Sex, lies and the Internet ...the Gen Z Edition

Paul Golding

Sunday, January 13, 2019

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Adolescence has been described as the time of incredible physical, social and emotional growth, and peer relationships, especially romantic ones, are a major social focus of many teens. The cohort of teens known as Generation Z (Gen Z), Centennials, Founders, and iGen, it is assumed, was born between the year 2000 to somewhere between 2012-2015. This is the most digitally entrenched generation, and therefore understanding the role that digital media plays in there romantic relationships is important. In addition one of the major concerns of parents, regulators and administrators are teens' online sexual activities and how likely this behaviour could result in actual risky sexual relationships.

The College of Business and Management at the University of Technology, Jamaica, in a recent research on Gen Z, found that almost 40 per cent searched the Internet for information on relationship problems, and another 26 per cent use the Internet to search for information on sexuality. More girls searched for information on relationship problems, while more boys inquired about sexuality.

In our focus group interviews the issue of male sexuality was considered taboo, especially in a society where homophobia is prevalent. Gen Z's explained that some were not comfortable speaking to their guidance counsellors, parents, friends, or pastors about sexual issues and therefore resort to the Internet for guidance. Both males and females in our focus group sessions had reservations about raising questions about sexuality to their parents. Students explained that especially their mothers are apt to jump to conclusions when they were just making enquiries because there were so many changes taking place with their bodies.

As researchers we were educated by Gen Z on the difference between sexting, which is a text about sex, and the sending of nudes — which is fully nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves or someone else. The sending of nudes is a prevalent activity among Jamaican Gen Z, with 60 per cent reporting that someone has sent them a nude of himself or herself. Twenty-three per cent of students indicated that they have sent nudes of themselves to someone else. The difference in sending and receiving may be due to the number of occasions one person sends a nude and to the number of recipients. While girls are more likely to receive nudes the gender difference is small. On the other hand, while boys are more likely to send nudes of themselves, the gender difference is also small. The data suggest that while forwarding nudes happens, it is generally taboo to forward these messages, and the incidence may not be as common as adults may think.

Gen Z's have indicated that if sexting or nudes is introduced early in the courtship they will immediately block or delete the person. It is important that students understand that the sending of nudes is a risky sexual behaviour that can result in shame and ridicule and that pressuring your partner to send nudes is unacceptable.

In the focus group discussion, it was evident that romantic relationships rarely start online; however, digital technology is a major vehicle for flirting and expressing interest in a potential partner. They explained that most of the “lovie dovie” stuff takes place on WhatsApp.

The Internet has increased the potential for exposure to porn; however, only a small percentage (3.3 per cent) of respondents had porn sites as a favourite app. Older Gen Z's tended to be more attracted to porn and, as expected, there was a gender difference, with more boys intentionally seeking to find porn. A major takeaway from the focus groups was that students were being exposed to porn at an early age, as young as six and eight years old. The means of exposure is not limited to the Internet, but also to cable.

The focus group responses suggest that porn is not having much influence on Gen Z's romantic relationships. Parents, however, need to be careful as porn has entered the sphere of cartoon, animation, and YouTube Kids, which could increase exposure at an early age. What is clear from the research is that social media and cellular phones are integral in Gen Z's romantic lives.

A corresponding issue to Gen Z online sexual activities is privacy. Gen Z have an oxymoronic view of privacy, or selective privacy — post to the world but restrict who views it; public yet private. Although students are likely to post a vast array of information about themselves, they take steps to shape their reputation, manage their networks, and mask information they don't want others to know.

Catfishing, or pretending to be someone else, is used by 70 per cent of respondents to protect their privacy, and 30 per cent use this technique to post comments on sites. Gen Z's delete online posting so that parents (38 per cent) and family members (36 per cent) would not see it.

While 53 per cent of Gen Z's have never asked anyone to ask other people to delete a post that they have put online so someone would not see it, when they do, students are usually trying to prevent friends (26 per cent), parents (24 per cent), and family members (22 per cent) from viewing the content.

Gen Z's generally want to share their post/content with their friends (85 per cent of the respondents) followed by, in a distant second, parent/family and boyfriend/girlfriend, both with 49 per cent. As it relates to friends online, Gen Z's tend to have fewer friends on WhatsApp (101-200 friends) — this platform is more personalised — while they have far more friends on Facebook and Instagram (more than 500 friends on each).

In controlling who can view their online posts Gen Z's use privacy settings 60 per cent to block strangers, 48 per cent to block friends, and 35 per cent to block individuals they were no longer friends with. In the focus group discussions Gen Z's explained other ways of controlling what people, especially their parents see of them online. These include having more than one Facebook account; one for parents, and one for friends. One student explained that in order to restrict parental intrusion on WhatsApp she doesn't save her parents number in her phone.

Only 13 per cent of the respondents have never used the privacy setting. The general theme of controlling access was again demonstrated in whom they would share password with: best-friend (46 per cent), parents (37 per cent), girlfriend/boyfriend (28 per cent), and 21 per cent would not share with anyone.

An area of concern was that 65 per cent of respondents had never had a privacy policy or online terms of use agreement read or explained to them. This is an area that digital literacy would be helpful. The focus group discussions revealed that Gen Z's were aware that there was no real privacy online, they were, however, surprised as to how social media companies were using their data. In fact, 65 per cent of Gen Z's thought that companies were not interested in what they say or do online, and 69 per cent agreed that websites that have a privacy policy will not share their personal information with others. Paradoxically, 71 per cent of Gen Z's would like more control over what companies do with the photos and information they post online.

Despite not reading privacy policies, Gen Z's were concerned with technology's impact on privacy, regardless of their age or gender: 81 per cent of students, 16-18 years old, were concerned, and 73 per cent of 13-15-year-olds. Eighty per cent of girls and 70 per cent of boys were concerned with technology's impact on privacy.

Gen Z's online privacy behaviour is consistent with what the literature characterise as the 'posting paradox', in which teens knowingly post inappropriate material on social media sites that may impact their employment in later years. This has a lot to do with the divergent views of the purpose and use of social media by Gen Z's and employers. Some Gen Z's view the purpose and audience of their various social media account differently, that is posts on Facebook and Snapchat are for friends, while posting on LinkedIn for employees. In fact, some students are not even thinking about future employment when they post. At the same time, recruiters are increasingly reviewing candidates' social media post before making hiring decisions. As Gen Z's start to enter the workforce there may be a need to change this approach to recruiting. As one Gen Z said: “If the whole a wi naked online who unnu hire anyway.”

Professor Paul Golding is dean of the College of Business and Management, University of Technology, Jamaica. Send comments to the Observer or,jm.

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