Gen Z is coming of age -- here's how to reach these patients

2018 12 11 23 43 9973 Phone Iphone2 400

Move over millennials -- Generation Z is here with its own set of cultural norms. These social media-savvy teenagers and young adults are poised to reshape how we learn and connect with each other, which may have some major implications for the dental office.

The Pew Research Center tentatively defines Gen Z as the generation born between 1997 and 2012, meaning the majority of this cohort are now in their teenage years and the oldest are in their early 20s. While Gen Zers share some similarities to their millennial predecessors, they're also more diverse, mobile natives, and more likely to face unique physical and mental health challenges.

Teenagers and young adults also have unique oral health considerations, according to Brittany Seymour, DDS, MPH, an assistant professor of oral health policy and epidemiology at Harvard School of Dental Medicine and an ADA spokesperson. Although she can't comment on broader generational trends, Dr. Seymour shared some dental considerations for your teenage and young adult patients.

"Young people are typically gaining and claiming more autonomy in their own lives and over their choices and behaviors," Dr. Seymour told "Dental providers should understand the unique aspects of this age group, including the risks to their oral health and overall health, and the social pressures they face."

HPV, depression, and more Gen Z health trends

In some ways, Gen Z faces similar oral health challenges to prior generations. Many of these patients have braces, which means it's extra important for the dental team to help them keep their teeth healthy, easy to clean, and free from periodontal disease. Wisdom teeth also tend to erupt during this life stage.

Brittany Seymour, DDS, MPH. Image courtesy of the ADA.Brittany Seymour, DDS, MPH. Image courtesy of the ADA.

However, Gen Z also has unique oral health concerns. With HPV-related oral cancers on the rise, the HPV vaccination is more important than ever, and major dental organizations now advise dentists to counsel teenage and young adult patients about the vaccine.

"In 2017, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry adopted a policy on the HPV vaccination that recommends oral health providers educate their patients about HPV and advise both boys and girls to get the vaccine during adolescence," Dr. Seymour said. "Last year, the American Dental Association adopted a similar policy that urges dentists to support the use and administration of the HPV vaccine."

Other health risks facing Gen Z include the rise of vaping and poor nutritional habits, both of which dental teams can counsel patients about. Gen Z also faces mental health challenges -- depression is rising among U.S. teenagers, particularly among girls, and 70% of teens said anxiety and depression are major problems among young people.

"Dentists are well positioned to gain the trust of their young patients and identify signs and symptoms of issues like physical and emotional abuse, eating disorders, and self-harm practices," Dr. Seymour said. "Including patient questionnaires and physical exams related to these factors during routine visits is important, as dentists might be the only health professionals [that] a healthy teen will see in a given year."

Becoming an information coach

Gen Zers are even more connected than millennials, and social media is a crucial part of their lives. The vast majority of teenagers and young adults follow influencers on social media platforms, including many in the health and wellness space. This can be problematic when a friend or influencer shares incorrect health information.

"Unfortunately, it can be difficult to tell the difference between fact and fiction online," Dr. Seymour said. "It gets even harder when people who teens/young adults know, care about, and trust share things -- knowingly or unknowingly -- that are false on social media. This is something I encounter frequently."

For many young people, challenging a belief shared in their online circles can be perceived as a challenge to their very identity, Dr. Seymour noted. Therefore, it's pivotal for dentists and other team members to shift their role from that of a myth debunker or information provider to that of an information coach.

"Internet and tech-savvy teens are finding health information themselves," Dr. Seymour said. "Our job is to educate them, and even warn them, about the validity of what they are reading online, and the motivations and intentions of people who publish false and misleading claims."

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