The world according to Gen Alpha: On aging out and growing up

| Junior Forum Editor
Illustration by Jaime Hebel

I turned 20 over Thanksgiving break, and I spent my last day as a teenage girl in Orlando, Florida, in my childhood bedroom. Testaments to my high-school years peel off the walls: a Beatles poster, Lana del Rey lyrics, theater ads for “Kill Bill” and “The Godfather.” There’s a tiny portrait of Napoleon that I bought at a charity shop, a Stevie Nicks painting from the wall of my favorite cafe, and a guitar that I spent all my birthday and Christmas money on but never learned to play. 

My sister Leila’s room looks different from mine. My bedroom has gaps, reminders of all the things that I brought with me to school or gave away when I left. Hers is overflowing with hand-me-down clothing, the near-inevitable result of being the youngest sibling; packs of gum (I counted 11); and, newly, pink and black tubes of makeup that sprawl over the floor in front of her mirror. 

It’s so interesting to watch my sister entering her teen years as I leave my own. I’m getting to see that at the ages I felt so grown, I was still so little. I really thought I ran the world at 14, and maybe I did, but only because my world was so small. 

We (or at least I) absolutely terrorized millennials in their heyday. Their obsessions with Buzzfeed, mustache finger tattoos, and hipster barista-ness were just too easy to mock for a chronically online 13-year-old. 

I got to spend some quality time with my Gen Alpha sister over the break, and I was incredibly pleased that, for whatever reason, she doesn’t seem to share the disdain for older generations that I certainly had at her age. Although, when I told her that Gen Alpha — the generation succeeding Gen Z — is known as “mini-millennials,” Leila responded, “That’s awful.” This new generation is growing up with limitless technology at their fingertips, a post-COVID world, and more open-minded outlooks than their predecessors.

Leila taught me new TikTok trends (though I’m still not really sure what “uncanny valley” means), new texting etiquette (apparently emojis are out), and new slang. According to Leila, “Nobody says slay or queen. I said those when I was 10 trying to be you.” (I would like to clarify that I never said “queen.” Unironically, at least.)

COVID-19 hit at key points in Gen Alpha’s developmental years. While my brother and I may have missed out on chemistry and calculus, Gen Alpha kids missed fourth-grade reading and learning what fractions are. In addition, AI tools like ChatGPT have made it easier than ever to cheat in school. This combination is a huge worry for the education system, but Leila says she hasn’t even looked at the AI website. 

Similarly, when I watch influencers on TikTok, I automatically assume that most people are seeing what I see. This makes a lot of us worried about younger kids that are already on social media. What good would come from a 10-year-old watching Alix Earle getting ready to go clubbing in Miami? But Leila told me that most of the influencers she and her friends are watching are high schoolers who do hair tutorials or give advice about entering high school. She says, “I don’t see a 30-year-old on social media and think I want to be on their level, because I know how much older they are. But it’s definitely made us want to grow up faster, and some of my friends have taken that to an extreme.” She went on to describe friends’ early experiments with going out more, talking like adults, and wearing full faces of makeup to class, all as a result of things they saw on social media. She even mentioned one friend’s struggle with an eating disorder that started from watching popular TikToks of girls describing “What I eat in a day.”

Just because we perceive Gen Alpha to be growing up too fast at the hands of technology, that doesn’t mean it is a permanent future for our society. Everyone’s own childhood reflects how they later raise their own children, and it often works as a pendulum. Even though Leila was on social media by the age of nine, she says she won’t let her kids have any technology until middle school at the earliest. “I think I had it way too early because I’m haunted by the terrible things I posted. I completely embarrassed myself, and everyone has screenshots. I also think some people took it the wrong way and changed themselves to be more like the people they were seeing on their phones,” she said, referencing one of her classmates who got in trouble with the administration for wearing her cosplay outfit instead of her uniform to school.

When we worry about younger generations, we worry for the future and about recent changes that we’ve had to endure ourselves, like the impact of technology and social media. However, Gen Alpha has never known a world without these things, and they, unlike us, are not tempted to use them because of their novelty. When I asked Leila about the accusations of technology addiction and its complications, she said, “Older people talk a lot about how we’re always on our phones, but they’re the ones who have changed so much of themselves for technology.” Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z have all stretched and distorted their lives in order to make room for new innovations. We’ve changed the way we go to school, do our jobs, and spend time with our friends and families as a result of modern technology.

Learning is a two-way process, and we should learn from the generations above us and teach the ones below, but we should also do the reciprocal. In just one conversation, I learned so much from my sister about the world she’s growing up in, which is so similar to yet different from the one I had at her age. She still wishes she had a driver’s license and begs for a later curfew like I did. She also spends her weeknights scanning her friends’ papers for evidence of AI and watching high-school girls on TikTok talk about their struggles with technology addiction. These discontinuities are scary because they seem like such deviations from “normal,” but every generation has them, and we should look at them as opportunities for positive change.

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