Families vary as much as individual people do, but every parent will agree on one statement: little ones grow up too fast. One second, mommy is fitting her eight-year-old son with his first backpack before he heads to kindergarten, and the next, mother is tidying his old room after he’s moved to a far-flung college. This phenomenon is not new ‒ an accelerated sense of time seems to be an inexorable component of parenthood ‒ but parents of Gen Z (born 1995-2014) may be more on the nose than their parents were.
We are currently living in “The Age of Information,” where access to seemingly infinite knowledge is granted with ease by the internet. As increasing numbers of children receive devices, they become exposed to a wealth of content that includes subject matter previously deemed inappropriate for children, such as sex and drugs. And while their familiarity with such ideas is premature, they are also granted insight into topics that would not have crossed the minds of children a generation earlier, such as politics and wealth inequality. This education at such a young age speeds up mental development and maturity, resulting in a new generation intellectually prepared to tackle the myriad issues on its plate. Vulnerability to explicit content can negatively impact psychosexual development, but the practical implications of an earlier adulthood for a more educated generation make the loss of innocence a fair price.
People online are at their most uncensored, an effect so widespread that psychologists have dubbed it “the disinhibition effect.” Since the vast majority of online influencers are in their twenties, an age full of the vices of post-adolescence, children are exposed to raw realities of sexually charged, drug-addled young adulthood arguably far before they are equipped to handle it. For example, there is an increasing prevalence of young girls hypersexualizing themselves online. While they own their bodies their behavior is their prerogative, the attention and money that they receive for their antics glorifies a troubling online trend of normalized statutory sexual activity and underage drug usage. Peers that are not necessarily ready for the same activities may see the praise their peers online receive and feel motivated to jump headfirst into the same activities in a plea for the same attention. Additionally, the fact that social media fame is so easy to compare through follower count can lead to low self-esteem and depression when one doesn’t measure up.
But despite these growing pressures that may not be healthy for psychosexual development, it is just a component of an accelerated adulthood that is on the whole, good. The internet and social media expos children to a content of all genres, which inappropriate material is only a small part of. A lot of internet content is informative and even educational. Additionally, the overload of information along with the inherent questionability of internet content has taught younger generations to think critically, questioning headlines rather than taking them as rote. This is crucial in a voter base, as proven by the impact of Facebook’s paid headlines on older generations’ votes during the last election. Additionally, the ability to spread information, and therefore increase awareness on humanitarian issues has made Gen Z more socially compassionate and politically active. According to The Atlantic, volunteer work is becoming a norm among teenagers as it never has been before, and shockingly young civil rights leaders such as Malala Yousafzai are cropping up more and more frequently. This development is not lost on older generations, The New York Times even making the case that the voting age should be lowered to sixteen after the “thoughtful and influential activism of young people” following the Parkland shooting. Without the internet, younger generations would not have the same increase in intellectual maturity and the same understanding of sociopolitical issues that they do currently.
Anything powerful has upsides and downsides, and the internet’s impact on children is no exception. It speeds up development in traditionally adult topics that they may not be physiologically ready for, but also intellectually and critically. So even if parents have to watch their children grow up even faster, the lasting good that the early development has on society as a whole and power that the individual adolescent carries with them outweighs the associated tribulations of adulthood.