A real and dramatic difference is emerging in how teenagers handle personal relationships compared to adults in their late 20s, transforming the social lives of teens and often bewildering their elders.
For the younger crowd, online time is steadily supplanting personal contact with friends. A recent Nielson/NetRatings study documented a 24 percent rise in Web use in 2005 to an average 26 hours each month.
For many, the Web is a way to reach out and bond with people with diverse backgrounds from innumerable places with minimal effort.
“There seems to be an insatiable desire to see who is out there,” said Mehdi Kujoory about his teenage cousin. “Not five minutes passes from the time I log on to my computer than I get an instant message from her.”
The ease with which teens now access their social communities is striking. Instant messaging has replaced the telephone as the preferred mode to reach out to friends, as it allows instant access on the cheap. Parents can’t fret over astronomical phone bills or minutes used, and as a result they are largely kept in the dark regarding a significant portion of their child’s social life.
“It becomes as necessary to have various accounts online that are up to date as it does to have a working cell phone,” said 17-year-old Amanda Naeemi.
Teens differentiate their mode of contact with respect to their target audience. If you want to contact a teacher or parent, e-mail is the proper format. But to chat with one of the dozens of friends on your MySpace of Facebook account, there is no alternative but to instant message them.
A strange dichotomy relates to teen use of the Internet. According to the National Attitudinal Poll conducted in June 2006, 77 percent of parents recognize the importance of the internet as an educational tool. But that same poll reports that 85 percent of parents say that it poses “the greatest risk to their children among all forms of media.”
This concern seems to be supported by a 2006 survey by the Intelligence Group that reported that nearly 1 in 3 teens claim to have had a “scary” online experience.
“With supervision, young kids can be impacted by the Internet in a positive way which should allow them to be more prepared for the world that awaits them,” said Joanna Guest, an elementary school teacher who was somewhat awed by her pupils’ prospects.
Despite certain aversions and preconceptions held by adults, studies have shown that teens are more aware of their surroundings than were their predecessors.
According to a 2005 Pew study, Web utilization has grown by 24 percent from the same period four years prior. Staying connected, be it to friends, teachers, or to current events, is now a priority and something of a birthright.
“The digital revolution is increasing, not decreasing, the connection between American teens and news,” said Eric Newton, director of Knight Foundation’s Journalism Initiatives.
Weighing the benefits against the fears, real or imagined, of how the Internet affects youth is likely to be a process under continuous scrutiny for some time to come, or at least until the next boogieman rears its head.