Communicating with Generation Z
Since March 2020, children and young people have been particularly affected by Covid-19 disruptions to their schooling, support services, healthcare provision and community groups. In autumn 2020, serious concerns were raised by Anne Oldfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, that vulnerable members of Generation Z (aged 11-23), were at risk of become a ‘lost generation’.
Latest research from the Office for the Children’s Commissioner (2021) has shown hidden patterns of child abuse during the pandemic; concerns have been raised repeatedly about the impact of social isolation on their mental health. For some young people, lockdowns and restrictions have resulted in increased domestic abuse, violence, and prejudice. This includes LGBT youth and young girls at greater risk from female genital mutilation (FGM).
The UK Government’s work to support young people during Covid-19 has included two campaigns: Something’s Not Right and You Are Not Alone. Something’s Not Right was released in November 2020 with a target audience of 13+. You Are Not Alone was released in April 2020 to support victims of domestic abuse of all ages, advising that refuge and support remained available despite Covid-19.
As linguists with research expertise in gender and sexuality, we were concerned that key messages targeted at members of Generation Z were not being delivered in the most effective ways. There has already been much criticism of the UK Government regarding their Covid-19 communication strategies relating to ambiguity, confusion and mixed-messages. We therefore wanted to investigate how effective these campaigns were in supporting vulnerable young people. We conducted linguistic analysis of both campaigns, surveyed those within the Generation Z age-group to gain their perspectives and conducted interviews with professionals working in young people’s services. Our survey ran for a month from 3 February 2021; 324 young people from a number of regions responded.
Key headlines from our findings include the Something’s Not Right campaign using language stereotypically associated with the speech of younger people, including language completely irrelevant to the campaign’s message (e.g., ‘on fleek’, ‘slay’). 79% of survey respondents evaluated the campaign language negatively – more than half described the language as ‘inauthentic’. As one respondent put it, “Young people would likely see this as older people trying (and failing) to relate to them which in itself most would find cringy”. ‘Cringy’ was the most frequently used adjective in the survey responses, revealing that the effort to be “down with the kids” by using irrelevant words from “teen slang” (as our respondents put it) detracts significantly from the intended message. Examples of how this language was used in animated gifs on social media below.
Another finding related to hashtags. Whilst both campaigns used them (#somethingsnotright and #youarenotalone), we found that these linguistic choices were too generic to be of practical use. Rather than users clicking the hashtag on social media and finding links to sources of support, they are used widely by businesses, organisations, and everyday users for a wide range of purposes, as shown below for #youarenotalone. These hashtags are a missed opportunity to communicate and connect with those at risk.
The survey also showed that both campaigns were not reaching their target audience; only 5% of survey participants had heard of Something’s Not Right and only 8% were aware of You Are Not Alone.
Furthermore, whilst evidence shows that LGBT+ youth have been twice as likely during the pandemic to consider suicide, and that the pandemic has led to elevated rates of FGM internationally, these issues are not mentioned at all in these or any other Government Covid-19 campaigns. We interviewed several professionals working to safeguard LGBT+ young people, girls at risk of FGM, and those working to eradicate violence in the lives of all young people – they were all unaware of Something’s Not Right and You Are Not Alone. They reported receiving no direct guidance from the Government, with youth work being omitted from official guidance on safe practice. Instead, these professionals have worked within existing networks and designed their own approaches to make information and support available (see our project report for a detailed summary).
In response to our findings, we have created a practical Communications Toolkit for Generation Z, designed to assist government agencies, charitable organisations, NGOs, local government and educational authorities in best communicating sources of support and help for young people in future. Key recommendations include:
> Avoiding the adoption of ‘teen slang’ – this is unrelatable and ultimately has a negative effect
> Using simple, language and avoiding vague language – this is crucial for effective delivery of campaign messages
> Using authoritative, non-patronising language for campaigns to appear credible
> Ensuring key pieces of further information are easy to find, e.g., contact numbers for reporting abuse, clear information about where to get help etc.
> Providing alternative sources for those young people who do not have regular/unrestricted access to internet technology
> Using hashtags which are specific, not generic, to avoid confusion of campaign messages and to enable the creation of online communities of support
> Using imagery directly relevant to the overall message of the campaign to avoid ambiguity and confusion
> Avoiding out-of-context emojis, which cause confusion and undermine a campaign effectiveness
> Ensuring those from minority groups, including young people from different heritages and cultures and LGBT+ are not forgotten
> Ensuring a much broader reach for any national communications campaigns for young people
This toolkit should be used to avoid the communication pitfalls of previous campaigns, including the development of a more inclusive approach for all young people in society. This is essential to ensure that every member of Generation Z gets the help and support they need rapidly and effectively, so that unnecessary suffering, violence and abuse can be addressed. It is critical that as many young people as possible do not become part of a lost generation due to Covid-19.
Professor Louise Mullany and Dr Lucy Jones are sociolinguists based in the School of English.
This research was assisted by Dr Victoria Howard and Dr Tristan Emerson as Post-Doctoral Research Fellows, School of English.