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Vivian Goodman
Teenagers of the Millennial Generation Grow Up Online and in Constant Contact

Monday, December 6, 2004

The latest buzzword among generation-watchers is "The Millennial generation." These are the adolescents who are not only growing up at the turn of the millennium, but also growing up very differently than their baby boomer parents. They have new ways to communicate with each other. They have high tech tools to shape their identities and discover the world. Their parents grew up with television; this new generation is growing up... online.

The technology at their fingertips is a factor in creating a generation that social scientists say distinguishes them from their parents in their degree of self-confidence, self-directedness, and independent thinking.

WKSU's Vivian Goodman reports:

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Teenagers and telephones. If you were part of the babyboom generation, by the time you were a teen you looked like you'd been born with a receiver coming out of one ear. Those teenagers, especially those in pigtails and pedalpushers, whiled away countless hours on their pink princess phones. Today's younger generation can't always be home by the they stay in constant contact in a new way:

VG : " How many of you have cell phones?"

classroom: "yes"

VG: "Everybody?"

classroom: "yes"

A market research company in Chicago, Teenage Research Unlimited, reported in the year 2000 that only 20 percent of teens had mobile phones. Researcher Rob Calendar says that percentage has more than doubled:

RC: "It turns out that nearly half of all teens age 12 to 19 own cell phones. Probably not particularly surprising is the older teens, but the fact is 12-year-olds are actually increasingly gaining access as well."

And millennials are no different than their baby boomer parents in that girls are on the phone more than boys are, and not just talking but also sending text messages from their cells. For the kids, the big appeal is always being in touch:

Teenage girl: "My cell phone is definitely, it sounds pathetic, but it's one of the most important things to me, it's really how I talk to people about things and communicate with my family " y'know, 'Mom, do I have to give my brother a ride home or anything'. There was this one time when I lost my phone and felt kind of lost."

Amanda Lenhart researches how adolescents use communications technology. Her study for the Pew Research Center found four out of five teenagers communicate more by phone then online :

AL: "In some research I did recently, we talked to young people who said, 'I want to talk on the phone because I can hear the voices, particularly when I need to give advice to a friend or we have something important to discuss."

But the stammering, blushing, tongue-tied, teenager has also found a technological fix for shyness - Instant Messaging or IM-ing. It's a free way for anyone with an Internet connection to carry on text-based conversations in real time with several people:

VG: "How many of you use instant messaging?"

class: "I do."

VG: "Everybody?"

class: "Yes."

VG: "And how often?"

male teen: "Um, everyday... You can carry on like three different conversations at once " you could be talking about like sports, school... and friends at the same time."

Teens say it's useful in embarrassing social situations. 17 percent have used it to ask someone for a date:

Teen girl: "Me and my boyfriend, we um, we had some flaws like in our, like he's just stubborn and everything, so I find it more comfortable to talk to him online so I don't actually have to say it, so I don't get caught up in the moment and have this big silence, awkwardness..."

AOL Instant Messenger estimates that about 7 billion IM's are sent each day. Rob Calendar of Teenage Research Unlimited says adolescents prefer IM to email, which they consider too formal and not as immediate:

RC: "Instant messaging is hugely important to this generation because they're really an instant generation, they're not accustomed to having to wait for anything. They want to get their friends lined up, get them online, and hash things out right off the bat, no muss no fuss."

And no danger. Parents have long worried about the predators and the pornography that invaded the Internet:

VG: "Hey Sara (parent), Jake (son) is on the Internet here, why are you looking over his shoulder?"

Sara: "Um, just to, I think as any parent, you just want to know what your children are up to."

VG: "Now I noticed you have the computer right here in the living room, is that because you want to make sure you can look over his shoulder?"

Sara: "Definitely."

Experts say most teenagers know about the dangers. 13-year-old Jake isn't going into chatrooms which are open to strangers - like three out of four teenagers, he prefers using his exclusive Instant Messaging "buddy list", so only friends and family can contact him:

Jake: "Most strangers really wouldn't, because I don't know how they'd get my screen name or anything. If one of your friends --?-- or something, you can block them by just, like for example, right here there's a block icon... I can just click that and say yes, and for them they'll like see that I'm signed off and so they won't know that they're blocked by me."

Savvy IM-ers even find ways to hide online from their parents. College students have been known to spend hours creating the perfect "away message" to make it look like they're studying at the library while they're really IM-ing with friends.

The Pew Center's Amanda Lenhart says it's all about managing relationships:

AL: "We heard anecdotally from some young people that they get so overwhelmed by the number of people on their instant messaging/buddy lists, the people who they can instant message with, that they find they have to create another name to get other things done online. So they go on with sort of a stealth user name or screen name and do their searching, or their web work, or their homework or their emailing under that screen name."

Susannah Stern, who studies youth culture at Boston College, says younger kids use open chat rooms until they make enough friends to establish an instant messenger buddy list:

SS: "One 8th grade girl for example, explained to me how she typically waits several minutes before replying to others' instant messages in an effort to seem busy... and thus popular."

But as they get older, kids get more serious and more practical about their use of the Internet. Some high school and even college students say they do all of their research online, and that worries teachers like Judy Hackman. She's been teaching high school English for 30 years:

JH: "They begin to see because it' s printed on the Internet, that it seems to be truth. Like we used to say 'Well I read it in the newspaper, therefore...' We've had to really teach that - we've had to teach analysis of what kinds of credentials do people have, where can you find them, how new is the research, how accurate is the research - those kinds of questions that before we really didn't have to do so much."

At Kent State University, Professor of Education Dr. Karen Swan worries that not all teachers caution their students as well as Mrs. Hackman does, about accepting what they see online at face value:

KS: "For us, we only had limited resources, so we would be very deeply analytical about those kinds of things. Students now, just grab the first thing that makes sense to them, quite different from deeply analyzing something in the ways that text alone encourages."

VG: "So what we may end up with from this millennial generation is less depth in their thinking and scholarly pursuits?

KS: "And greater breadth, yes. And in schools we're not doing much to help them be more critical of that kind of information."

Another pitfall for young Internet users is the information that that they themselves put out into the ether:

VG: "Do any of you make websites?"

Teen girl: "I've made a blog... Just to generally go online, sort of like an online diary for all your friends to look at."

What they write today as teenagers can easily be copied and redistributed for years to come. Boston College researcher Susannah Stern worries about those web blogs:

SS: "They know it's accessible to anyone, but they don't necessarily think in terms of who anyone and everyone is. I think the most interesting example I can think of in my own work is that I was reading a website of a girl who was talking about her self-cutting experiences, self-mutilation ... And she said something to the effect of, 'Yesterday, I totally butchered my leg but I could never tell anyone about it.' And she put this on her web page. So, I think what we see is very, that's what I was saying, kind of different conceptions of public and private. Her conception was that it was private because people in her every day life " her parents and her close friends " didn't know... they didn't know. But nevertheless, I as a researcher who lives across the country from this girl, knew about it."

Parents who don't worry about what their kids are communicating to the worldwide web, or what it's communicating to them, might still worry about the amount of time they spend on the Internet. But anecdotal evidence says it cuts down on their television time. Boston College researcher Susannah Stern says most kids are not cooped up in their rooms staring at computer screens, ignoring their homework, or their friends:

SS: "Most recent studies show that it has not displaced social activities " in fact its enhanced social activities. That it hasn't displaced time reading, that it hasn't displaced time with other media. So generally speaking we see that Internet use among teenagers in particular is a companion to other activities. Internet tends not to be displacing the other activities that we know teens most commonly perform... oh yeah."

Teen girl: "I have cooked my dinner while eating a snack, watching TV, talking on the phone, doing my homework, instant messaging online, and playing a game."

It helps them form friendships. But what the Internet seems to facilitate most of all, is the millennial sense of autonomy. Amanda Lenhart:

AL: "Television creates sort of a... national sense of popular culture and what's important. The Internet is about going out and choosing and finding what you think is important."

And that says Linhart, may help empower the Millennials to be the most self-reliant generation.