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The Young & The Digital: Ch 1 & 3

October 20, 2010

Craig Watkins’ book, The Young and the Digital, uses surveys and interviews to get a picture the different types of experiences modern day teenagers have (growing up with the Internet at their fingertips) compared to their parents, grandparents, and all generations that came before this type of access and exposure to technology. With that in mind, he aims to explore what happens to people and their relationship with others when they conduct their social lives online. Chapter one provides a great introduction to get the reader to start thinking about this transition to a technology-filled lifestyle and what that means for the way we function as individuals and communities.


CHAPTER 1: Digital Migration: Young People’s Historic Move to the Online World

Wrap your head around this:

  • In 1950, 10% of American households had a TV set
    • Within 10 years, virtually every American home had at least 1 TV
    • Between 1980-1990, roughly 50-65% of households had MULTIPLE TV sets
  • In 1985, 8% of American homes had computers and 98% had TVs
    • By 1994, roughly 25% had computers
    • By 2003, 70 million American households (62%) had 1+ computers, 88% of which had Internet access
      • 76% of homes with school-aged children had computers, as compared to 57% of homes without kids.

So what do these numbers tell us? The generation WE students come from is the first generation of American teenagers to grow up with computers and the Internet at our disposal. Not surprisingly, we think nothing of the fact that computers are part of our every day lives…they helped shape how we “learn, live, play, and communicate” with our peers (4). Many of our earliest memories involve computers (common…you know you ALL loved playing the Oregon Trail game in elementary school computer lab J).  Knowing that, most of us cannot imagine our lives without the computer.

Next, Watkins turns the conversation towards the way the Internet can be seen as a promoter of independence for youth. “For the first generation of youth online, IM was one of their first truly independent experiences with the Internet…it was around this point that they began to go online, not because someone thought it was a good educational activity but rather because they wanted to.” (4-5) I can remember myself how ‘big” AIM was during middle school…it became the premiere place to talk to your friends and get the scoop on the latest gossip.

In 2005, roughly 60% of sixth graders used the Web, as compared to 82% of seventh graders and 94% of high school seniors. This transition had a large impact on the family life at home; many parents found themselves in unchartered territory, dealing with new challenges regarding their children’s computer usage.  Despite all of this, Watkins claims that the young people who grew up surrounded by technology were no different than the generations of youth before them (6).  Most teens are eager to break away from their parents and establish their own, independent identities. The only difference now is that they have a new outlet for doing so.

“IM satisfies two major needs in adolescent identity formation – maintaining individual friendships and belonging to peer groups.” (6) The fact that teens realized the social and communal abilities of the Internet early on could be one of the main factors behind the fact that youth seemed to adopt home computer usage more eagerly than their parents. Because of this, teenagers often became the technical support gurus of the family, flipping the power dynamics between parent and child in the home and leading the way in the transition to digital. Now a day, many businesses incorporate IM into their culture, and a great deal of adults (my dad included) have created their own online social networking accounts.

When broadband exploded, this further changed the way people (especially youth) used the Web.  By making the Internet a more visual experience instead of textually focused, it has developed into a viable alternative to television. Surveying college students revealed that 67% of those surveyed had watched less TV since coming to college (I myself don’t have any TV at my apartment…I watch all of the shows I want to see online). The Internet can’t be the total reason for this decline (we all know there are many more distractions at college than there are at home); yet, it should not be understated.  The students claimed to spend an average of 21 hours per week online, versus 14 hours a week watching TV.

Either way you look at it, it is undeniable the huge impact the Internet has made on the home life. Broadband, in particular, has revamped the Web’s technical capabilities and “paved the way for profound behavioral shifts and social transformation.” (11) The Internet has evolved from something we mainly consume to something we increasingly produce. Likewise, the computer has taken over the TV’s role of what Watkins’ calls “The First Screen”. No longer is the TV the first thing youth turn on when they come home to wind down or catch up on the news. Instead, 69% of youth surveyed said they logged on to the Internet as soon as they got home from work. “Young people are tuning out TV not because of poor programming…but because it is simply not compatible with the social and mobile-media lifestyle preferred by young people.” (12) In what I found to be a very interesting quote by technology leader Don Tapscott, “TV is controlled by adults. In contrast, children control much of their own world on the Net.” (13) The Web allows the user to be in charge of what they want to do and watch. Not surprisingly, TV has fallen behind the Internet and cell phones in the media mix of the youth surveyed.

It is important to remember that the group we are talking about is young people brought up not knowing a life without digital technology. Significantly, 65% of Americans ages 18-29 say that a home computer is a necessity of life. In contrast, only 25% of elderly Americans over 65 say the same thing. Instead, older generations still feel more drawn to the TV as their primary source of media technology because that is what they are more familiar and comfortable with. TV today, does not have a “must see” quality to it for most youth; however, for many the Internet has “must do” activities such as checking e-mail and Facebook accounts (or if you hang around with college boys, Fantasy Football leagues 😉 ). The Internet, without a doubt, can definitely be argued as the preferred screen in many households. What kind of society is being built as young people shift from a TV dominated world to a world dominated by the Internet? Is this good or bad?


Chapter 3: The Very Well Connected: Friendly, Bonding, and Community in the Digital Age

For young people, new digital technologies…are primary mediators of human-to-human connections. They have created a 24/7 network that blends the human experience with the technical to a degree we haven’t experienced before.” (47)


93% of young people surveyed own a computer; 96% a mobile phone. The ability to be connected to others through ANYTIME, ANYWHERE technology has expanded our sense of PLACE, what it means to be SOCIAL, and revamps our COMMUNITY experience. It seems we are “always on”, connected to some sort of screen, whether it be our cell phones, iPods, or PCs. For many, especially older generations, this notion seems to lead us to believe that technology is making young people antisocial; that we are more comfortable communicating via technology than face to face. What Watkins encourages us to explore is that what might appear to be a shift towards antisocialism might in reality be a change in the nature of what it means to be social among ‘the young and the digital’. That is, young people might be very social, just not in a way that would be understood or approved of by older generations. We need to look at technology not as being the thing that draws us into solidarity, but instead as the gateway to access people and relationships we might not otherwise have.

Likewise, it is worthwhile to look at the behavioral and societal impacts that this mobile-social network has: how it changes the way we maintain social relationships and communities, and the degree to which we feel that the types of relationships mediated by technology are engaging and rewarding.  One New York Times article is quoted as saying, “[Myspace] has the personality of an online version of a teenagers bedroom, where walls are papered with posters and photographs, the music is loud, and the grownups are an alien species.” (58) No longer is the mall or the movies the play to be for socializing; these offline areas do not provide a place that young people can truly call their own. Gathering, flirting, socializing, and connecting is all best done online.

Interestingly, Watkins makes a shift from the many new opportunities digital technology has afforded us to some negative views of the impacts of the new digital culture.  Although he recognizes the many benefits that have come from new technology, he doesn’t turn a blind eye to both sides of the coin.  He discusses the worry parents have about their kids (as young as two and three) being exposed to the digital lifestyle before they can develop the necessary face-to-face social skills that will be a valuable part of their lives.  He talks about social scientists apprehension about the violent and sexual media content that is exposed to young children and teenagers on a daily basis.  He even gets into the concerns of health professionals about rising childhood obesity rates as a result of “sedentary lifestyles associated with high levels of media use”. (50)

Ultimately, he says, the core concern is this:


Is technology turning young people into an electronic herd of social recluses- that is, a generation that prefers interacting with a computer, mobile phone, or gaming screen rather than a person face-to-face? ….Do the social Web and mobile phones undercut our ability to develop the ties that bind and keep us together? ” (51-52)

Many argue that you cannot truly establish bonds of mutual trust and reciprocity with someone you interact with primarily through computer-mediated communication. What do you think?


Watkins doesn’t believe there is enough evidence to sustain the claim that young people are indeed more comfortable in front of a screen than in person.  In addition, he does not feel that the migration to the online world has lead youth to abandon their off-line lives. Instead, the Web is being used to facilitate face-to-face interactions….the majority of students interviewed did not feel online communication was as satisfying or rewarding as live discussions.

In summary, this chapter pulled out the two major reasons young people go online: to strengthen personal ties with good friends (whom they had already met offline) and to keep in touch with weak acquaintances (again, met offline).  While committed to use of technology, young people’s main drive to this commitment is created by their desire to stay connected with others. Still able to maintain healthy and ‘normal’ relationships with the people around them, the social Web does not appear to be changing the kinds of relationships young people form, but instead revamping ways they are able to manage these relationships.


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