by Barry Fishman
Welcome to the "Kids Today..." column. In this space, I will try
to keep you updated on the technology that kids (both Safe Sitters
and their younger charges) are using to express themselves, to
entertain themselves, to educate themselves, and to keep themselves
Our objective is to examine trends, pointing to the best
research and data, clarifying what seems truly worrisome and what
you don't need to be so concerned about. We will talk about cell
phones, social networking, video games, and other emerging
technologies that seem so natural to kids, but feel unnatural to
many adults. We begin with a general consideration of kids and
Are Kids Today Different? Or: The More Things
#1, Spring 2012
The kids of today seem different than just a decade ago, and
vastly different from our own childhood. But this is nothing new.
Each generation has its own evolving social norms, its own ways of
communicating, and of course its own technology. So how can
we communicate with this generation, to help them become
responsible and responsive teens and young adults?
As I said, these changes may be accelerating, but they really
are not new. My great-grandparents used Western Union to send short
text messages. My grandparents used rotary phones. My parents were
the first to use cordless phones, and my generation was first with
the cellular phone. Now it seems like our teens all have cellular
phones, only they've stopped talking on them… they've gone back to
sending short text messages!
You may have heard about a divide between "digital natives" and
"digital immigrants." Natives are those who have been born since
digital technologies and the Internet became widespread (and cannot
imagine life without it). Immigrants still recall what life was
like in the "old country," and we sometimes miss it there. No
matter how up-to-date we immigrants may fancy ourselves, this new
land will always seem a bit strange. We don't think about texting
when we could call. It would never occur to us to "tweet" about
what we had for breakfast this morning.
But are "kids today" really all that different? To
quote the title of a 2010 study of children and technology use by
Mimi Ito and colleagues, they are actually doing what kids have
always done: "
Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out."
Sure, there are a small set of youth who "geek out," constantly
amazing us with their online creations and innovation. But this is
a small group on the whole, and there have always been
kids like this (think of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates). Many more kids
are in the "messing around" category. They use technology to
explore creativity and identity, but in a casual way. The vast
majority of kids are just "hanging around" in the online equivalent
of the food court at the mall. They are using technology to
connect with friends, build and maintain relationships, and just
These kinds of youth activity, especially the "hanging around"
part, have been around forever (see: American Graffiti).
But because the technology itself is more pervasive, the activity
is harder to draw boundaries around and seems to reach into more
aspects of everyday life. It's no longer just the telemarketer
interrupting dinner. Now its also the text message from a
Another change is that online messages are persistent. A Google
search can bring up youthful indiscretions that in the past would
be, well, ancient history. Some employers are now requesting that
job candidates reveal their Facebook passwords. (Note: this might
not be legal.) And did you know that all public posts on
twitter.com are archived by the Library of Congress? Now posterity
will know what you had for breakfast.
In an always-online world the stakes for one's identity are
tremendous. We need to do a better job of understanding these
stakes and teaching our children how to craft, manage, and protect
their online identities. How can we help kids make better choices?
A first step is to better understand their behavior.
An excellent source of data on teens and the Internet is the Pew Research Center's Internet &
American Life Project. A recent report entitled "
Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites: How American
teens navigate the new world of digital citizenship" is
revealing both in terms about what teens experience online, but
also in terms of what is revealed about how adults can provide
Pew reports that 80% of teens currently use some form of social
networking (primarily Facebook). Among teens ages 14-17, use is
higher (92% for girls and 85% for boys) than among younger teens,
ages 12-13 (60% for boys, 67% for girls). I recommend reading the
report for the actual numbers; I will share more general
observations based on their data.
Though teens report that overall they have positive social
experiences online and that their peers are "mostly kind" to each
other, there is a sizable subgroup who get caught in a loop of
negative interactions and feedback. Discouragingly, Pew found that
1 in 10 teens report having been bullied by phone, text, or online.
But in the "the more things change" category, old-fashioned
real-world bullying is still prevalent, with nearly 1 in 5 teens
reporting this kind of trouble offline.
What is most interesting is that, when teens seek advice, 86% of
teens turn to their parents. 70% say that they get advice from
teachers or other adults at school. This is encouraging, as it
indicates that if adults are willing to give advice, teens seem
willing to listen.
However, only a third of teens who have experienced online
bullying seek out advice, and boys and older girls are less likely
to seek out advice in response to an adverse event than younger
girls. This should worry us, because children most need support
after negative experiences. But for those teens who do ask for
help, they overwhelmingly report (92%) that the advice they got was
valuable. The majority of teens (58%) say that their parents have
the greatest influence on their thinking about appropriate or
inappropriate behavior online. That is truly refreshing.
What to think about this data? Often, when we perceive a threat,
we try to protect our children by prohibiting certain kinds of
interactions. But "grounding" someone in the digital age is likely
to be an exercise in futility, given the tremendous range of ways
to get online. A more responsible approach is to listen and give
teens good advice about how to interact online, which is to say,
how to interact with others. The Golden Rule still applies, even in
the online world.
Of course, this entire enterprise is complicated by the
native/immigrant divide. Unlike topics in which the
cross-generational experience is more similar than dissimilar (like
sex education), social networking tools may be better understood by
our children than by ourselves. But at root, these tools are about
people interacting with other people, and that is something we can
all understand. As parents and instructors of Safe Sitters, it is
crucial that we take responsibility for this and talk with children
about managing their online identity and safety before
As we consider other technologies in this column, you may note a
recurring theme: problems that arise with new technologies are
hardly ever inherent to the technology itself. Rather, technology
acts like an amplifier for our own foibles and tendencies. Any
technology that is sufficiently powerful or transformative will
have both positive and negative effects. We can and should use
technology to foster the development of healthy and engaged youth.
I'll try to help.
Barry Fishman, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Learning
Technologies in the School of Education and School of Information
at the University of Michigan. He served on the Safe Sitter, Inc.
Board of Directors from 2009-2012.