Tech-fuelled zombies or a politically-minded workforce in waiting? Young people’s natural affinity with tech suggests Generation Z will take the latter path, and they might just solve some of the world’s problems along the way

“It’s hard to remember a world without technology,” says Russell Forrest, 16, a student at St Thomas the Apostle College, in Peckham, south London. “It’s weird to imagine one without smartphones; my generation uses mobile phones like personal computers. We can do almost anything.”

Forrest is one of the UK’s ‘bright young things’ when it comes to digital technology, and one who appears destined to help plug the country’s yawning skills gap. His award-winning ‘History Hunter’ app teaches world history via a video game mechanic and playable characters that travel through time. Players earn points and ‘level-ups’ for, effectively, paying attention in class.

The game was prototyped by undergraduates at the University of Cambridge, and went on to win an award at the House of Commons. Between school and exams, Forrest is developing his own social network application, like a hyper-local version of Facebook. “The experience has given me confidence to think that anything is possible,” he says.

Born digital

Anything? Can today’s youth really make the world greener, fairer and better with code? Much is made of their slave-like relationship with technology today, and the passivity it induces, but fresh initiatives suggest considerable hope should be placed with ‘Generation Z’, born ‘digital’, and just now coming of age.

After all, teenagers have always gone under the shadow of such dismissive generalisations, and today’s ‘digital natives’, many of whom learned to use a touchscreen before they learned to walk, might just be able to make technology deliver emphatically on its promise as a force of good.

Author and former school teacher Chloe Combi knows them better than most. Her widely acclaimed book ‘Generation Z’ sought to get inside their febrile minds by interviewing a thorough cross-section of the UK’s angst-ridden teenage protagonists.

“This is first generation that’s grown up never knowing a world without technology – in terms of internet access, mobile phones, social media and so on,” she says.

“That’s really influenced how they are. It’s part of their identity. Previous generations had to go out to be connected; this generation don’t have to leave their bedrooms. In some ways, they are the most socialised generation of all, and in some ways the most isolated. For teenagers today, it’s so important – to the point it’s not something they do, but something they are,” she says.

Combi worries for their lack of engagement with ‘real world’ issues, but says technology will also afford their generation a way to ‘kick against the pricks’, and a platform to reimagine the world.

“It’s probably easier to imagine the Sex Pistols was the spirit of rebellion, and Facebook wasn’t. But that’s wrong. Technology is every bit as rebellious. This generation will attempt to make the world fresh, and reinterpret it in its way, and technology will help break down barriers and create opportunities,” she says.

Digital footprint

In the US, or at least parts of it, Generation Z has a slightly different profile, it seems. Lance Shields runs a design firm, iiD, in the Bay Area around San Francisco, which has carved a niche by developing technology solutions for young Americans, including a number of anti-bullying apps for non-profit organisations Futures without Violence and The Advertising Council.

They’re more private with their social media. They’re self conscious, as teenagers, of course. But there’s more to it.

Shields reckons the general assumption about tech-mad kids – “that they’re just beginner-‘Millennials’, without credit cards” – is wrongheaded, and that their traits and ideals should be better regarded.

Generation Z has its own footprint, he says; its members lead distinctive digital lives. Facebook and Twitter are out, for instance; instead, Instagram and YouTube are the go-to applications, along with fresher brands like musical.ly, a teen phenomenon in the US that allows users to share karaoke-style music videos.

“They’re more private with their social media. They’re self conscious, as teenagers, of course. But there’s more to it. Unlike the previous generation, which grew up in relative comfort and thought it all so easy, they’ve grown up in a global recession. They’re more pragmatic, realistic and hard pressed – and that feeds into their self-image.”

Self-censorship of digital content among teens is high; they are more inclined to delete Instagram photos that aren’t remarked upon or praised, for example, and tend to curate a limited profile that projects a highly managed public brand. “Even though they’re posting ‘selfies’, the whole concept is quite problematic because they’re very sensitive to criticism,” says Shields.

Whatever their caution, one thing’s for sure: they’re a data-hungry lot. Generation Z feeds off visual media, and especially video. Shields recounts a friend’s daughter used all her family’s monthly data allowance in a single weekend. “They’re not reading as much, their attention spans are shorter, and they want content that grabs the attention. It requires a lot of bandwidth.”

Technology firm Huawei is one of those providing the infrastructure and devices to carry this surge in data traffic. Adam Lane, Director of Sustainability Programmes at Huawei, remarks: “For today’s young people, the internet can be the gateway to learning about the world, connecting to like-minded people, organising to take action, and working out how to use technology to make the world a better place.”

But he echoes Combi’s earlier concern, and wonders if the bottomless entertainment technology affords in fact distracts young people from engaging with the world. “Are 90 per cent of kids using technology for gaming and social media, and actually becoming less aware of the world and less willing to change it?” he asks.

“The other 10 per cent are doing incredible things with technology and we must strive to make sure technology does not become a distraction, and instead a tool for change. Can we as a society better use technology to engage, empower, and enable more young people to improve their own lives and the lives of others?”

Young coders

It’s an important question, and one that is indirectly addressed by certain initiatives to provide kids the know-how to manipulate technology, and use it in real-life problem solving.

The UK computer science curriculum changed in 2014 to include coding for kids as young as five. London-based games developer Kuato Studios was quick to see the opportunity; it suggests that, if anything, the old ICT programme in schools fostered a passive relationship with technology.

On the contrary, its Code Warriors application is a grass roots coding game that teaches children as young as eight to animate giant robots in JavaScript and do battle with their peers. “You put it in front of kids and they’re straight in there,” says David Miller, director of education at Kuato Studios.

“They don’t need much hand-holding. Children have a natural affinity for games, so if you can cleverly embed learning into it, then you're on to a winner.”

Code Warriors is being used in over 220 schools in the UK and US. Ironically, given its signature can-do attitude and leadership of digital industry, the US is trailing the UK in terms of giving young people the tools to shape technology from the inside.

The key difference is that computer programming is mapped to the UK curriculum; teachers can track students’ progress against the syllabus on a web dashboard.

By contrast, the US lacks consistency. A number of states don't have the provision to teach computer science at all, says Miller, and aspiring young coders remain largely reliant on extra-curricular initiatives such as code.org and Khan Academy.

That is about to change. In January, President Obama pledged $4 billion of funding for computer science in US classrooms, and invited initiatives from trailblazers like Kuato Studios.

Still, Miller says the UK’s drive to bring digital know-how to kids will create balance in the international skills market. “The UK might have stolen a march in terms of teaching computer technology, whereas the US retains the entrepreneurial instinct, perhaps, to do something with it,” he says.

“But the culture will change in the UK as computer science becomes more embedded in the curriculum and kids move from being consumers to creators, and thinking about how to solve real world problems with digital technology.”

Creative thinking

Code Club, a network of volunteer-led after school coding clubs for children aged 9-11, has a similar outlook. Founded in the UK, and working primarily with MIT’s Scratch programming language, it now operators in 80 different countries, with 400 individual clubs in Australia and 350 in Brazil.

Chief executive Clare Sutcliffe says “99 per cent” of its UK coding clubs are over-subscribed. “It is a good problem to have, but it is a problem,” she says.

She explains: “We encourage children to think creatively. Finding solutions with code is all about breaking problems down into smaller challenges, and responding to each of them in turn. What I hope is we’re creating a large group of kids that know how to solve problems. And the human race faces many, many problems, and I hope that those children will be able to take them on.”

Does she have the next Mark Zuckerberg in her midst? “It’s not helpful to set such expectations,” she says. “It’s more helpful to think children will be exposed to vital new opportunities and think, well, actually, I’d like to become a data scientist, or create digital music.”

The message is getting through, it seems, as interested Generation Z-ers set their sights on new digital horizons. “When I grow up I want to be a games programmer, or a detective,” says Art, aged nine, a pupil at Holbrook Primary School in rural Suffolk.

Holbrook has taken the new UK computer science curriculum, and run with it. The school’s Robo Club meets weekly to design, build and programme robots. Holbrook is the current UK champion in the CoSpace Rescue Simulation league and the RoboDance League, and represented Great Britain at RoboCup 2014 in Brazil, where it finished fourth.

Its pupils have all manner of technological wizardry at their fingertips, including a variety of devices, software and programmes. Ivan, a year 5 student, has just written a computer programme in Scratch to solve his half-term maths homework (“find three numbers that sum to 20 and product to 90”).

Children as young as four are learning to manipulate the school’s 3D printer, funded in part thanks to a grant from the European Space Agency. It rather sounds like a version of kids in sweet shops for the digital age. Except, to address Lane’s earlier point, they are engaged, and attempting to solve real-world challenges.

Real-world solutions

Holbrook is aligned with British astronaut Major Tim Peake’s mission in space, where he will be studied to understand the impact of long-term space flight on the human body, including loss of muscle mass, brittle bones and immune system dysfunction. Another side effect is irritation of the lungs, and it is hoped his work will benefit some 300 million asthma sufferers.

The school has Skyped Major Peake at the International Space Station; its enthusiastic band of pint-sized data scientists and computer programmers are now using the school’s 3D printer to design a new asthma inhaler, which improves on the inefficient design so tragically familiar to today’s young people themselves.

“If our children can be taught to use technology to solve problems, then they’ll be tremendous assets in the workplace – aware of how technology can help society, and able to improve the technology to solve new challenges,” says their teacher, Richard Williams.

Is he ever surprised by their aptitude, and enthusiasm? Of course not. “From their point of view, it’s just another subject. There’s very little difference between making something with a 3D printer and making something from clay. It’s a part of the same world.”

For this generation, coding will become a second language, just like English, French or German. Meanwhile 3D printing could become as much a part of everyday life as traditional 2D printing.

With this in mind, governments and policy makers need to create the right learning environments for young people so that they can continue to innovative with technology for the greater good.