Me, MySpace, and I
Parenting the Net Generation
By Larry D. Rosen
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2007 Larry D. Rosen
All rights reserved.
Living in a Virtual World
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"We must see the Internet as a new social environment in which universal adolescent issues such as identity, sexuality, and a sense of self-worth are played out in a virtual world in ways that are both new and old. Adolescents are basically co-constructing their own environments."
—Dr. Patricia Greenfield, Children's Digital Media Center, University of California, Los Angeles, and Dr. Zheng Yan, University at Albany, State University of New York
* * *
"We taught our four-year-old how to use our cell phone to call 911 and his grandparents in case of an emergency. That night he asked to sleep with the phone, which he often did with new toys. Ten minutes later we heard him talking to his grandmother and telling her goodnight."
—Mark, parent of Mikey
* * *
"I don't call anyone any more—I check their MySpace, IM them, or e-mail them. First thing when I get home, I check my MySpace and am usually on and off until I go to bed. I honestly think that if MySpace weren't around, I wouldn't have a social life."
—Cameron, age 12
* * *
Call them what you will—the Net Generation, Millennials, Generation M, the ADHD Generation, Generation Y, the Wired Generation, or even the "What-I-Want When-I-Want-it Generation"—they are the first children, tweens, and teens who have grown up in a technological world where nearly everything is computerized. Their cribs included an electronic heartbeat bear to calm their sleep and a video camera for parents to keep an eye on them from the living room or the office. Their first toys had digital readouts. They learned to use a mouse as soon as they could sit up on a chair. They were on the Internet and sending e-mail before entering kindergarten. This generation does not use technology, they live it. It is simply part of their world, which, for many, is a virtual world that exists inside a box, and in their minds. Many of their friends are scattered around the world. Most of these global friends they will never meet.
This is certainly not the first generation to use media that worried and frightened parents. When the television became a household item, parents fretted about its effects on their children. On the tube, Elvis swiveled his pelvis for everyone to see, and the mere appearance of the Beatles' Paul, John, George, and Ringo sent teen girls into wild screaming fits of excitement—both of which confirmed their parents' suspicions about this new media. The sexual and violent messages conveyed by comic books in the '50s, drug-laden lyrics in rock music in the '60s and '70s, heavy metal of the '80s, rap from the '90s, and hip-hop and violent video games in the first decade of the new millennium spurred many parents to lobby their congressmen to push for video game, television, and music rating systems to protect their children. Although children have always done things that their parents either don't understand or approve, what is different now is that the Net Generation is the first to live their lives completely on a nonstop diet of media. Call them what you will, tweens and teens are tethered to their media nearly twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, which concerns parents and educators.
The Net Generation has seen more rapid technological change than any before. Consumer researchers measure the acceptance of technology—called the penetration rate—by how many years a new form of technology takes to reach an audience of fifty million people. Radio, for example, took thirty-eight years; the telephone took only twenty years. Television, first popularized in the Baby Boomer generation, took only thirteen years to reach fifty million homes. For the most part, adults drove radio and television sales. In the last decade, though, adolescents have been the ones driving new technology adoption. Cell phones took only twelve years to reach fifty million and cable TV took seven years. The Internet took only four years as did instant messaging and iPods. Blogs took only three years and, amazingly, MySpace amassed 125 million members in two and a half years, while YouTube took only one year! The accelerated pace is dizzying.
This rapid emergence of technological change did not catch Alvin Toffler by surprise. In his 1974 book, The Third Wave, he described an age when each successive wave of technological innovation would emerge faster and faster. Using historical data Toffler noted that as one wave receded and another arose, the point at which they crossed was rife with social unrest including wars, revolutions, and other forms of societal discord. Looking at our world today, it is clear that social unrest is the norm, which is precisely what Toffler would have predicted as waves of new technology continue to rise and fall in a matter of just a few years.
Until recently, adolescents used the Internet to communicate through e-mail, sending instant messages (IM), chat rooms, and gaming sites. Online social interaction was mostly one-on-one or within small groups. The new millennium introduced the idea of online social networking or "virtual communities." The first true virtual community was the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (the WELL) started in 1985 by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant. Until recently, virtual communities were groups of Internet users who came together around a common bond. Some playedDungeons and Dragons, while others discussed weighty political issues. Most were specialized and none were very popular.
Then came MySpace. As we know, MySpace was not the first virtual community to become a "social network." Cyberspace has been hosting groups of people bonded through common interests since the inception of the Internet. In fact, the Internet developed in response to the need for geographically dispersed groups of researchers to communicate with one another. But somehow MySpace was different. Perhaps founders Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe were more hip and insightful than previous social networkers. After all, MySpace started in July 2003 as a place for musicians to share their music. The bottom line is that MySpace clicked with the techno-savvy under-thirty crowd and they flocked to the site in record numbers. In July 2005, Rupert Murdock's News Corp bought MySpace for $580 million. With its millions of members, MySpace is the sixth largest "country" in the world and has far more monthly visitors than any other Internet site. To put this in perspective, MySpace gets nearly three times as many hits as Google and one in ten paid Internet advertisements can be found on MySpace. It is the virtual equivalent of the '50s drive-in—the place to be, because everyone seems to hang out there.
MySpace is one of thousands of cyberspace meeting places, but in its brief existence it has experienced more rapid growth than any other Internet site in history. Approximately half of MySpacers are under eighteen, and of those, most are under sixteen. Log on and ask to see a listing of MySpacers from your local high school and middle school. You will be amazed.
But nothing this huge comes without its detractors. When Virginia college student Taylor Behl was found murdered by a man she met on MySpace, the response was immediate. A school principal in Vermont blocked MySpace access at school. A diocese school in New Jersey not only banned MySpace on campus, but also forbade students from using it at home. A high school in Iowa, upset about a student's depictions of a teacher on MySpace, suspended the student and restricted all students from using the site. Daily newspapers report on sexual predators roaming MySpace and highlight sexualized photos of young children, profanity, and evidence of drugs, alcohol, and sex found on MySpace.
In fact, NBC's television program, Dateline: To Catch a Predator, brought the issue of Internet sexual predation to a national audience. Each week, an adult, posing as a twelve- to thirteen-year-old girl, would talk to adults online, eventually inviting one to visit her at home when, as she told him, she would be alone. When the man arrived, he was greeted by the girl or boy, who would leave to slip into something more comfortable. At that point, Chris Hansen would walk out and inform the predator that he had been caught. An audience of more than ten million viewed each episode, and during the first two shows, they heard the statistic that "at any given moment there are fifty thousand potential child molesters prowling the Internet." This figure was proffered without any validating data and removed after the second show, but even without it, the impact of the show is widespread. Although MySpace is not mentioned directly on Dateline: To Catch a Predator, as the preeminent meeting place for tweens and teens, it worries parents that their children may be exposed to online sexual predators. As a response, MySpace now uses a national database of convicted sex offenders to keep predators out of its community.
Parents, who were born and raised before the widespread use of the Internet, are perplexed and worried when they see their children "living" in the potentially dangerous virtual world, happily multitasking for hours on end. As responsible parents, they want answers to a lot of questions, including: "What is MySpace?" "What is my child doing on MySpace?" "Who are the people communicating with her, where do they live, and what types of people are they?" "What are MySpacers talking about and how does that influence my child's values, beliefs, and sense of identity?" "Is spending all that time on MySpace hurting his grades, or making him spend less time with the people in the real world?" "What kind of impact do her online activities have on the quality of our family time?" "Is he safe on MySpace?" "What sexual messages are they sending and receiving?"
As a research psychologist, the phenomenon of MySpace, the behaviors and attitudes of Net Generation children, and the reactions of their parents all fascinate me. It is clear to me, based on more than twenty-five hundred interviews with parents and teens, that adults are concerned about what children are doing in cyberspace in general, and on MySpace in particular. My research explores what tweens and teens are doing on MySpace and shows that although there are potential hazards, adult concerns and fears may be largely unfounded. The evidence shows that MySpace provides a relatively safe forum for children to explore their identity, make lifelong friendships, experiment with their sexuality, and simply practice life. Behind the screen they feel free to try things that are difficult, if not impossible in the face-to-face life at school, home, or the mall. This does not mean that there are no hazards to leading a virtual lifestyle, and we face these issues head-on in this book. But first, it is important to see what exactly children are doing in their technological world.
Even the most technologically savvy parents may need a road map to the Internet, or the Information Superhighway, a phrase popularized by Al Gore in the early 1990s. In 2006, the terms "podcasting," "blogging," "friending," "googling," "wiki," and "phishing" were added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Kids use "mapquest" and "google" as verbs to describe what they do online. "Do you MySpace?" they ask a new friend. YouTube features more than one hundred million videos, many created by adolescents and young adults; Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, with information supplied by the public rather than experts, is a popular place for teens to start researching a school paper. Often, four or five IM conversations are open on their computers, and they are listening to music on their iPods, while they are supposed to be doing homework. They sit glued to their X-Box or Wii game console, watch their favorite shows, which they have TiVo'd, talk and text message on their cell phones, and spend a large portion of their waking hours interacting with one form of media or another.
Studies by reputable groups including the Kaiser Family Foundation, Pew Internet & American Life Project, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, CBS NewsWatch, America Online, Nielsen Media Service, and the Children's Digital Media Project have found that children and teens spend an amazing amount of time using digital media. The best estimate is that media use consumes six hours and twenty-one minutes per day, including television, Internet and computer use (for nonschool-related uses), music, and video games. This means that in a seven-day week, nearly forty-five hours are devoted to the use of at least one form of media. Given that most children and teens multitask (more on this later), this actually equates to eight hours and thirty-three minutes of daily media consumption. Kids are making media a fulltime job with overtime.
This certainly doesn't leave much time for interacting with parents, reading, or just doing nothing. Clearly, tweens and teens are completely booked up, with two-thirds of their waking, nonschool hours consumed by media. To quote Dr. Edward Hallowell, an expert on Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), our children are suffering from "screen sucking," in which technology literally holds them captive in front of whatever screen they are viewing at the time. Let's take a look at specific media and see what activities are occupying so much of our kids' lives.
* 87% of teens are online, increasing from 60% of twelve-year-olds to 82% of thirteen-year-olds and 94% of sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds.
* Teens are online an average of five days a week, two to three hours a day.
* 67% of teens and 40% of preteens own a cell phone, spending an average of an hour per day talking. Two-thirds of tweens and teens that own or have a cell phone send text messages daily.
* 87% of eight- to seventeen-year-olds play video games, the vast majority of them on a daily basis.
* 75% of online teens use instant messaging, chatting with an average of thirty-five people, for three hours per week.
* 75% of adolescents spend two to three hours per day downloading or listening to music online.
* 80% of twelve- to seventeen-year-olds use MySpace weekly.
Since 1990, researchers have asked teens what technology they absolutely could not live without, or more specifically, "If you were required to give up all of your technology and toys, what is the last you would be willing to let go of?" In 1990 it was a radio or CD player. In 2004 it was the computer and the Internet. In 2006 teens said that they would want to keep their cell phones to the bitter end. One family I interviewed typified how different generations treasure different technologies. Jim, the father of Gavin, age eleven, and Melody, age fifteen, told me: "They would have to pry my laptop out of my hands and rip out my wireless access to the Internet. And then I would find the closest library and get online there. I literally live online for my job as the vice president of distribution for a paper company. I have to have online access or I can't keep track of my people and we will lose business." His wife, Franny, had a different perspective. "With Jim gone on business or glued to the computer and the kids in their rooms doing their thing, I would be lost without my television and TiVo. I have at least ten shows that I watch each week and since I work full time and have to do all the household cooking, I only get to relax and watch TV at night. Please don't let anyone ever take away my flat screen HDTV that I just got for Christmas. I love it!"
Now listen to the kids. Gavin said, "I would die if someone took away my Wii that I got for Christmas. It is so much more cool than my X-Box. I only get to use it after I finish my homework during the week but on Saturday and Sunday I get up really early and play on it all day long. Sometimes my friends come over and we do the boxing or golf, but it is fun even if I am by myself. Zelda is so cool with all the hot new graphics." I had to wait for Melody to finish texting her best friend and IMing her boyfriend to ask her the same question. "Don't even think of taking away either my phone or my MySpace. I will do anything my mom asks me so that she won't take either of them away. Heck, she even has me cooking dinner once a week—I do great tacos and burritos—and in return I get to have three thousand text messages a month and can mostly be on MySpace any time I have no homework."
Given that nearly all kids are online, what exactly are they doing? If Gavin and Melody are typical, which according to my research, they are, they are doing everything from buying products to downloading music, from sharing videos to playing online games. More than three-fourths of tweens and teens also use the Internet to get their news about the world and nearly one-third use it to locate health-related information. Although adults may not trust the Internet as a source of information, kids check Wikipedia—a mostly peer-edited encyclopedia—first in their information searches. Even when they do get news from more traditional sources, they are more than likely to choose the Daily Show than network news. Their lives are a steady diet of media, most of which happens on the Internet. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Me, MySpace, and I by Larry D. Rosen. Copyright © 2007 Larry D. Rosen. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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