Growing Up Digital
The Rise of the Net Generation
|1 -||The Louder Echo|
|2 -||Genesis of a New Generation|
|3 -||From Generation Gap to Generation Lap|
|4 -||The Culture of Interaction|
|5 -||The N-Gen Mind|
|6 -||N-Gen Learning|
|7 -||N-Gen at Play|
|8 -||N-Gen as Consumers|
|9 -||N-Gen at Work|
|10 -||N-Gen and the Family|
|11 -||The Digital Divide|
|12 -||Leaders of the Future|
Introducing the Net Generation
The Net-Generation has arrived. The baby boom has an echo, and it's even louder than the original. The 85 million boomer adults in the United States and Canada have been eclipsed by 88 million offspring. The youngest of these kids are still in diapers and the eldest are just turning 20. Similar echoes, albeit less strong, are happening in select countries in Europe, the Pacific Rim and developing world.
What makes this generation different from all of its ancestors is that it is the first to grow up surrounded by digital media. Computers can be found in the home, school, factory and office and digital technologies such as cameras, video games and CD-ROMS are commonplace. Increasingly these new media are connected by the Internet, an expanding web of networks which is attracting a million new users monthly. Today's kids are so bathed in bits that they think it's all part of the natural landscape. To them the digital technology is no more intimidating than a VCR or toaster.
For the first time in history children are more comfortable, knowledgeable and literate than their parents about an innovation central to society. And it is through the use of the digital media that the N-Generation will develop and superimpose its culture on the rest of society. Boomers stand back. Already these kids are learning, playing, communicating, working and creating communities very differently than their parents. They are a force for social transformation.
Moms and dads are reeling from the challenges of raising confident, plugged-in and digital-savvy children who know more about technology than they do. Few parents even know what their children are doing in cyberspace. School officials are grappling with the reality of students often being far smarter on cyber-issues and new ways of learning than the teachers. Corporations are wondering what these kids will be like as employees since they are accustomed to very different ways of working, collaborating and creating and they reject many basic assumptions of today's companies. Governments are lagging behind in thinking about the implications of this new generation on policies ranging from cyberporn and the delivery of social services to the implications of the N-Gen on the nature of governance and democracy. Marketers have little comprehension of how this wave will shop and influence purchases of goods and services.
There is no issue more important to parents, teachers, policy makers, marketers, business leaders and social activists than understanding what this younger generation intends to do with its digital expertise. This book is based on the belief that we can learn much about a whole generation which is in the process of embracing the new media from the children who are most advanced in their adoption of this technology.
The Children of a Digital Age
A communications revolution is shaping a generation and its world, a phenomenon we've seen before. When the baby boomers were teenagers, it was television's turn to establish itself as the most powerful information technology in history. TV's impact on society in general and the boomers in particular was profound. We may remember early television only as I Love Lucy or rigged quiz shows, but when the American civil rights movement began to find a voice, it was television that served as the messenger and the mobilizer. When the boomers marched on the streets to protest the Vietnam war, television chronicled and amplified their presence. Just as television redefined the American political process, it has transformed marketing, commerce, education, leisure and culture.
But to today's media literate kids, television's current methods are old-fashioned and clumsy. It is unidirectional, with the choice of programming and content resting in the hands of few, and its product often dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. To digital savvy N-Geners, television should be interactive. It should do what the consumer asks. It should enable a dialogue, and for citizens to speak with one another.
This shift from broadcast to interactive is the cornerstone of the N-Generation. They want to be users - not just viewers or listeners. The result is that time on the computer and Net is time taken from television. Today's kids watch less television than five years ago, and much less than their parents did at the same age. The trend will continue as the new media penetrates households, becomes easier to use and grows in speed, services, and content.
But don't mourn television's passing just yet. The digital media is swallowing TV and in doing so will transform it. Television will be reborn as another facet of the Net. N-Geners will vote and ask questions on talk shows from their homes; play that rock video on MTV a second time; send a video clip of their favorite sitcom to a friend; drill into an advertisement for jeans, and try on a pair - using an animation of their bodies on the screen.
Their parents chose between comic books, baseball cards, bikes, basketballs and episodes of the TV show Spin and Marty. Children today have the same joys (Spin and Marty being replaced by The Simpsons) but from their fingertips they can traverse the world. They have new powerful tools for inquiry, analysis, self-expression, influence and play. They have unprecedented mobility. They are shrinking the planet in ways their parents could never imagine. Unlike television which was done to them, they are the actors in the digital world.
The Net is beginning to effect all of us - the way we create wealth, the enterprise, the nature of commerce and marketing, the delivery system for entertainment, the role and dynamics of learning in the economy, the nature of government and governance, our culture and arguably the role of the nation state in the body politic. It should not surprise us that the generation which first grows up with this new medium can be defined by their relationship to it.
The term Net-Generation refers to the generation of children who in 1999 will be between the ages of 2 and 22, not just those who are active on the Internet. Most of these children do not yet have access to the Net, but most have some degree of fluency with the digital media. The vast majority of adolescents report they know how to use a computer. Nearly everyone has experience with video games. The Net is coming into households as fast as television did in the 1950s.
Two thirds of kids use a personal computer, usually either at home or school. The vast majority of children use video games. Increasingly, all digital technologies are evolving towards the Net. As Figure 1.1 shows, between 1995 and the year 2000 home access to the Net will have grown from 10% to 46%.
According to Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU), the percentage of teens who say that it is "in" to be online has jumped from 50% in 1994 to 74% in 1996 to 88% in 1997. It's now on par with dating and partying!
All this is occurring while the Net is in its infancy and, as such, is painfully slow, primitive, limited in capabilities, lacking complete security, reliability, ubiquity and is subject to both hyperbole and ridicule. Nevertheless, children and many adults love it and keep coming back after each frustrating experience. They believe it has great potential.
What Do Kids Do With Computers?
"I use (my computer) to do just about everything except playing games," says 17-year-old Andy Putschoegl of Oakdale, MN. "I run my own business and I create a lot of form letters and whatnot to be sent out to clients. I do a little graphic design - mostly for school Web pages since I don't have too much for my own pages. I even got published in the June issue of MacWorld magazine for the graphical tip I sent in." 11-year-old Laura Shulak of Montreal, PQ says, "Neither of my parents knew how to make a home page, so I did it by myself and then I taught my sister." For 14-year-old Eric Mandela of Rahway, NJ, "I sit on the board of a local computer user group and run their BBS." Running a business, publishing a Web page and belonging to an Internet community are not atypical.
N-Geners are using digital media for entertainment. Computer games and video game cartridges and systems represent a $10 billion industry, $5.6 billion in the US alone - more than the combined amount generated by Hollywood movie studios. Kids report to us that they love computers and the Net primarily because they are fun! My daughter loves checking out Leonardo DiCaprio activities and my son shows his friends video clips from everything from The Simpsons to the movie he just saw.
N-Geners are using digital media for learning. The computers which populate 60% percent of American households with children are used for learning how dolphins give birth and for composing essays on "my summer vacation." N-Geners surf the Net in teams or alone to do projects, or to look up the stats of Wayne Gretzky. Computers have been creeping into classrooms for a decade and teachers are starting to change the way learning occurs, rather than using computers as fancy texts or testing devices. N-Geners are using digital media for communicating. They see digital media as a valuable tool to contact other N-Geners and form relationships. In a 1997 survey conducted by Teenage Research Unlimited, a whopping two thirds of American children say they have used the Internet from home, school or somewhere else. By the end of 1997 more than 15 million North American N-Geners will have access to the Internet at home through their own accounts or those of their parents. Chat groups and computer conferences are bursting out all over, populated by young people hungry for expression, discovery and their own self development. At certain stages they love to meet people and talk about anything. Over time they mature and their communications center around topics and themes. "E-mail me" has become the parting expression of a generation.
N-Geners are using digital media for shopping. While still in its early stages, increasingly they see the Net as a way to acquire goods and services and to investigate things they would like to buy or enjoy. Not just are they beginning to browse, check prices and even execute transactions on the Net - but also through their cyber investigations they are beginning to shape the purchasing behaviors of their parents in ways previously unimagined.
They manage their personal finances; organize protest movements; check facts to prove a teacher wrong; discuss "zits"; check the scores of their favorite team and chat online with its superstars; organize to save the rain forest; make C-friends (Cyber-friends) or get a C-boyfriend; cast votes; learn more about the illness of their little sister; go to a virtual birthday party; get video clips from a soon-to-be-released movie.
Growing Up Digital was written in collaboration with over 300 N-Geners who provided their opinions, experiences and insights over a one year period through a series of online Growing Up Digital forums. These forums were hosted by New Paradigm Learning Corporation, York University and the FreeZone network - cyber home to some 30,000 N-Geners. The research included interviews with a wide range of parents, business leaders, cyber gurus, policy makers, educators and marketing experts to get their perspectives on the broad range of topics covered in this book. As well, extensive demographic work and market research was conducted by the Alliance for Converging Technologies - a think tank which I chair.
While it is impossible to say that these 300 represent their generation, their views and experiences are rich with lessons. We also strived to make this group representative, selecting young people from different geographies, gender, age, socio-economic status and cultural background. Our research took us from affluent families and private schools to the tough neighborhoods of East Palo Alto. What is Happening to Our Children?
Based on media reports we should be very worried about this new generation. They are often portrayed as nerdy, isolated, glued to the screen, self-centered, and concerned only about making money when they grow up. Or worse they are cynical, angry, violent, and self-absorbed by their loveless culture of rap music, drugs, anger, graffiti and pornography. Increasingly, it is said that video games, computers and now, the Net are in part to blame. In fact a strong hostility towards youth and their relationship to technology is evident. Some of the hundreds of examples we came across in our research:
The above descriptions are evidence of the negative nature of much print and television coverage of youth and the Net. To read the newspapers is to encounter a picture of many N-Geners obsessed with cults, hacking, pornography or pyrotechnics. Children are portrayed often as either little criminals or little victims. The research company Roper Starch has charted a massive growth in concern about youth in the population as a whole. In 1991, 11 percent of the population said that their top concern was, "Growing concern about the way young people think and act." This grew to 21 percent in 1993 and by 1997 had tripled to 34 percent. The main fear of over one third of adults is youth - and this is growing! The Growing Up Digital kids told many stories of being treated in a hostile way by adults on the Net. "I was in Tikki On-line (MTV's cyberspace) when this lady came up to me and started yelling at me that I was a kid and kids don't belong in Tikki, so I left," recounts Adam Perez, 11 of San Francisco, CA. Kids and teenagers are often perceived as being at the root of all the problems perpetuated on the Net.
Recently an army of theorists, moralists and analysts have waded in to explain this inter-relationship between the rise of technology and the so-called decline of youth. Typical is Robert Bly who, in the 1996 book The Sibling Society, views most of societal woes rooted in youth, technology and the decline of adult authority. Children, according to Bly, "have been put into power." Most high schools are "run by their own students." He says about youth, "in many ways we are now living in a culture run by half adults" (a phrase astonishing for its cynicism and anti-youth bias.) Everywhere people are rejecting authority and hierarchy, in doing so killing the "vertical gaze" which is so important to civil society. "Like sullen teenagers we live in our peer group glancing side to side, rather than upward for direction." Youth culture has gone to hell. "The Beatles' affectionate lyrics are replaced by gangsta rap." Many youth are "Internet heads." He says today's young "Internet fanatic is no longer figuring out how to remain warm in this climate; he is not curious about mound-building ants or how past cultures did things. He is curious about his own curiosity." (My 11 year old son Alex would disagree on this latter point. His main activity on the Net to date has been precisely to learn about how past cultures did things.) To Bly, we live in a fantasy world. "... video games will provide fantasy death, and the Internet will provide fantasy friendships or fantasy sex." Bly's fear is that youth are taking over everything. "As in television, movies, the music business, advertising is run by the young for the young and almost no older mentors are left."
According to Bly, who are the main culprits? My reading says youth, technology and youth culture. "We are all human beings, now standing in the rubble of a destroyed literate society, looking at the ruins of education, family, and child protection. Technology has destroyed interrelations in the human community that have taken centuries to develop ... We are drowning in uncontrollable floods of information. We are living among dispirited and agonized teenagers who can't find any hope." This is not coming from some quack; Bly is a mainstream, well known, best-selling author and social commentator. While there are some interesting ideas in the book, his hostility is so over the top it should cause us all to listen up.
Why the apparent hostility towards youth and their media? People become hostile and defensive when threatened by something new and which they don't understand. Historic innovations and shifts in thinking are often received with coolness, even mockery. Vested interests fight change. Just as the leaders of Newtonian physics argued against Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, so the leaders of traditional media are typically skeptical, at best, towards the new. Both film and print media showed considerable unease with television.
Further, the baby boom established, for the first time, the precedent of an old generation feeling threatened by a new one - a generation gap. Previous generations didn't have the luxury of the prolonged adolescence enjoyed by the boomers. After a brief childhood, kids went straight into the workforce. But the baby boom children grew up in a time of relative prosperity and attended school for many more years than their parents. They had time to develop their own youth culture. Rock 'n roll, long hair, protest movements, weird clothes and new lifestyles made their parents uneasy. They also had a new medium to communicate their culture - television. Date the birth of the original generation gap to that moment when Elvis first appeared nationwide on TV.
What's happening today is similar but more complex. An old generation that is comfortable with its old communications media is being made uneasy by a new generation and a new communications media that is controlled by no one. For the first time the new generation understands the new media much better and is embracing it much faster. This challenge to the existing order is a formula for confusion, insecurity, and some nasty books, articles and TV shows about youth and their culture and media. The fact that you are reading this book shows you probably don't have such hostility and negative attitudes towards the new generation and its media. Perhaps you are an educator wondering how to fully exploit the Net for your students' benefit. You could be a sales manager trying to resolve the most effective means of marketing to this group, or as a government official you are wondering how scarce public dollars could be spent best. As a business executive you may wonder what the new generation means to business strategy, management philosophy or your personal use of new technology. Or you may be trying to be a good parent. The upshot is that you're interested in today's youth and want to understand them. But unfortunately you are not the majority. And perhaps you are feeling a little uneasy yourself. You know that the new technology is important for children but you worry about possible dangers. You see the promise but you read all the horror stories and you wonder what is true. This is something very new, very unprecedented. We worry about our children.
Television had a number of unintended consequences. There are legitimate concerns about the unforeseen results of this new revolution. As Alan Kay, now a Disney Fellow, said several years ago: "Much care has to be taken ... in order for this change to be positive. We don't have natural defenses against fat, sugar, salt, alcohol, alkaloids - or media ... Television should be the last mass communications medium to be naively designed and put into the world without a surgeon-general's warning!"
Is the hostility about the old style media thinkers warranted? What about their criticism of the new generation, its culture and media?
While there is much to be learned, our investigation indicates that the cynics, technophobes and moralists are dead wrong.
Everybody relax. The kids are all right. They are learning, developing and thriving in the digital world. They need better tools, better access, more services and more freedom to explore, not the opposite. Rather than hostility and mistrust on the part of adults, we need a change in thinking and in behavior on the part of parents, educators, law makers and business leaders alike.