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They’re the generation that grew up with the Internet, smartphones and social media. They learnt how to swipe before they knew how to read. They can’t remember a time when “Google” wasn’t a verb. Yes, this is Gen Z – born between 1997 and 2012, and now aged 9 to 24. They’re the most connected generation ever – yet 82 per cent of Gen Zs in Singapore say “emotional connections are weaker than in the past”, higher than the global average of 76 per cent.

This is just one of the startling findings in The Truth About Gen Z, a report released in March this year by McCann Worldgroup, a global marketing services company. It interviewed 32,000 people around the globe, including 5,000 from countries around the Asia-Pacific, including Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, China and Thailand.

So why do our Gen Zs feel so alone?

“When you’re interacting online through a screen, you present a T Internet, smartphones and social media. They curated view of yourself. So you feel disconnected. It’s different when you’re interacting offline and things flow more naturally,” explains Manasi Trivedi, McCann’s strategy director for South-east Asia.

Cancel culture doesn’t help. Manasi says: “People can’t have conversations in coffee shops in real life at the moment, but kopitiam discussions are still happening, via Whatsapp or DM.

“Gen Z is very aware of being cancelled or called out. They’ve had access to the Internet since primary school, so they feel like they must have an opinion on everything.”

The trouble is, Gen Z knows that what is said online will be on record forever. There’s a constant fear that someone will screenshot their views, and they’ll be called out, now or in the future. If they don’t say something about a topic, they’re cancelled. If they say something somebody doesn’t agree with, they’re cancelled.

“In Singapore focus groups, we hear people say you don’t really have the option to go offline and ignore it all. If you go offline, your friends will be like… ‘Hello? Are you dead?’ So you have to show up every single day on all these different channels, be very careful about what you say, and hide parts of yourself. It’s exhausting,” explains Manasi.

Gen Zs are the focus of the McCann report, but in some ways the report also points out what’s affecting us all in Singapore.

Even before Covid, we used our phones and laptops for everything from online shopping to streaming movies. We already lived online. The pandemic just made it worse.

“We feel isolated because humans are community creatures. We all want validation from other people, but screens make it harder to achieve that interaction,” says Cho Ming Xiu, 34, founder and executive director of Campus PSY.

This “By Youths For Youths” charity in Singapore promotes youth mental health awareness via advocacy, training, support and mentoring. In September 2021, Campus PSY partnered with Tiktok to train 40 local content creators on how to share content on mental health, including where to get help in Singapore. Ming Xiu feels that the rise of social media, combined with Covid restrictions, has created a perfect storm of isolation for Gen Zs and millennials (those aged 25 to 40).

“Humans often communicate in non-verbal ways – through body language or facial expressions – but it’s very hard to pick up facial cues and body language on screen. So you can chat online, but it’s not the same as meeting in person,” says Ming Xiu.

Think about it: When you’re upset, you might still say “I’m fine”, but your friends can tell that you’re anxious because they see you pick at your nails or jiggle your legs. These details are hard to see in a video chat, so no one may pick up on your real mood, and ask you how you are feeling.

Campus PSY’s collab with Tiktok is timely because the McCann report found that 27 per cent of Gen Zs in Singapore find mental health problems the hardest thing to talk about, even with close friends. That’s the highest in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Our forums and surveys show that young people definitely feel more isolated and stressed now,“ agrees Ming Xiu. “They’re uncertain about their future and finances. There’s constant pressure to jump on the ‘busy bandwagon’ in Singapore. They feel they must always be ‘achieving’.”

Alone in a crowd

We also feel isolated when we can’t connect or find enough people who “get us” – and again, the pandemic has only made this worse. Shari, 23, is a video editor who works from home. She lives with her parents and siblings, so she’s not alone, but she still feels lonely. “I respect my parents, but we don’t really talk about much except day-to-day things. We are very different. If I don’t agree with what they are saying, I just keep quiet. Mostly, I just stay in my room and work.”

She misses hanging out with friends at cafes and concerts. “I wonder, what will I remember about this year? Memes? Social media is a temporary thing. I’ve forgotten every meme I ever saw. I thought they were hilarious at the time, but now I can’t remember any of them.”

Social media memes may be fleeting, but 75 per cent of Gen Zs in Singapore feel social media is good for giving a voice to marginalised people, according to the McCann Report.

“It often comes up in our panel discussions,” muses Ming Xiu. “Gen Zs are more willing to talk about social activism, below-wage poverty, inequality, and mental health well-being. Unlike previous generations in Singapore, they’re ready to talk about their passions. I see it as a good thing that they are open.”

Still, it brings about its own challenges. Thanks to news apps, vlogs and climate activists like 18-year-old Greta Thunberg, everyone under 35 feels intense pressure to change the world.

“My friend groups are all very active in social causes,” says Marlene Low, 21, an arts student. “So yes, I do feel pressure to change society or the world, but I also wonder what impact I can have. I feel like my art must always have some very strong message, and I find that hard at times.”

Manasi offers a ray of hope. “Our research shows that although Gen Zs feel isolated, they don’t feel helpless. They’re navigating their way out of this situation.

Unlike previous generations, they don’t feel they need someone to rescue them. They’re saying, ‘We’ll find our own ways to be less isolated’.”

Anya Low agrees. The 25-year- old, who is studying business design, says: “There’s a growing understanding among my friends that we need to change our relationship with social media, but there’s uncertainty about how to do it. No one taught us how to navigate social media. We must decide how to do it ourselves.”

She’s not surprised that 58 per cent of Gen Z women in the McCann study say they wish they looked more like their edited and filtered Instagram photos in real life, compared to 52 per cent of Gen Z men.

A few years ago she took a three-month social media break. ”I felt overwhelmed. I was losing hours on Instagram and Pinterest. So I changed from a smartphone to an old flip phone. It only did calls and SMS.

“The biggest change was I had so much more free time. And I could focus on simple things like, ‘Wait, is this the right platform for my train?’ I was always distracted before. I’d look around and see that everyone was on their smartphones, in their own bubble.”

Anya’s back to using her smartphone now, but says: “I still feel more present in my life. I have more control over what I watch. When I feel I can’t put down my phone, I know it’s time to step away.”

Her advice is simple. “If you’re feeling isolated, go meet someone in real life. If you like tennis, take a tennis course. You might like the activity, or not – but you naturally connect to people when you do an activity together, and you can’t find that through your phone.”

This story first appeared in the November 2021 issue of Her World.