Teenagers & Technology: 4 Myths About Digital Natives

In an earlier post I briefly outlined the term Digital Native and how it has been used to describe the the relationship between today’s teenagers and the technology they have grown up with.

For those who can’t be bothered looking up that post the basic thesis is; current day young people, who can’t remember the world without the internet or mobile phones, have been shaped by their technologically saturated childhood in way that makes them fundamentally different to us oldies (those of us with record collections), particularly in the way they use and interact with technology. I tend to think the distinction between digital natives (teens & young adults) and digital immigrants (us oldies) helpfully articulates some real differences between generations.

However one of the less helpful outcomes of the widespread application of labels like Digital Natives and the Net Generation, is they can become over-simplified and too generalised. These distortions can result in rhetoric suggesting all people under the age of 25 are born with a form of technological privilege granting them a special genetic aptitude for all things technical and digital.

In other words adults think all teenagers are good at computers.

In this post I want to highlight 4 common myths that are not entirely accurate, and can lead to less than helpful assumptions for those of us who regularly deal with teenagers.

Teenagers Use Use The Internet More Than Adults

If you live with a digitally equipped teenager it may feel like they spend all their time online, but don’t be deceived. Chances are if they are spending time online you, the adult, are probably spending just as much if not more.

Recent research in both the USA and Europe have revealed that adults spend more time on the internet than teenagers. Nielsen research in the US revealed that although a very high proportion of teenagers access the internet regularly the average time spent by teenagers online is 11.5hrs /month which increases to 24hrs/month when you include the use of online applications. Compare this to the national average of 29.5hrs/month, with 35-44 year olds averaging over 42hrs/month.

Similarly a study in Sweeden found that while high percentage (78%) of teenagers are logging on daily it is the 20 and 30 year olds who are spending the most time online (23hr/week).

All Teenagers Are Tech Savvy

There is increasing suggestion that we do teens a disservice if we assume that just because of their age that they a competent at all things digital. While there are high percentage who not only use the internet regularly, the extent to which they use it and the depth of their skill level is not so certain.

The previously mentioned Sweedish research found that while teenagers have a high level of confidence in their ability to use technology their actual competency was somewhat less than their confidence suggested. The study concludes that particularly for younger teens they’re competency is restricted only to the amount of the internet they use.

Derek Baird points to a presentation by researcher Sonia Livingstone that demonstrates teens are not as adept, or as willing, as we might think at using the internet. She demonstrates that for many teenagers negotiating the internet is not at all natural.

The Economist magazine discovered increasing number of academics are calling into question the technical proficiency of students entering tertiary education. As one researcher puts it many teenagers have only “superficial familiarity with the digital tools that they use regularly.”

Teenagers Use All Types of Social Media.

As 16 year old Xavier Lur puts it  “FACEBOOK = TWITTER, BUT MUCH BETTER.”

Xavier goes on to present his own research that demonstrates what appears to be a global fact, teens don’t tweet. Of his 36 classmates, 33 have a Facebook while only 4 have a Twitter account.

This anecdotal evidence is supported by more extensive research. Pew Internet have just released their latest findings that reveal only 8% of teens online have an active Twitter account.

So while there is research that  suggests  Facebook and Myspace are popular amongst teens (74% of American High Schooler’s have a social network profile), we are also observing they are selective about what social media they use.  Xavier has some good thoughts on why this is so, as do the guys over at Mashable.

Teenagers Use the Internet More so Watch TV Less

It seems logical that if there are only so many free hours in a day and teens are spending significant amounts of that time on the internet, other traditional past-times must be in decline.

Not So.

Nielsen Research revealed US teenagers are in fact watching more TV than ever. In 2009 teenagers watched on average 104hours/month of television, compared to the average 11.5hours/month of online time – or breaking that down a teen averages 3.3hours/day watching TV versus 23minutes /day online.

This comes as further research reveals that TV’s biggest rival is increasingly becoming people treating social networking sties as entertainment.

Concluding Thoughts

As I stated earlier, there are some differences between the generations created by technological progress. However a more nuanced approach to how we view teens and technology is required.

  • Teenagers have skills using technology that they use frequently like social networking and gaming, but his should not be seen as the equal to widespread technical or digital competence.
  • Teens are not avid content creators, the internet is a social place for most of them.
  • Teenagers are still watching TV and DVD’s in between text messages and status updates.
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