Teens Are Wired ... And, Yes, It's OK

Generic: GenTech - The Wiring Of Teen America CBS/AP

This story was written by CBSNews.com's Melissa P. McNamara.



For 16-year-old Rae Tyree, a junior in Ann Arbor, Mich., hanging out with friends often means "just sitting and watching each other talk online." Sometimes they make definite plans to actually do something in person, like going to a movie. But mostly their friendships are online.

"It was an addiction," Rae's mother Karen says, referring to her daughter's frequent need to be online during her middle-school years. Karen says Rae could not get her homework done because she was always online. "One time she spent the night with a friend whose father had computers networked in his house and they spent the evening in separate rooms on IM," Karen says.

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Rae is hardly alone. Technology is so integrated into teens' lives that it's difficult to measure where their offline life begins and their online life ends.

Their daily routines buzz with cell phones ringing with the latest tunes, pings from their IM accounts and daily computer runs to see if they've been "friended" on MySpace or "Facebooked." On average, teens say they spend almost three hours a day on the Internet on a typical day, according to a CBSNews.com poll.

For many teens, checking MySpace or Facebook is the first and last thing they do each day. In our poll, nearly half of teens said they post something on these Web sites at least occasionally. "MySpace allows you to talk to your friends at any time; it's never too late," Rae says..

When CBSNews.com set out to explore this always-wired teen generation, GenTech, we tried to look at nearly every aspect of the way technology and teens intersect. Adult culture, after all, is certainly very worried about how teenagers are dealing with this constant rush of technology in their lives. But after sending reporters into nearly every nook and cranny of teen life, we found the news is overwhelmingly positive.

However, the pace of this social change is profound — and as with any quick change, it's difficult to know what the consequences may be down the line. What is important about all this is not just the effect of technology on teens themselves, but how their use of technology is changing family dynamics, interpersonal relationships, crime, education and even the way major companies conduct business.

This notion of teens being in touch all the time, anytime, is striking, says Lee Rainie, founding director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "Their conversations never end and anytime a sort of new input enters their lives — gossip or real news — they have the capacity to broadcast it to a wider group," Rainie says.

The speed and accessibility of technology makes it difficult to even remember how we conducted our lives when the world wasn't so wired, when just 15 years ago conversations that weren't face to face took place either over the telephone or by written letter.

In the 1980's, when my family purchased our first computer, it was a big, clunky machine used only for simple educational games and later, typing school papers. My parents, of course, never touched a computer until they were adults. Those days are so far gone that GenTech teens wouldn't believe it. It is now routine for teens to chat with several friends via instant messenger while texting other acquaintances and searching for a movie listing on their computer — all simultaneously.

But the speed by which teens have taken to this technology has experts debating what effect this is having. Are the social relationships cyber-connected GenTech form deep and satisfying, or does the solitary act of e-mailing and IMing online subtly isolate them? Is techy multitasking a genuine skill or the enemy of focus and attention? Are adolescents more ready targets of predators and child abusers, or are they safer since teens are likely to spend away hours at home online rather than at the mall?

The answers are not at all clear, but the scope of the change is startling.

"Teens are communicating with each other in new and different ways and it has interesting implications for the kinds of communities they create," says Pew's Rainie. "Their relationship to information and media is different from their parents, and they learn differently."

As high school sophomore Avery Taylor, 17, told CBSNews.com, "Cell phone in one hand, I'm typing with the other. I'm very into communication."

Believe it or not, teens' use of the Internet is still growing. For example, the number of teenagers using the Internet has grown 24 percent in the past four years; 87 percent of those between the ages of 12 and 17 now say they are online, according to a Pew study.

It's not just computers that this generation of teens is hooked on; they're also attached to their cell phones. In a CBSNews.com poll, 67 percent of teenagers say they have one and they use them for text messaging at least occasionally. In another recent survey, students in grades seven through 12 say they spend an average of an hour a day on their cell phones — about the same time they devote to homework.

In fact, New York City, the nation's largest school system, banned cell phones in schools last month because the mayor said they are a distraction, are used to cheat, take inappropriate photos in bathrooms and organize gang rendezvous. Detroit recently banned cell phones in schools, and Boston relied on a school-by-school approach until recently, when it changed the policy to let students have a phone, but only if it is turned off. Los Angeles lets students have cell phones, but they can use them only during breaks.
  • Melissa McNamara

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