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Leadership In A Digital Age



Technology is not a purely twenty-first century phenomenon but has affected every generation in history. The word technology is “from the Greek tekhnologia … originally referring to grammar” and was developed by combining “tekhnē ‘art, skill, craft in work’” and logia, “a speaking, discourse, treatise, doctrine, theory, science.”[1] Tekhnologia therefore refers to the “systematic treatment of an art, craft, or technique.”[2] Although technology has historically been viewed as a tool to enhance the human experience, technology’s systematic reshaping of human life and discourse now reflects the word’s etymology.


Regarding the human relationship with technology, MIT Professor Sherry Turkle emphatically concludes that “we bend to the inanimate with new solicitude. We fear the risks and disappointments of relationships with our fellow humans. We expect more from technology and less from each other.”[3] David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock come to a similar conclusion in naming the current culture “digital Babylon,”[4] the place of “accelerated, complex culture that is marked by phenomenal access, profound alienation, and a crisis of authority.”[5]


The diminution of relational connection is seen in how younger people approach the sharing of their faith. Fifty-eight percent say, “Technology and digital interactions make me more careful about how and when I share my faith.”[6] Sixty-one percent say that people today “are more likely” to take offense at such sharing.[7] In addition, two-thirds report “that people nowadays are so busy with their screens that they ‘are more likely to avoid real spiritual conversations’ (64 percent).”[8]


Digital Babylon has produced a kind of “digital colonization” by which screens distract and also disciple.[9] In under a second, online search engines can provide information pertaining to the most trivial matters or to life’s deepest questions. The data deluge often amounts to what Quentin J. Schultze calls “endless volleys of nonsense, folly, and rumor masquerading as knowledge, wisdom, and even truth.”[10] White concurs, writing, “Generation Z faces a widening chasm between wisdom and information.”[11] Tim Elmore goes a step further, describing the “artificial maturity” that results “when young people are exposed to a lot of (knowledge) but are not emotionally ready for it (application).”[12]


The technology and digital connectedness now embedded in the culture will only accelerate. The opportunity/challenge for leaders in digital Babylon is to reach the emerging generation online without forsaking vital off-line interactions.

Growing up in an always “on,” instant-driven, and globally connected culture is taking a toll on Gen Z’s mental health. In one study of college-age students from 2007 to 2018, the “rates of depression, anxiety, nonsuicidal self-injury, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts” doubled in some cases and dramatically increased across the board.[13] Similar struggles affect Gen Zers in other-than-school settings, with 75 percent reporting that mental health issues caused them to leave their workplaces (as opposed to 20 percent of the general population).[14]


With global research confirming their mental anguish, it seems clear that young people are struggling emotionally and psychologically. Barna Research found that “anxiety about important decisions is widespread (40%), as well as uncertainty about the future (40%), a fear of failure (40%) and a pressure to be successful (36%).”[15] Barna’s study did not address diagnoses but found that “nearly three in 10 overall (28%) call themselves sad or depressed.”[16] Barna adds that “on average, one in five 18–35-year-olds around the globe identifies with feelings related to anxiety—specifically, they report feeling at least three of the four following emotions: anxiety about important decisions, sadness or depression, fear of failure and insecurity in themselves.”[17]


More than any generation to date, Gen Z is concerned about the global events that cause them to experience unprecedented levels of anxiety. Issues from immigration to mass shootings tend to top their list.[18] Even as Gen Z is trending to become one of the most educated generations in history, and among the most entrepreneurial,[19] their experiences during the 2008 Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic fuel their concerns about financial safety. The American Psychology Association reports that a staggering 81 percent of Gen Zers report being stressed over money.[20]


As young people mature and become increasingly cognizant of adult responsibilities, they become more anxious about the future and the pressures attached to fulfilling their dreams. Their mental anguish is exacerbated by their dependence on technology and the virtual connectivity it offers. In his book, Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport describes how technology companies intentionally design addictive apps that produce predictable behavioral outcomes.[21] This is particularly true of social media enterprises.


So, is scrolling harmful to mental health? The answer seems to be yes. The Mayo Clinic summarizes the deleterious effects of social media:


A 2019 study of more than 6,500 12- to 15-year-olds in the U.S. found that those who spent more than three hours a day using social media might be at heightened risk for mental health problems. Another 2019 study of more than 12,000 13- to 16-year-olds in England found that using social media more than three times a day predicted poor mental health and well-being in teens. Other studies also have observed links between high levels of social media use and depression or anxiety symptoms. A 2016 study of more than 450 teens found that greater social media use, nighttime social media use and emotional investment in social media—such as feeling upset when prevented from logging on—were each linked with worse sleep quality and higher levels of anxiety and depression.[22]

As has already been stated, technology is systematically reshaping our way of life. The Mayo data indicate specific impacts to health and, therefore, quality of life. Because these and other factors are dramatically impacting Gen Z, understanding and managing emotional states is one of this generation’s pressing needs. Critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence must be developed to keep “emotional reasoning”—the assumption “that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: [as in] ‘I feel it, therefore it must be true’”[23]—from overrunning Gen Z’s thought processes.


One need not be a psychologist or certified emotional intelligence coach to understand that emotional reasoning is not always true. Increasingly, however, this kind of thinking is normative for young people. Therefore, it is imperative for parents, leaders, and pastors to (1) understand how emotions work, and (2) take the time to teach young people how best to manage their emotions so that their emotions do not master them.


Leaders would do well to develop skills in the field of emotional intelligence, so they can help the next generation deal with often overwhelming anxiety and mental anguish.

Every generation forms its identity by navigating the challenges it faces. At the same time, every human being yearns to answer the existential question, “Who am I?” Helping people to answer this question requires not only compassion but an understanding of identity. For Francis Fukuyama, the modern view of identity is comprised of three parts: 1) the idea that humans possess an innate longing for social recognition, 2) the belief that the inner self has greater value than society, and 3) a concept of universal dignity that sees all people as deserving of basic recognition.[24]


Identity formation is inseparable from narrative. Jordan Peterson addresses the idea of myth (or narrative), asserting that it shapes human reality and creates social actions, from which language evolves and meaning is derived.[25] The question that must be answered in regard to Gen Z is “What narrative are their leaders and other adults suggesting for them?”


At least in part, the answer depends upon what the older group is experiencing. Elmore and Peak assert that a majority of adults are “overwhelmed” by the high-tech culture and are “over-functioning” in order “to control [the] lives and outcomes” of their Gen Z offspring.[26] This is not surprising, as adolescent and young adult Gen Zers certainly face paradigms that previous generations did not encounter. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff add that the problems students and young people face are not “minor or ‘all in their heads.’”[27] They further explain that “what people choose to do in their heads will determine how those real problems affect them.”[28]


Going forward, leaders need to offer narratives and approaches that speak to real problems, with the intent of developing real solutions.

Recommend Resources

Steven J. Stein: The Student EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Academic and Personal Success.


Tim Elmore: Generation Z Unfiltered: Facing Nine Hidden Challenges of the Most Anxious Population.

*Blog is adapted from Dr. Mario Hood's Dissertation entitled Engaging Gen Z: Towards A Paracletic Leadership Framework.



Footnotes [1] Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “technology,” accessed August 4, 2020, https://www.etymonline.com/word/technology. [2] Ibid. [3] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), xii. [4] Kinnaman, Faith for Exiles, 19. [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid., 27 [7] Ibid. [8] Ibid. [9] Ibid., 25. [10] Quentin J. Schultze, Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2004), 21. [11] White, Meet Generation Z, chap. 2. [12] Tim Elmore, “A Virtual Approach to Social and Emotional Learning,” April 22, 2020, live webcast and video recording, https://register.gotowebinar.com/recording/viewRecording/7632909082287026445/7440704554344846604/. Field research conducted through Portland Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry coursework included this webinar by Tim Elmore and the exchange of questions via phone and email in March 2018 (as noted in DMin726 Field Report transcript). [13] Mary E. Duffy, Jean M. Twenge, and Thomas E. Joiner, “Trends in Mood and Anxiety Symptoms and Suicide-Related Outcomes Among U.S. Undergraduates, 2007–2018: Evidence from Two National Surveys,” Journal of Adolescent Health 65, no. 5 (2019): 596, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2019.04.033. [14] Geoff McMaster, “Millennials and Gen Z Are More Anxious than Previous Generations: Here’s Why,” Folio, January 28, 2020, https://www.folio.ca/millennials-and-gen-z-are-more-anxious-than-previous-generations-heres-why/. [15] Barna Research, Connected Generation, 49. [16] Ibid. [17] Ibid., 52. [18] Sophie Bethune, “Gen Z More Likely to Report Mental Health Concerns,” American Psychological Society Monitor on Psychology, January 2019, https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/01/gen-z. [19] Parker and Igielnik, “Cusp of Adulthood”; Entrepreneur Staff, “41 Percent of Gen Z-ers Plan to Become Entrepreneurs (Infographic),” Entrepreneur, January 15, 2019, https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/326354. [20] American Psychological Association, Stress in America: Generation Z, Stress in America™ Survey (American Psychological Association, 2018), 5, https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2018/stress-gen-z.pdf. The study also notes, “Nearly two in three Gen Zs ages 15 to 17 (63 percent) report their families not having enough money is a significant source of stress. For more than three in 10 Gen Zs, personal debt (33 percent) and housing instability (31 percent) are a significant source of stress, while nearly three in 10 (28 percent) cite hunger or getting enough to eat.” Ibid. [21] Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019), 14–16. [22] Mayo Clinic Staff, “Teens and Social Media Use: What’s the Impact?” Mayo Clinic, December 21, 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/tween-and-teen-health/in-depth/teens-and-social-media-use/art-20474437. [23] David D. Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (New York: Harper Collins-Quill, 2000), 42. See also, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” Atlantic, September 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/. [24] Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018). This is my abbreviated summary of Fukuyama’s view of identity. [25] Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (New York: Psychology Press, 1999), 38–59. [26] Elmore and McPeak, Generation Z Unfiltered, chap. 1. [27] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018), 14. [28] Ibid.