The Net to youth: No big deal

By Anne Collier

It’s symptomatic to me that the headline – “Logging Off: The Internet Generation Prefers the Real World” – contradicts the story. Symptomatic of the conclusions or pronouncements to which many of us adults, including editors (who write the headlines), so quickly jump, where young tech users are concerned.

The Der Spiegel story, by Manfred Dworschak, tells of 17-year-old Jetlir in Cologne, one of those people who have not known life without the Internet. He actually isn’t “logging off” – he probably doesn’t even know what that phrase means. He is “online every day, sometimes for many hours at a time and late into the night. The window of his instant messaging program is nearly always open on his computer screen” as he and his friends chat along in an “endless stream of comments, jokes and greetings. He has in any case moved on, and is now clicking through sports videos on YouTube.” And yet other, non-tech things, “especially basketball,” are more important to Jetlir than all this digital socializing, Dworschak reports, as if this comes as a surprise. [BTW, 76% German youth play sports several times a week, and in the US this year’s Kaiser Family Foundation study on teen use of media found that “even the most intense media users exercised just as much as others of their age,” the Der Spiegel writer points out.]

‘Going online’ a relic of a term
That’s what US social-media research has been showing but what seems pretty hard for those of who grew up with mass media to accept: that most young people’s use of digital media is embedded in their real lives, not something separate and not as all-absorbing as it may look to us.

In fact, writes Dworschak, “the Internet is no longer something they are willing to waste time thinking about…. And they certainly no longer understand it when older generations speak of ‘going online’…. Indeed the term is a relic of a time when the Internet was still something special, evoking a separate space distinct from our real life, an independent, secretive world that you entered and then exited again. Tom and his friends [including Jetlir] just describe themselves as being ‘on’ or ‘off,’ using the English terms.”

‘No evidence’ Net is a major influence
The Der Spiegel article points to a recent study at the Hans Bredow Institute (at the University of Hamburg), “Growing Up with the Social Web,” which found “no evidence whatsoever that the Internet is the dominating influence in the lives of young people,” one of the authors said. This is certainly not just a German phenomenon: A scholar at the University of Hamburg reviewed more than 70 such studies around the world and apparently came to a similar conclusion. And even though 98% of German 12-to-19-year-olds surveyed in the Hans Bredow study have Internet access and use it, on average, 134 minutes a day (3 minutes less than TV-viewing), it’s more like the IM and Facebook chat, the video-sharing, the mobile text messages, and hanging out on the popular Germany-based, student-focused social site Schü (though 31% of the teens surveyed rarely or never visit social network sites) are running in the background, comfortingly always there – sometimes more in focus, sometimes less – the way the “stereo” was always on in the days when we parents were doing our homework (remember how our parents wondered how we could possibly concentrate?). Media use also fills gaps in their schedules (like commuting time) just as it does for adults.

“Simply adding together the amount of time devoted to each activity creates a very false picture,” Dworschak writes, and that’s exactly what bothered me (besides its over-focus on media consumption) about the Kaiser media study last spring. Besides, the way youth use digital media, even in the entertainment category, is also very individual. For example, one of my kids uses Facebook purely for realtime chat with friends; he never posts status updates, hardly ever posts on friends’ walls, and never plays social games there – while my other younger one does play a game on FB, and an adult friend and colleague of mine is an even more avid gamer on the site than my 13-year-old is.

So the question is, since we’re learning from this and other social-media research that young people’s experiences in new media are not an “alternate reality” or add-on to their existing lives but rather folded into them (as self-expression, social, learning, and entertainment tools), how do we best talk about their safety and well-being “online”? Can that be a whole separate thing from the rest of their lives – isn’t it many different things (e.g., how much they’re gaming, who they’re friending, what photos they’re sharing) and as individual as they are?

Related links

* And yet, in a recent report about “digital natives,” consulting firm Booz International gushes: “Born after 1990, these ‘digital natives,’ just now beginning to attend university and enter the workforce, will transform the world as we know it. Their interests will help drive massive change in how people around the world socialize, work, and live their passions-and in the information and communication technologies they use to do so.” The International Business Times covered the Booz report here.
* I wrote about what Profs. Henry Jenkins (of USC) and Sonia Livingstone (of London School of Economics) views of the term “digital natives” as alien life forms here.

Sidebar: Der Spiegel on how productive use of social media is taught in school

The article has some great examples of how German teachers are putting social media to use in the classroom. Please read it for details (mostly pp. 2 and 3), but here are a couple of examples:

* Kaiserin Augusta School in Cologne (Jetlir and Tom’s school): high school seniors collaborating in a blog about 20th-century music. They’ve written posts about “aleatoric music and musique concrete, composing simple 12-tone rows and collecting musical examples, videos, and links about it,” their teacher told Der Spiegel, adding that everyone in the class can access the blog, see what classmates have done, and comment on each other’s posts.” The teacher says he likes the “healthy competition and ambition” having a public blog generates.
* In a 10th grade physics class, students developed a mini encyclopedia of electromagnetism, Wikipedia-style, Dworschak reports. Their teacher said they all followed the content development because “all the articles are connected and have to be interlinked,” just as in Wikipedia.

For a 30,000-foot view, see my “School & social media.”

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