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Gen Z would seem like a generation meant for quarantine. After all, they told us in a study three years ago that they saw little distinction between friendships in the digital world versus the real world. All forms of interaction, whether sleepovers or Xbox marathons, blended together.More than three months into the unprecedented era of self isolation and social distancing, does Gen Z still view digital and in-person interactions as being one and the same?No. As it turns out, Gen Zers miss their friends in the real world.In gathering responses from more than 400 Gen Zers and talking to a dozen more, there was a distinct shift from three years ago in their perceptions of what it means to be a friend. Although digital platforms make it easy to see and talk with someone through a screen, Gen Z said that digital connections simply don’t scratch the social itch that in-person interactions offer. Although digital platforms make it easy to see and talk with someone through a screen, Gen Z said that digital connections simply don’t scratch the social itch that in-person interactions offer. The little moments together matterA majority of Gen Zers (76%) said spending time together is an indicator of a strong friendship, up from 70% from our study three years ago. They miss the little moments like conversations in the hallway, at practice or at the lunch table as something they “took for granted.”One Gen Zer put it perfectly: “When we come out of this, I feel like it’s going to be a lot more hanging out and putting our phones down and connecting.”Gen Z feeds on others’ energyGen Zers are now acutely aware of what they described as actual, tangible energy they felt from being in the presence of others. While it’s tough to put that feeling into words, Gen Z knows it when they feel it or don’t feel it. And they believe that energy isn’t digital.One respondent told us that “In real life, if there’s a little lull in the conversation, it’s fine. … We don’t even notice it. But when we’re talking via FaceTime, we feel a need to fill every little moment with conversation.”Other respondents told us that connecting via FaceTime feels “kind of like you’re in a meeting,” because of the dead air and the fact that it requires both people to put it on their schedules. The strength of relationships is taking a toll due to this lack of literal chemistry. In fact, about one in four Gen Zers (28%) said their friendships have become less strong since the beginning of the pandemic.Missing the pointNonverbal cues play a critical role in communicating, even among close friends. Without gestures and nuance, Gen Z finds it more difficult to communicate, especially outside of video chat. In fact, when it comes to having the most lifelike interactions, Gen Z has a very clear hierarchy of digital tools, ranging from the least communicative to the most: text, call, FaceTime. FaceTime is used among the closest of friends, while texting is more likely to be a go-to source when communicating with acquaintances.All forms of digital communication have increased since we measured it three years ago. Calling each other on the phone as an indicator of strong friendship increased from 39% to 57%, but one of the most interesting increases in usage is texting, which jumped from 57% to 72%. It suggests that many Gen Zers are not only making an effort to maintain their closest friendships, but their acquaintances as well.Impacts are nuanced based on genderWhile everyone misses their friends, boys seem to have taken the shift more in stride, and girls are more eager to see their friends in person. And both genders agreed about this. One female respondent said of her boyfriend, “He hasn’t changed at all. … He still plays Xbox with his friends and uses that as his way of staying in touch.”Female respondents, on the other hand, talked about feeling like their worlds have been turned upside down by not being able to see their friends. “I miss that sense of normalcy. … Nothing feels the same.” One female respondent who can go on bike rides with one of her neighborhood friends said, “Yeah, we can get on our bikes are ride around the block, but there’s never a destination. I can’t wait until there’s a destination.”Hangouts, hugs and laughs“Hanging out,” “hugs,” and “laughing together” were three of the most commonly cited elements of friendship that Gen Z misses from not being able to be in the presence of one another. While hanging out and hugs are tough to do in the era of social distancing, laughing together is definitely permitted, so would Gen Z say they miss it? After all, they can still get their group of friends together on FaceTime or Zoom. Nearly half of the Gen Z respondents (45%) talked about the lack of energy that flows between friends while on video chat, which makes it harder to generate a truly deep laugh.It’s still unclear if young people will go back to school in person this fall, meaning these feelings of isolation  could last longer than expected. As marketers, it would feel wrong to capitalize on these feelings of fear. Instead, we should view it as our duty to facilitate the connectedness that helps young people thrive and develop resilience in difficult situations. So, rather than merely inserting brand messages into Gen Z’s conversations, let’s make our digital channels work as hard as possible to build and strengthen the communities Gen Z gravitates toward and help keep relationships strong.Once this is all over, Gen Z, along with the rest of us, deserves a good hangout session filled with hugs and laughs.



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