isn’t selfish, but passionate and adaptable is imperative to better serving their learning styles. Connecting content back to their passions allows us to work alongside information overload rather than against it. As we learn to better support this generation of students, the more they will develop and grow into the young professionals making changes within politics, racial and economical inequality, and climate issues they care about most.
De Witte, Melissa. “What to Know about Gen Z.” Stanford News, 3 Jan. 2022, news.stanford.edu/2022/01/03/know-gen-z/.
Geiger, A.W., and Leslie Davis. “A Growing Number of American Teenagers – Particularly Girls – Are Facing Depression.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 12 July 2019, www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2019/07/12/a-growing-number-of-american-teenagers-particularly-girls-are-facing-depression/.
Jiang, S. (2022). The Roles of Worry, Social Media Information Overload, and Social Media Fatigue in Hindering Health Fact-Checking. Social Media + Society, 8(3). https://doi.org/10.1177/20563051221113070
Parker, Kim, and Ruth Igielnik. “On the Cusp of Adulthood and Facing an Uncertain Future: What We Know about Gen Z so Far.” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, Pew Research Center, 14 May 2020, www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/05/14/on-the-cusp-of-adulthood-and-facing-an-uncertain-future-what-we-know-about-gen-z-so-far-2/.
“Teaching Digital Natives: Tips for Teaching Generation Z Students.” www.Umassglobal.Edu, www.umassglobal.edu/news-and-events/blog/generation-z-traits-teachers-need-to-adapt-to#:~:text=Gen%20Z%20students%20are%20true%20digital%20natives&text=This%20translates%20to%20education%20as,how%20they%20demonstrate%20their%20knowledge. Accessed 5 Oct. 2023.
During her undergraduate experience, Morganne developed a passion for Higher Education and serving students while pursuing a Bachelors of Science in Criminology & Criminal Justice and Bachelors of Arts in Sociology, magna cum laude from the University of Nebraska Omaha. After discovering writing as a way to challenge sociopolitical based policies with evidence based research through her undergraduate thesis: The Adverse Affects of Sexual Assaults on the College Experience, Morganne sought out more ways to show that students meet greater success when holistically cared for. After a history of working in various student facing positions, Morganne now serves as the Assistant Director of Operations for the Thompson Learning Community at the University of Nebraska Omaha seeking to help promote institutional change in the way students are supported. Morganne is on her way to completing her Masters of Science in Education: Higher Education & Student Affairs in May of 2024.
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