What You Can Learn About Gen Z From Netflix's Instagram Documentary 'Social Animals'
Updated: Sep 18
There's a lot of pressure to make sure you look absolutely perfect in every single photo.”
The latest documentary to hit Netflix, ‘Social Animals’ gives an insider glimpse into Gen Z and its relationship to Instagram. The documentary which premiered at SXSW follows three teenagers: an aspiring swimsuit model Kaylyn Slevin, a daredevil photographer Humza Deas, and a midwest girl next door Emma Crockett Robinson. Interspersed throughout the film are teens explaining Instagram culture in relationship to looks, dating, friendship, popularity, and acceptance.
The documentary reveals incredible insights about Gen Z’s mobile-first mindset. Research from The Center For Generational Kinetics shows that 55% of Gen Z are on their phone for five hours or more a day, and Instagram is their go-to social network for following brands and influencers. I spoke with Eric Spurling, a partner at Alan Morgan Group, who shared “Our clients continue to adjust their digital marketing efforts to meet consumers where they are. For Gen Z, Instagram continues to take a larger portion of industry revenue.”
Knowing the impact Instagram has on their daily lives, it’s only inevitable that there will be highs and lows associated with the app as social engagement plays a significant role in their self-worth. Here are three trends about Gen Z revealed from the film.
24/7 self-marketing is the norm.
“Literally social media is like a job.”
From which caption to use, what filter to apply, and which time of day to post -- the details that each teenager applies to their own Instagram grid is analogous to large brands’ execution. Whether it’s Emma creating content for her small-town peers or Kaylyn building her global brand on the platform, teenagers are thinking strategically on how to gain followers, and in some cases, even monetize their account.
Throughout the film, Kaylyn’s father, who is a successful entrepreneur, provides business advice that helps her think about her long-term goals. I met up with Kaylyn in LA, and she revealed that “Instagram is for sure a business that takes a lot of effort. With my account, I want to show you I really am and be very authentic. I want people to see who I really am so that I can connect with my followers as 100% me."
Standing out from the crowd is necessary.
“Get a different vibe.”
Individuality has always been an active component for teenagers, but now with Instagram, you can visually display how you view the world. As Instagram has specific content that permeates on the platform, teenagers want to stand out amongst the sea of selfies.
Humza literally climbed to the top of the world’s tallest buildings to go the extra mile for the gram, which led him to media fame and huge brands deals worth tens of thousands of dollars.
And, in the case of Kaylyn, she hired a world-famous photographer to shift her aesthetic from tween to influencer in hopes of building out brand partnerships, "People will do a lot for the gram. They will do any prank, travel to specific areas -- just to get brand deals and more followers."
In the world of Gen Z, being seen as basic or found out that you use photoshop apps like FaceTune is the ultimate digital sin.
Social activity is all through the ‘gram.
“It goes down in the DMs.”
In the documentary, teens are glued to their phones to continuously capture content whether at a football game, a trip to the beach, or just skateboarding with friends. With Instagram also containing a messaging component known as direct messaging (DM), teens rely on DMs as their go-to mode of communication. DMs play a significant role in how teens flirt and date, and in the documentary, it’s shared that, “People don’t date anymore they just DM on Instagram.”
"DMs are easy access. 70% of guys wanting to flirt (or trying to) with me. I see it with my friends too, we all get DMs," Kaylyn shared.
On the opposite end, DM’ing is also where bullying occurs. Emma explained to me how this affected her life immensely, "Being bullied through Instagram and other social media platforms consumed my life, I always had my phone with me, so, therefore, I technically couldn’t ever truly get away from the bullies—which lead to a deep depression."
Jonathan Ignatius Green, Director of Social Animal, expands, “The darker side of human nature is largely unchecked on social media platforms, because, unlike face-to-face interactions where you experience the immediate consequences of strong or hateful language, through a screen it can all just feel like a game.” This new method of communication has replaced old school social norms of real-life interactions which allow for more vitriol to occur as it’s easy to hide behind a screen.
The documentary sheds light on how this digitally-native generation defines themselves off of their Instagram. The platform can foster entrepreneurship and discoverability of a whole new world full of travel and adventure, and it can negatively impact self-esteem and create an atmosphere that lends itself to more jealousy and depression. Time will tell how this immense addiction to social media will play out, but for now, we can have an inside look into the lives of Gen Z with ‘Social Animals’.