Behind the Avatar: Gen Z's "Third Place"

Behind the Avatar: Gen Z's "Third Place"
Photo by Wes Hicks / Unsplash

Does anyone remember when the term "third places" was coined in the early 2000s by sociologist Ray Oldenberg? The term refers to a place outside of work and home that offers people the chance to build a community of close relationships while exchanging ideas and enjoying connecting with others. Traditionally, this "third place" has been on location - in coffee shops, churches, community centers and even shopping malls.

But research is showing that the newest adult generation, called Gen Z, actually experiences their third places virtually, not in person - through online gaming, online shopping, virtual experiences like concerts and VR, and social media platforms. Their sense of community outside of work has become one primarily in the digital world, which has its own benefits and challenges.

Positively, connecting with others on platforms such as massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) can offer a real sense of community as people bond over common interests. One blogger shares, "MMOGs align with Oldenburg's characteristics, providing a neutral ground, leveling the playing field, making conversation a central activity, ensuring accessibility, fostering a sense of regulars, maintaining a low profile, infusing playfulness, and creating a home away from home" (Regue, 2024).

There are undeniable social benefits to this online "third place." Some of my clients say it fosters inclusivity, focuses on shared experiences, and offers them the opportunity to engage in lively, playful communication, all of which evoke a sense of belonging and connectedness.

Gen Z also holds some positive changes over previous/older cohorts: as a people group, they are more racially and ethnically diverse, they are more educated, and they have a higher awareness of emotional and mental health needs amongst their peers.

However, some of the challenges that present in a fully digital communal space are coming to light as those same Gen Z'ers try to take care of their own mental health struggles, particularly in real life scenarios. Social anxiety amongst this generation is higher than ever, and often an identity crisis arises as these young adults wonder, "Does anyone actually know the real me?" It can feel as though online friendships are the best, safest options for connecting with others, and yet it is all too easy to craft an avatar or online identity that doesn't accurately represent the whole authentic person. It presents a dilemma for Gen Z adults.

The very thing that feels safest can also be the thing that keeps us from what we really need: authentic, honest connection in which we can be known and loved at our messiest.

Could it be that our best option for close relationships lies beyond an online persona and the safety of our home computer or smartphone? There is a growing concern that because young adults increasingly socialize solely on the internet, they have less opportunity to interact with others in real time and space and therefore become limited in practicing valuable social skills.

It becomes a self fulfilling cycle - if I'm afraid of being with others, then I will avoid being with others, which will prevent me from positively experiencing others as different than what I'm afraid they will be like. This means that even the idea of trying out a new church, sitting in a coffee shop alone with a good book, or shopping in person at Target feels overwhelming and scary. It can evoke deep insecurities and keep people stuck behind their screens, trying their best to get some of their needs for authentic connection met virtually.

As a counselor, I've heard questions and statements like:

"How could I possibly meet new people?" "What will others think of me if I don't have it all together?" "What would I say if someone asks me a question?" "There isn't anywhere to go that people really know me."

We know that many in Gen Z crave the experience of authentic community with others who understand what it's like to not "have it all together." If you're a young adult who resonates with this, please know that you are not alone and that there's help and care available to you. Starting in June 2024, Deep Waters is holding a weekly in-person support group for young adults who want to break free from their social anxiety and start to engage in more meaningful relationships. Reach out to one of our counselors today to learn more.

In the meantime, if you're feeling courageous, here are some practical places that older generations have found meaningful social interactions through:

Bookstores, parks, restaurants, community colleges, bike shops, coffee shops, free concerts, churches, homeless shelters and other places that need volunteers, political rallies, parades, community centers, gyms and more