Technology rules in teens’ lives

“I’d rather,” deadpanned Philippa
Grogan, 16, “give up, like, a kidney than my phone. How did you manage before?
Carrier pigeons? Letters? Going round each others’ houses on BIKES?” Cameron
Kirk, 14, reckoned he spent “an hour, hour-and-a-half on school days” hanging
out with his 450-odd Facebook friends; maybe twice that at weekends. “It’s
actually very practical if you forget what that day’s homework is.
Unfortunately, one of my best friends doesn’t have Facebook. But it’s OK; we
talk on our PlayStations.”

Emily Hooley, 16, recalled a very
dark moment: “We went to Wales for a week at half term to revise. There was no
mobile, no TV, no broadband. We had to drive into town just to get a signal. It
was really hard, knowing people were texting you, writing on your Wall, and you
couldn’t respond. Loads of my friends said they’d just never do that.”

Teens, eh? Not how they were when I
was young. Nor the way they talk to each other. Let’s frighten ourselves,
first: for a decade, the Pew Internet & American Life Project has been the
world’s largest and most authoritative provider of data on the Internet’s
impact on the lives of 21st-century citizens. Since 2007, it has been
chronicling the use teenager’s make of the net, in particular their mass
adoption of social networking sites. It has been studying the way teens use mobile
phones, including text messages, since 2006.

This is what the Project says about
the way US teens (and, by extension, teenagers in much of western Europe: the
exact figures may sometimes differ by a percentage point or two, but the
patterns are the same) communicate in an age of Facebook Chat, instant
messaging and unlimited texts. Ready?

The statistics

First, 75 per cent of all teenagers
(and 58 per cent of 12-year-olds) now have a mobile phone. Almost 90 per cent
of phone-owning teens send and receive texts, most of them daily. Half send 50
or more texts a day; one in three send 100. In fact, in barely four years,
texting has established itself as comfortably “the preferred channel of basic
communication between teens and their friends”.

But phones do more than simply
text, of course. More than 80 per cent of phone-owning teens also use them to
take pictures (and 64 per cent to share those pictures with others). Sixty per
cent listen to music on them, 46 per cent play games, 32 per cent swap videos
and 23 per cent access social networking sites. The mobile phone, in short, is
now “the favoured communication hub for the majority of teens”.

As if texting, swapping, hanging
and generally spending their waking hours welded to their phones wasn’t enough,
73 per cent use social networking sites, mostly Facebook – 50 per cent more
than three years ago. Digital communication is not just prevalent in teenagers’
lives. It IS teenagers’ lives.

There’s a very straightforward
reason, said Amanda Lenhart, a Pew senior research specialist. “Simply, these
technologies meet teens’ developmental needs,” she said. “Mobile phones and
social networking sites make the things teens have always done – defining their
own identity, establishing themselves as independent of their parents, looking
cool, impressing members of the opposite sex – a whole lot easier.”

Flirting, boasting, gossiping,
teasing, hanging out, confessing: all that classic teen stuff has always
happened, Ms Lenhart says. It’s just that it used to happen behind the bike
sheds, or via tightly folded notes pressed urgently into sweating hands in the
corridor between lessons. Social networking sites and mobile phones have simply
facilitated the whole business, a gadzillion times over.

The interface between technology, personality

For Professor Patti Valkenburg, of
the University of Amsterdam’s internationally respected Centre for Research on
Children, Adolescents and the Media, “contemporary communications tools” help
resolve one of the fundamental conflicts that rages within every adolescent.
Adolescence, she said, is characterised by “an enhanced need for
self-presentation, or communicating your identity to others, and also
self-disclosure – discussing intimate topics. Both are essential in developing
teenagers’ identities, allowing them to validate their opinions and determine
the appropriateness of their attitudes and behaviours.”

But, as we all recall, adolescence
is also a period of excruciating shyness and aching self-consciousness – which
can make all that self-presentation and self-disclosure something of a
perilous, not to say agonising, business. So the big plus of texting, instant
messaging and social networking is that it allows the crucial
identity-establishing behaviour, without the accompanying embarrassment. “These
technologies give their users a sense of increased controllability,” Ms Valkenburg
said. “That, in turn, allows them to feel secure about their communication, and
thus freer in their interpersonal relations.”

“Controllability”, she explained,
is about three things: being able to say what you want without fear of the message
not getting through because of that humungous spot on your chin or your
tendency to blush; having the power to reflect on and change what you write
before you send it (in contrast to face-to-face communication); and being able
to stay in touch with untold hordes of friends at times, and in places, where
your predecessors were essentially incommunicado.

What teens think about technology

But what do teenagers make of this
newfound freedom to communicate? Philippa reckoned she sent “probably about 30”
text messages every day, and receives as many. “They’re about meeting up –
where are you, see you in 10, that kind of thing,” she said. “There’s an awful
lot of flirting goes on, of course. Or it’s, ‘OMG, what’s biology homework?’.
And, ‘I’m babysitting and I’m SOOOO bored.’” (Boredom appears to be the key
factor in the initiation of many teen communications.)

Like most of her peers, Philippa
wouldn’t dream of using her phone to actually phone anyone, except perhaps her
parents – to placate them if she’s not where she should be, or ask them to come
and pick her up if she is. Calls are expensive, and you can’t make them in
class (you shouldn’t text in class either, but “lots of people do”).

Philippa also had 639 Facebook
friends, and claims to know “the vast majority” (though some, she admits, are
“quite far down the food chain”). “I don’t want to be big-headed or anything,
but I am quite popular,” she says. “Only because I don’t have a social life
outside my bedroom, though.” When I call her, 129 of her friends are online.

Facebook rush-hour is straight
after school, and around nine or 10 in the evening. “You can have about 10
chats open at a time, then it gets a bit slow and you have to start deleting
people,” Philippa said. The topics? “General banter, light-hearted abuse. Lots
of talk about parties and about photos of parties.” Cred-wise, it’s important
to have a good, active Facebook profile: lots of updates, lots of photos of you
tagged.

The downsides to Internet use

Sometimes, though, it ends in
tears. Everyone has witnessed cyber-bullying, but the worst thing that happened
to Philippa was when someone posted “a really dreadful picture of me, with an
awful double chin”, then refused to take it down. “She kept saying, ‘No way,
it’s upped my profile views 400 per cent,’” said Philippa. It’s quite easy, she
thought, for people to feel “belittled, isolated” on Facebook.

There are other downsides.
Following huge recent publicity, teens are increasingly aware of the dangers of
online predators. “Privacy’s a real issue,” says Emily. “I get ‘friend’
requests from people I don’t know and have never heard of; I ignore them. I
have a private profile. I’m very careful about that.”

A 2009 survey found up to 45 per
cent of US companies are now checking job applicants’ activity on social
networking sites, and 35 per cent reported rejecting people because of what
they found. Universities and colleges, similarly, are starting to look online.
“You need to be careful,” said Cameron Kirk, astute and aware even at 14.
“Stuff can very easily get misunderstood.” Emily agreed, but adds: “Personally,
I love the idea that it’s up there forever. It’ll be lovely to go back, later,
and see all those emotions and relations.”

Online privacy

Pew’s Lenhart said research has
revealed a class distinction in many teens’ attitudes to online privacy. “Teens
from college-focused, upper-middle-class families tend to be much more aware of
their online profiles, what they say about them, future consequences for jobs
and education,” she said. “With others, there’s a tendency to share as much as
they can, because that’s their chance for fame, their possibility of a ticket
out.”

The question that concerns most
parents, though, is whether such an unprecedented, near-immeasurable surge in
non face-to-face communication is somehow changing our teenagers – diminishing
their ability to conduct more traditional relationships, turning them into
screen-enslaved, socially challenged adults. Yet teens, on the whole, seem
pretty sensible about this. Callum O’Connor, 16, said there’s a big difference
between chatting online and face to face. “Face to face is so much clearer,” he
said. “Facebook and instant messaging are such detached forms of communication.
It’s so easy to be misinterpreted, or to misinterpret what someone says. It’s
terribly easy to say really horrible things. I’m permanently worrying – will
this seem heartless, how many kisses should I add, can I say that?

Ms Lenhart said, “Our research
shows face-to-face time between teenagers hasn’t changed over the past five
years. Technology has simply added another layer on top. Yes, you can find
studies that suggest online networking can be bad for you. But there are just
as many that show the opposite.”

We should, she suggested, “Step
back. The telephone, the car, the television – they all, in their time, changed
the way teens relate to each other, and to other people, quite radically. And
how did their parents respond? With the same kind of wailing and gnashing of
teeth we’re doing now. These technologies change lives, absolutely. But it’s a
generational thing.”

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