The digital age has brought about a massive change in the way we think, feel, communicate, and behave. For young people born and raised in a digital world, being online for an average of eleven hours a day affects not only their brain development, such as shortened attention span, ability to concentrate, social skills, and mental well-being. As well as this, young people’s need for connection and belonging is being exploited by unhealthy ‘influencers’ online, who are using the internet to indoctrinate and radicalize them.
An international researcher and author, Chloe Combi, is a leading authority on Generation Z (those born between 1999 and 2009). Having interviewed over 10,000 members of Gen Z, she provides invaluable insights into what the next decade and beyond will bring.
With a keen focus on the future, Chloe Combi is now turning her attention to the next generation – Generation A (Alpha)! She is a bestselling author, host of the #1 Apple Podcast You Don’t Know Me, a film director for Meta (formerly Facebook), a sought-after speaker, and a consultant for brands and political campaigns, including an American Presidential campaign. Her forthcoming book, How to Save the World, examines the impact of the internet and social media on young people.
I was delighted to have Chloe on my Influence Continuum podcast to talk about these critical issues and to hear about what she has learned from interviewing thousands of young people.
How the Internet and Social Media are Destroying Social Connections
Chloe and I discussed how the ability of people to form deep social connections is majorly disrupted by technology. Ironically, while we can connect with other people via phone, text, or social media at any moment of the day, our ability to form strong bonds with others has drastically reduced. “The online world has completely failed to replicate real-life friendship groups,” Chloe said. “There’s a massive difference between friendships and an online tribe.”
Last year, I also had the opportunity to interview Dr. Carl Marci, author of Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age, about this issue. Dr. Marci said that when children use technology rather than face-to-face interactions with friends and receive real-time reciprocal feedback, they miss out on the necessary connections needed for healthy brain development. As a result, we are being rewired in ways that are detrimental to our ability to socialize.
Young people are increasingly seeing their online interactions, such as the number of Instagram likes or Facebook shares, as a measure of their relationships. But these are not real friendships. Real friends accept you for who you are; you can disagree, discuss unpopular views, and have diverse opinions. They may not agree with everything you do but still care about you fundamentally. On the unethical end of the scale, it is all about performance – you are liked if you toe the line and do what is acceptable. If you ask questions or challenge the status quo, then you can’t be part of the group.
Chloe explained how this is particularly challenging for Generation Z, who have essentially been socialized online. Hence, their online world spills over into their real-world social activities. “That’s incredibly dangerous,” explained Chloe, “because then everyone exists in a kind of a social silo, whereby everybody thinks like them and talks like them… And, increasingly, people are unable to tolerate people who quite evidently have kind of pierced their social comfort levels.”
QAnon, Andrew Tate and Online Recruitment
Unhealthy groups and individuals are taking advantage of young people’s need for belonging to manipulate and control how they think, feel, and behave. Chloe gives the examples of Andrew Tate and how his followers – particularly boys and young men – genuinely believe they are part of this intimate tribe. They feel connected to others who think the same as them. Tate uses language that makes his followers feel special and ‘awake’ while everyone else is in the dark. He also plays on the fact that many young men are feeling disenfranchised and isolated, particularly post-pandemic. So for them, a robust, male ‘role model’ and being made to feel ‘part of the crew’ can be very compelling. “There is a viral need in humanity to be part of something,” she said. “And, unfortunately, quite nefarious people abuse that.”
Chloe and I also talked about QAnon and how they use similar techniques to indoctrinate people online. QAnon is a psyop (psychological operation) and a political cult with a clear black-and-white, all-or-nothing, good vs. evil ideology – anyone who criticizes Donald Trump is labeled as a brainwashed agent of the left or a member of the cult of Soros. I have extensively researched QAnon and evaluated it with my BITE Model of authoritarian control as a destructive cult.
Essentially, there is a digitalization of what cults are doing in real life, and groups like QAnon are simply replicating it online. The big difference is that political and cult groups now have access to people’s private information, unlike physical recruitment. It has been harvested online to create sophisticated psychological profiles that can more easily target and influence people. We are entering a whole new level of manipulation and mind control.
How Can We Protect Young People from Unhealthy Online Influence?
As a mental health professional, I am concerned about the potential for digital information to negatively impact individuals’ mental well-being through increased anxiety, depression, and radicalization. Therefore, I advocate for the regulation of social media and online spaces to prevent abuses of power. Additionally, regulations are needed to safeguard data privacy and hold platforms responsible for any adverse effects on people’s well-being.
In today’s world, where technology is becoming more advanced, it is crucial to have a strong understanding of digital media to protect against manipulation and mind control. Furthermore, individuals should educate themselves on online influence and unethical manipulation tactics to inoculate themselves against it.
Learning about the mind, being in our body, being in the here and now, developing critical thinking, and learning how to follow our heart and gut are all important things we can do to protect ourselves and others from undue influence. In addition, having a diverse social network, including those with differing perspectives, can aid in opening our minds to the possibility that our beliefs may sometimes need re-evaluating.
Chloe suggests that parents assist their children in reducing excessive screen time by promoting alternative activities and fostering relationships with family and friends. The goal is not to eliminate phones and screens, as they obviously have benefits, but rather to be more mindful of excessive usage and intentionally replace it with face-to-face interactions with loved ones.
You Don’t Know Me – the trailer
Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives by Chloe Combi