Read an Excerpt
From chapter one, "Digital Migration: Young People’s Historic Move to the Online World"
The diffusion of the Internet in American homes was considerably more rapid than the computer. The Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey began probing Americans about home Internet use in 1997. That year 18 percent of households in America reported using the Internet. At the start of the millennium, in the year 2000, four in ten households, or 40 percent, were connected to the Internet. By the close of 2001 more than 50 percent of American homes were accessing the Web. Sixty-two million households, or 55 percent, had Internet access by 2003. That was more than triple the proportion of Internet households in 1997. Nearly all households with a computer in 2003, 88 percent, had access to the Internet. Indeed, by the late 1990s the Internet was the primary motivation for purchasing a computer, as the two, in effect, became synonymous. Our lives, needless to say, have never been the same.
The generation of young people we met came of age in technology-rich households. In fact, they were the first generation of American teens to grow up with computers and the Internet literally at their fingertips. It was their presence in the household, more than any other factor, that correlated most consistently with the presence of computers in the home. In 2003, 76 percent of homes with school-age children, six to seventeen years old had a computer compared to 57 percent of homes without kids. Also, homes with school-age children were more likely than homes without them to be connected to the Internet, 67 and 57 percent, respectively.
Not surprisingly, many of the young people we talk to share stories of how the Internet has become a routine part of their everyday lives, shaping how they learn, live, play, and communicate with their peers. Many of them were introduced to computers at an early age, around nine years old. Many of their earliest memories involve computer games, the gateway experience to computers for most children. But not long after that, many of the young people we met were introduced to the Internet. As twenty-one-year-old Jonathan told me during an interview, “I can’t imagine living without computers because I’ve never really known a world without them.” Like many of his peers, Jonathan has also never known a world without an Internet that offers unprecedented access to information, entertainment content, and, most important, his close circle of friends.
The initial attraction to the online world for many young Internet users was e-mail. Twenty-year-old Allison recalls e-mailing her friends when she was ten. “At the time, “Allison said, “e-mail was the cool thing to do and it was new and a lot of fun too.” Allison laughed at herself now: “I would call my two closest friends and ask them to go online and respond to my e-mail.” Early in the Internet’s history, researchers often considered e-mail the “killer app” because of its heavy use. Young people’s new media behaviors turned a pivotal corner in 1997. That was the year AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) was introduced and became an immediate hit with teenagers.
When we asked young people to describe their first true adventures online, they easily shared vivid memories of IM and the time they spent communicating with their friends on the service. As young teens they rushed home from school to use IM. For decades, when American youth arrived home from school, they turned on their television screens. But the enthusiastic embrace of IM reversed, almost overnight, a four-decade-old habit of daily life in America. IM was a way to extend the time teens spent with their friends. The rise of the instant messaging generation was a harbinger of things to come, namely, the Internet as an emphatically social and communal space. It would take a while before the larger public began to realize what was happening, but young people were making their way to the digital world.
For the first generation of online youth, IM was one of their first truly independent experiences with the Internet—that is, time spent online alone rather than under the direct supervision of an adult authority figure like parents and teachers. It was around this point in their lives that they began going online, not because someone thought it was a good educational or novel activity but rather because they wanted to. Research suggests that the early teens, ages thirteen to fourteen, represent a digital tipping point. A 2005 Pew Internet & American Life Project report writes, “Starting junior high seems to be the moment when most teens who were not previously online get connected.” In 2005 about 60 percent of the sixth graders Pew surveyed used the Web compared to 82 percent of seventh graders. Among twelfth graders, 94 percent were using the Internet. Online services like AIM were tailor-made for teenagers transitioning toward their own peer networks and greater independence from adults. At a time in their life when the world as well as their own bodies and behaviors were undergoing profound changes, adolescents were offered a chance to assert a modicum of control over their lives with IM. Later, with the rise of social-network sites like Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook, they asserted even more control over their bodies by producing and performing elaborate online identities.
Twenty-year-old Victoria believes that IM was thrilling and liberating at the same time. “IM was like the best of both worlds,” she recalled. “I could do my homework, chat with my friends, and surf the Internet at the same time without getting into any trouble.” IM was also a great way to get the dish on all of the latest drama in school. In Victoria’s words, it became “kind of addictive.” In fact, her parents, like most other adults, had no idea how much Victoria used IM. Young people’s migration to digital left an indelible mark on family life. Many parents found themselves confronting new challenges regarding the impact of computers in their children’s lives. A New York Times article on the phenomenal role of IM in young people’s lives maintains that the application turned many teens into “the overconnecteds,” that is, a generation of youth that became obsessed with the state of almost constant connection to their friends and social networks. Before long, Victoria, like many other teens, found herself awake and online as late as one and two o’clock in the morning on school nights. After a number of bleary-eyed mornings and suspicion that Victoria was doing more than homework on her computer, her parents established stricter rules that limited her time online.
Despite all of this, the young people who grew up in technology-rich homes were no different than the generations of youth who preceded them. Like most teens since post–World War II America, the so-called “digital natives” eagerly embraced opportunities to break away from their parents and establish their own cultural milieus, independence, and identities. It just so happened that for this and successive generations, digital technologies allowed them to branch out in some hyper-efficient and extraordinarily creative ways. The use of e-mail and IM in the 1990s established one fact about young people’s online behavior that remains true today: staying connected to peers is paramount. According to one group of researchers, “IM satisfies two major needs in adolescent identity formation—maintaining individual friendships and belonging to peer groups.” Young people were drawn to online platforms that facilitate opportunities to develop extremely strong, persistent, and real-time ties to their peers while also interacting with a wide range of cultural content such as pictures, music, and video.
From the very beginning of home-computer adoption, school-age children embraced the technology like no other segment in America. In fact, if you go back and look at the first academic studies of home-computer life, one theme stands out: young people enthusiastically embraced the technology. As computers began entering more and more homes in the late 1980s, many adults shied away from the technology. Children and young teens, on the other hand, gravitated to home computers. They learned, played, and, most of all, experimented with the technology. In the beginning it was mostly boys, but soon thereafter girls developed great interests in computers too.
In 1995 Robert Kraut, a Carnegie Mellon University professor, and his colleagues launched the HomeNet field trial to learn more about home Internet use. One of their initial experiments involved supplying forty-eight families in Pittsburgh with a computer and Internet service. The sample cut across a diverse spectrum of America. Fifty-seven percent of the participants were female. Roughly 25 percent had an annual family income under $35,000. A fifth of the sample, 20 percent, had never used computers before. And 24 percent were from nonwhite households. The Carnegie Mellon team investigated a variety of things, including where the computer was located as well as who used the computer and for what purposes and for how long. At the time of the HomeNet project, roughly 37 percent of American households had computers.
During the first four weeks of the Carnegie Mellon study, teenage males and females were logging in about eight and six hours a week online, respectively. Adult females came in at around one hour a week, whereas adult males spent less than an hour online. Teenagers, the researchers discovered, were the family gateway to the Web. In one of the first attempts to report on their findings, the Carnegie Mellon group wrote, “Teenagers’ enthusiasm motivated other family members to use the Internet, and their skill helped them overcome barriers.” Of all the variables that the researchers examined—including, for example, race and ethnicity, gender, education, household income, and social extroversion—none was a more powerful predictor of computer use than age. Kraut and his colleagues reported that parents had to impose time limits on their children’s computer use. When it came to personal computer use in the home, young people were true early adopters. The question, of course, is why?
It turns out that teens were especially attracted to the applications that allowed them to connect with their peers from school. No matter if it was e-mail, Internet Relay Chat, or multiuser dungeons (MUDs), teens’ use of the Web was principally social. Though the metaphor of the “information superhighway” dominated early public discourse about the Internet, teens realized early on the value of the Web as a social and communal tool. As I discuss in subsequent chapters, this is a resonant and consistent theme.