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Gen Z: The Future of the Internet and Social Platforms


Gen Z, poses new challenges for businesses. They’ve never known a world without the internet, and they’re willing to part with personal data in exchange for personalization. We share suggestions for social platforms, content providers and others seeking to appeal to this up-and-coming generation.

It’s hard to think back to a time when the internet and social platforms weren’t a daily part of our lives. For Generation Z — people 22 and younger — it’s not about fading memories of a simpler, more analog time. They’ve always been on, which means they’ve grown up with different expectations for technology and instant information accessibility.

To gain a better understanding of exactly how their expectations differ, and how internet and social platform providers should adjust accordingly, we commissioned the Center for Generational Kinetics to study the attitudes of three generations in the U.S. toward the internet, privacy, advertising and content:

  • Gen Z (ages 15–22).

            Gen Z (ages 15–22).

  • Millennials/Gen Y (ages 23–41).

  • Gen X (ages 42–53).

Here’s what we learned.

Gen Z is less positive about the impact of the internet in the future

Participants of all ages agreed that the internet will have a positive impact on the future. However, compared with millennials and Gen X, Gen Z has a slightly less rosy outlook. About one-third of Gen Z respondents said they viewed the future of the internet as more negative than positive, compared to 21% of millennials and 28% of Gen Xers. For younger Gen Z respondents (those aged 15–18), this number was even higher: 37%. 

There are a few possible reasons for this. First, unlike Gen X and millennials, Gen Z has not experienced the internet’s revolutionary power to reinvent and replace the way we work, communicate and consume content. For Gen Z, the internet has simply always been there; expectations are higher because seamless technology is a given. It’s a required commodity everywhere they go — and frankly, they’re not always impressed.

Additionally, Gen Z’s more negative outlook could be due to a richer understanding of how the personal data they produce through online behavior can be used and misused by companies, politicians and peers — and its ability to be sold, manipulated or abused by others. They feel that the internet can be just as bad as it is good. 

We suggest:

Going forward, internet, social platform and content providers will need to continuously improve their features and experience to meet the demands of Gen Z, Gen Y and even millennials. As what were once revolutionary technologies and experiences become more mainstream, companies that want to be seen as innovators will need to step up their game.

Gen Z wants personalization and transparency

Almost every generation in the study has some level of concern about how their online information could be used against them. However, younger respondents were much less concerned than those from older generations.

But this doesn’t mean Gen Zers do not care about the personal information possessed by businesses. In fact, 67% of Gen Z respondents said companies know too much about them.

While no generation in the study desired more advertising, members of Gen Z want to feel like brands understand them, and they expect personalized and relevant advertising based on their interests. Also important to Gen Z is the context of those ads. While 38% said tailored ads are more effective than random ones, 46% have a negative perception of an ad if it’s placed alongside content they consider offensive.

To an observer, it may feel like there’s a disconnect between Gen Z’s desire for personalization and how much information they’re comfortable sharing with a company.

We suggest:

What we see between these two findings — Gen Z is less positive about the internet and very concerned about the personal data possessed by companies — is a trust paradox. While they voice opposition to how companies use, abuse and profit from personal data, Gen Z’s online behavior has not changed. However, the longer-term reputational, cultural and political fallout could be significant in the next few years. In fact, the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer notes that trust in technology companies has fallen significantly in the past 12 months, especially in California.

Going forward, companies should find ways to become more transparent about the information they retain while also finding ways to monetize the collection process. Providing discounts or credits to users who are willing to share more data has potential, as does offering opportunities to buy services that would anonymize their use. Right now, companies are leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table.

Since Gen Z is also less trusting of traditional brand advertisements, companies should look for ways to capitalize on influencer marketing to better connect and build relationships with Gen Z consumers. In our survey, one in four respondents say social media personalities and influencers affect their purchasing decisions. The study found that Gen Z influencers are more likely to impact purchasing decisions than other forms of promotion, such as advertising. And for many Gen Zers (35%), user-generated content will soon have more credibility than company content.

Gen Z wants truly frictionless sales and service experiences

Gen Z depends on connectivity more than other generations in the study, with 38% stating they feel highly stressed when they’re unable to access the internet. A 2018 study also showed 73% of Gen Z females and 62% of Gen Z males feel “very tense or uneasy” when their phones are not working correctly.

As a result, 40% of the Gen Z population in the study spends 3 hours or more per week maintaining their smart devices and connected home devices. This includes updating software, drivers and routers; making sure devices are connected to Wi-Fi; and ensuring that all systems are up to date.

So Gen Z is proactive about keeping devices running the way they should, while other generations may allow software and devices to become outdated before updating. Gen Z also may be spending more time linking platforms and apps to derive the most benefit from their interconnectivity.

However, while Gen Z spends hours a week maintaining devices in the home, they’re not the ones doing maintenance on their home’s smart devices. About half of all Gen Z respondents said they fix smart home devices when the devices aren’t working. This figure is about 10% lower than Gen X, and 20% lower than millennials. 

Of Gen Z responders who don’t fix their own smart home devices, 23% said they rely on someone older to get the job done, while 15% said they hired help. This isn’t surprising; many Gen Zers still live in their parents’ home, where it may not be their responsibility to solve these problems.

That said, nearly 40% of Gen Z respondents said they were likely or very likely to pay a company to set up, monitor and repair connected home systems to ensure they are always working or repair them when they’re down. Another 32% were neutral on the idea, but only 30% said they were not at all likely or not likely to purchase such a service. 

We suggest:

At their current age, Gen Zers don’t have much purchasing power. However, internet, platform and device companies need to prepare to meet this generation’s demands and expectations as they graduate from college or move out of their parents’ homes.

One way a business can do this is to develop smart device maintenance packages, creating home bundles through ecosystem partnerships to ensure the connected home and associated devices are connected and running smoothly.

However, companies should also consider the ways that device and connectivity problems are solved. Thus far, businesses have tried to automate troubleshooting by using services that theoretically provide self-service. But that process is often overly complicated for customers who are required to call in and navigate an automated system before they’re inevitably transferred to a human representative. Many times, they’re forced to repeat customer or troubleshooting information multiple times — a frustrating experience.

While enabling our digital life requires an ecosystem of partners, companies should be looking into how to work together to make this experience truly frictionless, implementing intelligent customer service through AI and machine learning so they work smoothly and efficiently. Ideally, human interaction would be removed entirely from the experience.


While millennials, or Gen Y, were born into the PC and early internet era, Gen Z is the first generation to grow up completely digital. For this generation, digital connections, connectivity and content are an expectation — dare we say a human right — not a convenience. While concerns about the quantity and use of their personal information might be viewed as troubling, Gen Z’s online behavior suggests this is regarded as the price of entry to get what they want.

This emerging consumer, now between 15 and 22 years old, will redefine yet again what they want from brands, and brands must begin now to deliver or get left behind. Internet and platform companies will need more than a repeat of what might have worked with previous generations. They must look to apply new technologies that humanize the digital experience, creating balanced benefits to both consumers and companies.

These challenging questions also pose exciting opportunities. Start exploring new ways to meet the needs of the Millennials and Gen Z digital consumer by scheduling a conversation with us to discuss how we are helping clients deliver relevant, personalized experiences.

On March 28, 2019, Cognizant held a forum in partnership with the Churchill Club in San Francisco Bay Area on the topic of the trust paradox and the implications everyone, including those who are less optimistic than others — Gen Z.

To learn more, visit the Generation Now section of our website.

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