How to Encourage Healthy Vulnerability in the Most Private Generation

I spoke to a college freshman who is among a growing number of students who are getting off of social media. Yes—you read that correctly. She’s done with it. When I asked her reasons why, she confided in me, “I’m just tired of getting requests from people I don’t even know. I guess I am getting more…” She paused, then continued. “More private.”

Generation Z learned much from the Millennial generation before them. Because Millennials were the first generation of adolescents to experience social media, they were the guinea pigs to all its benefits and consequences. One of the many penalties of social media platforms is its allure for users to crave followers, likes, shares, views, and retweets. In their appetite for all of those, Millennials fell prey to stalkers, bullies, predators and even employers who saw their posts on Instagram or Facebook before the job interview and chose not to hire them because of those posts.

In response, Generation Z is more secretive than previous generations. According to Global Web Index, Gen Z is more private than Millennials about their information and profile and nearly 6 in 10 is making a conscious effort to spend less time on sites. They are more individualistic and independent, with a majority preferring to learn alone and be alone than the past generation of kids. They’re prone to share a vanishing message (like Snapchat) than older generations. They’ll have an Instagram profile but may have several “Finsta” (fake Instagram) profiles with loads of content, photos, videos and comments they’ll never share with adults.

We all agree, learning to be private on social media is a good thing. But allowing that to hinder appropriate vulnerability off-line is an entirely different thing they must “unlearn.”

What’s Trending Today with Students

Today’s adolescents tend to fall into one of two extremes, as their brain matures. They either share too much (becoming too vulnerable), or they become afraid of being vulnerable at all, having been burned by their past transparency. They may fear taking future risks.

But—taking risks is usually how we grow. We must help them to be appropriately vulnerable.

Let me share a case study with you and outline the simple steps I learned to take with students. I met Rich while working with San Diego State University students. He was soft-spoken, even quiet, and didn’t say much unless you asked him a question. When he did speak up, however, I noticed he was very natural and winsome with peers. I felt he could lead one of our study groups, so I approached him and asked him to do so. It didn’t go well. He told me he was an introvert; he felt intimidated by social situations and couldn’t see himself leading anything.

But I knew he could do it. Rich just feared becoming vulnerable.

So, after a week, I approached Rich again and said, “I know you don’t want to lead a learning community, but would you consider being part of one?” Rich paused, looking at the ground, and again expressed his reservation about social situations. I assured him he didn’t need to say a thing, but I knew he’d benefit from such an experience. Fortunately, Rich took the plunge.

After a semester, I asked Rich how it was going. He smiled and replied he’d made some great friends and was so glad to be part of the group.

At that, I took another step, saying, “Rich, I know you don’t want to lead a group, but would you at least consider taking another step? I have a group that needs an apprentice. He looked puzzled. I explained that an apprentice is simply a helper who makes sure to message everyone in the group about the time and place to meet and to assign someone to bring snacks.

Rich replied, “Oh, I guess I could do that.”

That spring semester, Rich served as an apprentice brilliantly. In fact, twice the group leader was out of town and unable to host the group. Guess who was next in line to lead? Rich was. He was fantastic. He hosted it in his own way, his own style and everyone loved his style.

By the next semester, Rich was leading one of our study groups. In fact, when I moved from San Diego, Rich was the leader of all the study group leaders. He’d been transformed.

Six Simple Steps to Help Students Become Vulnerable

My simple challenges became helpful steppingstones for Rich. How could these help you?

  1. Identify the strengths of the student as well as a slow path of growth.
  2. Offer a challenge that represents a single and small step forward.
  3. Promise them support as they take that first step into their challenge.
  4. Check-in on their progress and make sure they see their own growth.
  5. Provide them subsequent and sequential “baby steps” to continue their growth.
  6. Affirm each success along the way, clarifying they can see their once hidden abilities.

Rich didn’t see his potential at first but become appropriately vulnerable and grew into it. May you find your own students who need this kind of leadership.

How to Encourage Healthy Vulnerability in the Most Private Generation