Young people develop as “the sum of past experiences” and there is no denying that a large portion of these “past experiences” are now created online. It was only a few years ago when children being sent to their bedrooms was considered a punishment. Now, it’s a child’s dream. Through gadgets like personal computers, mobile phones and gaming consoles, youngsters are permanently “plugged in” and constantly creating virtual experiences that will eventually define their personality.
A recent study by Childwise in the UK found that, on average, children between the ages of 5 to 16 spend an hour and fifty minutes online in addition to two hours and forty minutes, per day, watching TV. Furthermore, 62% of 16 year olds have their own computer; this percentage drops to 24% for five and six year olds which, of course, is still a considerably high percentage. Almost half (46%) of all children questioned said they have internet access in their room and two thirds (65%) go online most days, with the average child using the internet more than five times a week.
As a Digital professional, these findings make me happy. It seems that this generation of consumers will allow me to exercise what I am passionate about for years to come.
Parents, politicians and doctors might, on the other hand, find the results alarming and occasionally scary. For example, research by the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK and the World Health Organization (WHO) found that the more time children spend online or in front of the TV, the less physically active they are. As a result they may develop health issues like obesity which in turn might cause heart or respiratory complications.
Perhaps though, we need to look at the findings of the research in a different way; an emerging generation of passive (both physically and socially) online users and why this indifference bodes negatively for the future of the Internet. It might have been easy to compare the habits of older and newer generations but maybe it’s the wrong way to approach the subject. In the words of Baz Luhrmann, “When you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders.” In other words, things were different.
The younger generation of online users operates as a collective; its sense of “virtual society” is strong. The “fall” of MySpace and Bebo and the popularity of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can be attributed, to a certain extent, to the trendsetting power of the younger user.
However, with easy access to the Internet, hundreds of TV channels and numerous gadgets, this generation has also been described by many as asocial, restless and less willing to learn. A number of academics, social commentators, politicians and of course parents, argue that the rapid technological advancements are to blame for the increasing social alienation in today’s youth, which spends more time in the virtual world than the real one.
Recent research commissioned by Telstra found that 65% of parents believe that children who use social sites are distracted from doing their homework, concluding that those sites contribute to lethargic learning. An experiment contacted by Duke University found that children will use easily available Internet access for online gaming, social networking and other online activities, rather than doing homework and resulting in lower reading and math scores. Furthermore, in one experiment conducted at Cornell University, half a class of high school students was allowed to use Internet-connected laptops during a lecture, while the other half had to keep their computers shut. Those who browsed the Web performed much worse on a subsequent test of how well they retained the lecture’s content.
The argument is that when an increasing amount of young people’s free time is spent not online but in structured voluntary activities (like arts, sports and organizations), initiative is fostered along with a sense of identity and other positive developmental outcomes. In addition (and excluding the health benefits of being active both physically and mentally), being an active member of a community also means progress; a social generation is one that questions everything and after a few tries, makes things better.
It goes without saying that the Internet transformed how we live our lives, how we communicate, learn, socialize, shop and entertain. The interactive nature of the Internet and its never-ending flow of content can promote education, information as well as entertainment from a young age; it is therefore essential that we do not exclude it from any structured activity. Being online has become a part of our lives, we need to embrace this new environment and find new ways to integrate it into an overall strategy with which we approach our lives. It will come naturally; we just have to accept that some things will have to continually evolve.
As Digital professionals, it is also our responsibility to educate the younger generation so it can reach a healthy balance in their way of life and provide examples early on of more efficient online behavior.
Efstratios Samaras, Manager, Marketing Intelligence at Organic