Director Liz Smith On Gen Z, TikTok And The Perils Of The Digital Revolution

Director Liz Smith joins us on Close-Up Culture to discuss her documentary, I Am Gen Z.

The film explores how the explosion of the digital revolution is impacting our society, our brains and mental health, how the forces driving it are working against humanity and have put us on a dangerous trajectory that has huge ramifications for the first generation growing up with mobile digital technology.

You can see I Am Gen Z at the Raindance Film Festival on 4 November. For more info

Where did your initial interest in Gen Z and the digital revolution begin? And what led you to make this film? 

My start point wasn’t Gen Z as it happens. More than 20 years ago I joined what was then a Silicon Valley startup, Yahoo!, and I remember that feeling of being part of something transformative, but I thought it was transformative in a positive way: the internet was a democratising force, a levelling up of the playing field, the opening up of access to information and communities.

In 2017, when I started developing this documentary, I was hearing more and more people talking about being addicted to their phones, the corrosive effects of technology and the unintended consequences, so that’s what I set out to explore. One of the first books I read was Jean Twenge’s iGen which made me curious as to how it was impacting that first generation growing up with smartphones in their pockets and it went from there. 

What did you hope to explore and discover while making the film? 

Initially I was interested in why smartphones were addictive, what were the techniques that were being used to suck us in? That ties directly into psychology and human behaviour, something I’ve always been fascinated by. From there I started to wonder about the people and the power structures that are in place that are intentionally manipulating us and having such a distorting effect on our lives.

Then I became fascinated by this new generation who were really very different from previous generations and much of that difference appeared to be linked to the digital revolution. You put that all together and you end up with the compendium of themes that appear in the film, but they’re all interconnected, and that’s the point: this is a really complex issue that can’t be solved with simple sticking plaster remedies like banning phones in schools, and our only option is to find ways to adapt to survive in this world broken by technology. 

I read a review that praises the empathy your film has for Gen Z. How did your view of Gen Z change during the process of making the film? 

At first I didn’t really appreciate that Millennials and Gen Z were that different. I think today there’s more awareness that they are different, but in 2017 when I started developing the film most people just lumped them together with Millennials and even the term Gen Z wasn’t in common parlance. (Twenge was trying to coin the term iGen for them at that point).

Part of my research involved me spending several hours a day on TikTok as if I were 15 again. I would scroll through it looking out for clips to help tell the story and that’s when I started to appreciate Gen Z’s level of awareness, and realised, “oh, they get it”, and I discovered their brilliant sharp dark sense of humour. In some aspects they are so much more aware of the wider world than when my cohort and I were 15. I’ll give you one example, Zach says in the film, “[technology] makes it a lot easier to spread racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, xenophobic propaganda – things that are just really not good and we don’t want.” The only times I was using words like that when I was his age would have been in a spelling contest.

The greatest revelation for me was the Gen Z spirit. Lucy talks about being on the cusp of Millennials and Gen Z and how she wants to be part of the Gen Z movement because “it’s about accepting everyone and I really do feel that that’s the way Gen Z is going”. Sure, not every Gen Z teen is an activist who champions inclusivity and diversity, but many of them see themselves as the generation whose job it is to fix the world. If older generations had more of the Gen Z spirit we might be in a better place today.

While their astuteness and their inclusiveness were two characteristics I picked up on, I also found some gaps. When I was digging into the privacy theme I found it hard to make a connection with Gen Z on that topic. When it comes to mental health they are so knowledgeable and have a language for it, but finding a language around the privacy issue flummoxed me for a bit and then the penny dropped: they’ve never known what privacy is, so how can they talk about it? From the day they were born, a picture was posted of them on social media and it just carried on from there. I came to see them as a generation from Jeremy Bentham’s theoretical panopticon. Human behaviour changes when you’re under constant surveillance and I think that has in part moulded who Gen Z are and how they act. 

You’re got some fantastic voices contributing to the film, including psychologists and TikTokers. Can you tell us about the collage of voices you wanted to put together in I Am Gen Z? 

I needed the neuroscientist, the psychologists, the political writers and the technologists to help explain some of “the why” behind the issues we were seeing, that’s why they play such an important role in the film, but it was crucial to have the voice of Gen Z in the documentary.

My initial approach was to ask Gen Z questions to try and discover what life was like living in the digital world for them, but in posing the question I was inevitably leading them in a certain direction. It turned out that the most authentic way was to find content they had already created themselves in their own voice, entirely uninfluenced by my questions, hence the hours I spent on social media. So the Gen Z voices that ended up in the film were the ones I stumbled upon that in some way expressed a sentiment that summed up a strand in the film and from that we built a Gen Z ensemble cast. There were of course some clips I was disappointed we couldn’t secure permission to use, but our tireless researchers did a great job of reaching out to a really wide range of people from Gen Z. 

What was the most surprising, or shocking, thing you learned from these voices on the film?

When I was doing my research on TikTok it didn’t take long before the algorithm turned my FYP into “Eating Disorder TikTok” – for those who have yet to venture onto TikTok, the “For You Page” is the equivalent of the Facebook news feed. Every morning I was being served up a diet of exercise and meal plans and stories about eating disorders.

It was frightening too, to see all the conversations around self harm and suicide, and how pervasive and normalised that had become. If you’re a parent who still thinks Tik Tok is just a quaint lip syncing app then spend a few hours on it each day for a week and you’ll pretty quickly realise that that is just a very small – and the least interesting – part of it. 

You once worked for Silicon Valley’s early internet companies, Yahoo!. Could you see any signs of the direction these companies were heading in? 

I touched on that in the answer to the first question, but to embellish that a bit further, I genuinely believe that the people who started the early dot com companies did it with good intentions. I saw the culture at Yahoo! shift in front of my own eyes though.

In 1997 when I joined it was full of misfits and explorers and idealists whose motives were not driven solely by profit but then the NASDAQ went wild, the valuations of these companies went stratospheric, and the Venture Capitalist agenda took over. These dot com startups absolutely needed to grow up as they started to gain traction and influence but, in the case of Yahoo! at least, they wheeled in big business tycoons to run them who just didn’t get it, who didn’t understand the philosophy and the vision of what the internet was meant to be about.

What is your own relationship now to TikTok and other social medias?

It is like a toxic relationship I can’t get out of. If I was just using social media to watch memes and see cat photos posted by my aunt then I’d delete every social media account I have, but the problem is social media is so interconnected with my work that I keep getting drawn back into it. I rely on it to get the word out about my films and shows and podcasts and to connect with collaborators. One of my best friends I met through a digital project that simply could not have happened if social media had not existed. And there’s the rub: it’s not all bad but it is really toxic. 

One of the soundbites in the trailer described Gen Z as the ‘guinea pig generation.’ What are your biggest fears about the ramifications of this digital revolution? 

There are a lot of them and that’s why the film is 100 minutes long so I won’t reel them all off here. However, I will say that making this film has led me to the topic of my next film which is all about the decline of the liberal democratic ideal and the rise of irrationalism, extremist ideologies and fascism. This is being fuelled by the digital revolution and is taking us on a really dangerous path. The momentum and the power of these social media companies makes it hard to imagine their influence waning in any way. 

Do you have any optimism for the future or is it too late?

I think it is going to require a lot of hard work from a lot of people collectively to do anything about this. I am curious to see whether The Facebook Files and Frances Haughen’s speech to The Senate will have any meaningful effect or if, in a couple of week’s time, it will have all blown over and been forgotten about. 

What are your hopes for I Am Gen Z at Raindance Film Festival and beyond?

As an indie documentary filmmaker working in a country that still has a free press I am in a really privileged position to have the freedom to be able to make a truly independent film. For sure, it is made through the lens of my own world view, it’s impossible to avoid that, but it isn’t influenced by interested parties or by what a media outlet’s agenda is. You hope that broadcasters will want to acquire it once it is made but while you are making it you are unencumbered in that regard.

Now that the film has been made I want to get it onto the radar of as many people as possible because collective awareness and collective action is the only way we’ve got half a chance of even making a small impact into fixing some of these issues. When it comes to distribution though the benefit of being an independent goes away because it is harder to cut through.

I am really grateful to Raindance, and the other festivals, for getting behind this film because that helps it cut through and with increased visibility it is more likely to get picked up by channels and platforms who can distribute it to a wider audience. We’re already getting interest from schools and educational institutions who are using the film as a teaching tool and that is great. I am glad I didn’t make it thinking it would become a teaching tool because I think I would have held back on putting some of the tougher subject matter in there had I known.

There’s so much information packed into this film so it doesn’t matter if viewers aren’t able to recall every single strand, but if it pulls some heads out of the sand, if it creates awareness of how massive an issue this is, if it enables conversations between parents, educators and children about some difficult topics then it has been worth the effort.

See I Am Gen Z at the Raindance Film Festival

Find out more about I Am Gen Z

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