A generation just starting to spread its wings is finding those wings clipped.

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Top: Xiaoyu, 16, studying from home in Beijing. Left: Giorgi, 13, entertaining himself in Georgia. Images courtesy of Unicef.
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Daniela, 13, doing schoolwork in El Salvador.

Teens and young adults are home, cut off from friends and teachers and learning remotely. Exams have been cancelled. Parents’ incomes have shrunk. They can’t visit grandma. First jobs are tenuous.

When Unicef ran a series of recent polls to check the pulse of young people, the UN organization found varying levels of anxiety.

“For a lot of respondents, the big concern is not knowing when things go back to normal,” Roshni Basu, Regional Advisor, Adolescent Development & Participation for Unicef in East Asia and the Pacific told Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. “They are feeling a sense of anxiety about the future. A lot of the feedback is also about not having enough to do at home.”

But while the pandemic is throwing their future into question, it is also spurring a wave of online camaraderie and creativity among the digital natives of gen Z.

“There is a real sense of peer support that gets heightened in times of crisis,” said Basu. “Gen Z is really coming together and there is a lot of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit and a surge of creativity” through social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok.

High Anxiety

The anxiety is shared around the globe as COVID-19 moves west. The US now leads the world in the number of deaths and infections.

A Wunderman Thompson Data report on pandemic attitudes found younger Americans significantly more anxious than older Americans.

It’s not COVID-19 specifically that’s driving their anxiety, but the implications for their future—job prospects, cost of living and so on. Among those aged 18 to 24 surveyed between March 20 and 23, 2020, there were more than 10 times more who were anxious than those not anxious.

For one thing, younger workers are more likely to lose their jobs if businesses go under.

According to the Pew Research Center, nearly half of the 19.3 million workers in America aged 16 to 24 work in the service sector. In areas with more serious outbreaks, these are the businesses in most danger of closure.

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In late March 2020, when the Associated Press asked young people from around the world to film their lives under lockdown using a smartphone, they recorded stories of despair, loneliness and hope.

Michaela, a 16-year-old isolated in her room in California with a fever, described her hopelessness at hearing leaders describe the crisis as lives versus the economy: “It makes me so apathetic. It makes me so unmotivated to do anything, including school.”

Advocacy ramps up

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Free Hong Kong protests in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Courtesy of Twitter.

Others are galvanized by the crisis.

As Wunderman Thompson Intelligence documented in our February report “Gen Z: APAC,” this is a connected, engaged generation that wants to change the world, using the technology tools at their disposal. That applies to issues of climate change, gender and politics. And it applies now to COVID-19.

In China, the National Youth League is working with Unicef to provide social and emotional support for adolescents and children through e-posters, FAQs and an online helpline, reaching 11 million adolescents. The campaign includes an online program promoting physical exercise at home on the video-sharing platform Kuaishou.

In Mongolia, Unicef is working with youth volunteers from the Scouts Association to promote online messages on handwashing, wearing masks and other ways to stay safe in the pandemic. And in Malaysia, a youth-run mental health advocacy called MindaKami—Malay for “our minds”—is working hard to make sure young people continue to have access to psychiatric and other support while the country is in lockdown.

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Free Hong Kong protests in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Courtesy of Twitter.

In Hong Kong, pro-democracy activists who can no longer go on the street have taken their fight on to social media games such as Nintendo’s current smash hit, “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.” There, they fly to their own cute island and do things like throw parties, fish and whack pictures of Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam amid decorations of pro-democracy banners.

Fridays for Future, which helps organize the weekly student climate strikes pioneered by Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg, is urging activists to email politicians instead, and to strike on social media. Thunberg herself has reported coronavirus-like symptoms and is urging followers to post pictures of themselves with placards from home.

As for Earth Day celebrations later this month, they will go online with a 72-hour live-steamed “digital march” of speeches and music.

“Our generation was built for this,” Stephen O’Hanlon, a co-founder of the youth-led, US-based Sunrise Movement fighting climate change, told the Washington Post. “We’ve spent our entire lives online.”

Youth Brands Retool

Youth-oriented brands are also tailoring their content and products for the times.

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Biti's Canvas of Pride sneakers

Biti’s, a Vietnamese footwear brand, has introduced a line of sneakers decorated with comic strips showing heroes of the pandemic—doctors, food delivery riders, pilots, students at home—with the tagline “Vietnamese Canvas of Pride.”

In Australia, Junkee Media, a digital media company with a pop culture focus, rebranded its travel title AWOL to “Activities Without Leaving”—providing advice on exercising indoors, cooking, learning Photoshop or picking up a new language.

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Dr. Darien answers COVID-19 related questions on MTV News

MTV News in the US has also bumped up its COVID-19 related coverage.  One video series features an ER physician, Dr Darien, answering questions from followers of MTV News’ Instagram account.

Question: “How do I look after my mental health while indoors?” Answer: “Wake up with a plan. Make your bed. Shower.” Question: “Can I go on my Tinder date?” Answer: “Postpone it” since “obviously, Tinder dates can end in a lot of…access to transmission.”

At this time of both heightened anxiety and copious free time, gen Z is living online more than ever, not only for escapism but also as a way to learn, connect and advocate.

Main image courtesy of Associated Press