How Gen Z Innovators are Making Tech Human Again

By Rebecca Denny, Digital Marketing Intern at LookUp “If not me then who, if not now then when?” This quote, recited by Emma Watson at the HeforShe Summit, was clearly exemplified during the 2021 LookUp Innovator Showcase, I attended this past week. The 2021 showcase created a space for LookUp’s 45 grant winners to unveil their grant winning solutions to technology design, regulation, usage, and combating social isolation. The 45 winners make up 12 different teams and attend various colleges in California, Connecticut, Indiana, Florida, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. The Showcase spotlighted our 2021 class of Social Innovators, and gathered members of our Leadership Lab, which includes our empowering Teen Council and youth leaders with ideas on how to transform our digital world into a healthier and better space for all. In addition to our brilliant and highly-motivated Gen-Z advocates, we were accompanied by the renowned Robert Wigley, the Chairman of UK Finance and author of Born Digital: The Story of a Distracted Generation (due out in March); Julia Hoppock, Impact Producer for The Social Dilemma; and Diana Angelini, who is the Director of Business Development at Ladder and our newest board member. From campaigns, to apps, to legislation, this group of inspiring youth is building a movement from the ground up to address and solve issues such as advocacy, overload and addiction, and social isolation. Bob Wigley addressed key points, which were further reiterated throughout the day by our innovators. As he relayed sad statistics in relation to how our phones and technology are controlling us, he also provided an understanding of how these statistics came to be. Gen-Z spends an average of over 7 hours a day on their phones, more time than we spend sleeping or studying. 85% of people use their cell phones while simultaneously talking to a friend, leading to issues of phubbing (ignoring one’s companion in order to pay attention to their phone). Phubbing has become an increasingly relevant issue, something which I find to be extremely frustrating. On many occasions, whether I am talking with friends or a family member, I will recognize a disconnect as the other person gravitates towards their phone more than listening to what is being said. Personally, I find this to create a hostile environment as I either decide to give up on speaking or try to call the said person out for using their phone amidst a conversation. But, Wigley redirected the blame, not on the users themselves but towards big technology companies. As part of this discussion, he proposed the following critical question: “Can we just self-regulate better?” Wigley’s answer in simple terms: no. Similar to Jeff Orlowski at the Youth 4 Youth Summit this past October, Wigley argues that we must look at the bigger picture and point to the source where it all originated: big tech companies. Wigley calls for both self-regulation amongst companies, as well as efforts our government should be taking to “force actions to mitigate those harms so that these companies start working in the interest of society as a whole, not in the interest purely of their profit loss accounts.” Although Wigley offered solutions at an individual level, such as digital citizenship and engaging in practices such as yoga or meditation to aid in mental health, he stressed the importance of holding not only tech companies responsible but also governments for allowing our democracy to be at stake. After a powerful and insightful speech from Wigley, we heard from the youth themselves during a round table discussion in which the teams shared their ideas and innovations of how individuals can take steps to address digital well-being. Additionally, we were humbly accompanied by Julia Hoppock who shared perspicacious knowledge with regards to our evolving digital world. She addressed the topic that many people have been contemplating within the past year as a result of our political climate, which is “If we can’t agree on what’s true, or that there is such a thing as truth, then we can’t tackle any of the big issues of our time.” The scary statistic that fake news travels 6x faster than real news continues to dominate, leading to an even bigger divide within our world. Hoppock continued by proposing questions such as: “What if these platforms were designed to connect us rather than control us? What if they were designed to inspire us to action rather than inspire us to watch countless cat videos or creep on your friends? What if these platforms brought us together, taught us how to find common ground and policy, rather than push us further into our political filter bubbles?” These are questions that not only adults such as Hoppock are posing, but also many young youths that are trying to find their place in a digitally controlled world. How do I restructure the algorithm so that I am taking advantage of these big tech companies and not the other way around? As a college student and Digital Marketing Intern at LookUp with hopes for a future world that focuses less on digital life and more on mental health and education, I constantly have these questions racing through my mind as I catch myself mindlessly scrolling through different social media apps or listening to others discuss the latest “trends,” to which I could care less about, surfacing the internet. I ask myself, is the answer to remove myself from these different apps altogether? How do I restructure the algorithm so that I am taking advantage of these big tech companies and not the other way around? I want a digital world, such as one Hoppock suggested, that makes me think critically not only about the world around me, but makes me think about my own personal motives behind what I decide to put out into the digital world. For some, social media is a place to escape reality and create a false sense of what your life is truly like. But, at the end of the day, does posting that selfie makes you a better person? Or does it just give you a temporary serotonin release and ego boost? What should be the motive behind social media usage? Although I have yet to find one simple solution to my many issues revolving around social media, listening to the Social Innovators propose answers to some of these questions, I truly felt as if change was possible. Each team had thoroughly thought through their unique innovations and exhibited pure passion and excitement throughout the day. Chloe Shrager, a member of the ASMBL team, emphasized, “It isn’t social media and social networks that are inherently evil. There is a lot of good that can come from connecting people and the tools that we have developed as a society.” Rather, as each team said in their own words, it is about the importance of holding companies accountable and creating a world where ethical tech is attainable. While we think social media and technology connect us to the real world, each innovator has spotlighted different reasons as to how it has actually separated us from reality. Therefore, as Diana Angelini closed the showcase on Saturday with the quote, “If not me then who, if not now then when,” I too will end with it. It is our time, as Gen Z activists, innovators, and risk-takers to come together as one and rethink our commonly accepted social norms around technology, mental health, and the future of our increasingly digital world.

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