By Scott Conroy with additional reporting by Jessica Goldman and Michelle Singer.
Teens don't have to work very hard to be entertained anymore. Rather than trekking to the record store, they can buy their favorite music with a few clicks — and maybe try out something new while they're at it. Reality TV, the preferred genre of many, is always on the air. They don't even have to get up from their chairs to share photographs and gossip with friends.
American society has been assigning all-encompassing labels to generations of young people for a long time. The tendency to pigeonhole a diverse group of individuals is, in some respects, dishonest — not every Flower Child spent the '60s tiptoeing through tulips, and many members of Generation X surely thought flannel best confined to the realm of the lumberjack.
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Likewise, not every member of this generation is enamored with technology. But no one would argue that the way America's teens live and play now isn't vastly different from how their parents spent their misspent youths.
Crystal, 15, listens to Mary J. Blige, Kelly Clarkson and Young Joc. She doesn't buy CDs anymore: "I don't need to," she told CBSNews.com. "I have iTunes [Apple's popular online music download store]."
To get his fix of Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, Mitch, 16, might sift through his parents' old album collection. Instead, he downloads songs and also accesses his favorite classic rock artists the new old-fashioned way: He buys their CDs.
This generation of teenagers is no different than any other in that it has diverse musical interests. But it's easier than ever for them to access different kinds of music and satisfy all those tastes.
"I can now not only find people who are interested in the same bands I like," Michael Alex of Digital MTV News told CBSNews.com, "but I can also literally share my music with them."
The music industry has complained for years about declining sales due to the proliferation of illegal file-sharing services, but many teens have moved away from what once was an engrained culture of musical theft. According to the Horatio Alger Association's State of our Nation's Youth 2005 report, the percentage of Internet-using teens that downloaded music for free dropped from 44 percent to 40 percent between 2004 and 2005, while the percentage that paid to download rose from 17 percent to 24 percent in the same time period.
Most of the teenagers from a random sampling in New York's Times Square professed to buying music rather than stealing it, though their reasons for doing so may be more practical than moral.
"I used to download," Peter, 18, told CBSNews.com. "But it started giving viruses to my computer, so I stopped."
According to the Internet and Multimedia 2006survey conducted by Arbitron Inc., MP3 players like the iPod are quickly becoming the preferred music-playing devices for America's teens. In 2005, only 27 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds owned an MP3 player. But just one year later, 42 percent did. That won't be surprising to anyone who's recently passed by a school bus filled with kids sitting quietly with the ubiquitous, white iPod buds planted in their ears.
Anastasia Goodstein, publisher of Ypulse.com, is writing a book on what teens are doing online and with other forms of technology. She says MP3 players contribute to what she calls the "mash up" culture. She defines this as taking bits and piece of elements of popular culture and then remixing them. It is, in a sense, a way to create one's own subculture.
"The MP3 player in general has contributed to aspects of the 'mash up' culture because teens can listen to a variety of music," Goodstein told CBSNews.com. "Their breadth of music is greater."
There are plenty of signs of the generational penchant for musical diversity in a survey teens filled out for CBSNews.com, in which they were asked to recount the last 10 songs that they downloaded. Ashley, 16, listed tracks by artists as diverse as Christian-rockers Relient K, legendary country crooner Patsy Cline and arena-rock icons Journey. Allie, 17, ventures across genres just as much, with rap, alternative rock and country tunes on her play list.
It used to be that teens were heavily defined by their favorite music. Punks listened to punk rock, metal fiends listened to heavy metal and Deadheads listed to the Grateful Dead. Of course, teens still have their favorite artists and genres, but now that they can so easily and inexpensively access songs, they seem more willing to experiment, and it is easier for them to create their own multidimensional identity.
Though teens' musical horizons have expanded with the proliferation of cheap downloading, television-viewing has become narrower in some respects. The number of channels may have increased dramatically, but reality TV dominates the teen market, and MTV still reigns supreme.
For those who don't know it, the 25-year-old cable station and pop cultural standard-bearer is now "music television" in name only. A glance at MTV's scheduled programming for June 2 is revealing. After a spate of music videos in the early-morning hours, from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., there was a total of only 30 minutes of music-oriented programming scheduled for the rest of the day and night: "Total Request Live," which is shot at MTV's headquarters in Times Square.
The rest of the schedule was devoted to shows like "The Real World," "Cheyenne" and "The Hills," all of which belong to the reality TV genre.
According to Todd Needham, who has worked in the creative side of reality programming for a decade, that isn't likely to change any time soon.
"I definitely don't see reality going away," Needham told CBSNews.com. "I think the good [reality shows] will stay and have sticking power."
Peter, 18, said that he enjoys reality TV but seemed somewhat embarrassed by that admission, an indicator that the genre has entered the realm of a guilty pleasure in some circles. But there are several subcategories within the reality TV genre, and he professes to be particularly interested in reality game shows.
"I like the ones where people leave each week, so it's the mystery of what's going to happen," he said.
According to Needham, another source of reality's appeal has to do with its intrinsically human dimension.
"In reality, you can kind of identify with characters and say 'Wow, I would have done this, I would have done that, why did they say this?'" he said. "It's easier then, I think, to connect with a lot of different personalities."
But for all of its mass appeal, not every teen is onboard the reality bandwagon.
"I think it's really fake," Andrew, 18, told CBSNews.com. "It's full of a lot of, like, demeaning, useless information."
Teenagers aren't just listening to music and watching TV all day. They do socialize, they insist — just not always verbally. According to Ypulse's Goodstein, the way teens interact online is related to the reality TV genre that has become so popular.
"I think the exhibitionism and confessional nature of reality TV, with cameras following the cast members everywhere and recording every moment and every conflict, is very appealing and relatable to teenagers," she wrote in an e-mail message. "In a sense the explosion of MySpace and YouTube is a way for teens to create their own reality TV or drama online through photos, comments and videos on display for everyone to see."
According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project's Teens and Technology survey conducted late in 2004, 75 percent of teenagers with Internet access communicated via instant messaging, whereas only 42 percent of adults in the same category did so.
MTV News' Michael Alex thinks online interaction can be a very healthy, social behavior for teens.
"They're using technology to access their friends; they're using technology to find friends; they're using technology to learn where their friends are, to share with friends, to make friends, and this has taken kids out of the realm of their high school or their park or whatever their social space used to be, which was physically defined," he said.
When the Pew Internet Project's survey was conducted, 64 percent of cell phone-owning teens reported having sent text messages. If texting has proliferated at a rate similar to the rate of MP3 player-ownership — and anecdotal evidence suggests that it has — that number is now even higher.
For many teens, social networking Web sites — especially the immensely popular MySpace.com and Facebook.com — have taken over the realm of centers of gossip that athletic fields and boys' and girls' bathrooms once held.
"Teens naturally crave a space where parents aren't. It's part of being a teen — figuring out who you are outside of your family," Goodstein of Ypulse said.
But according to the Pew poll, 83 percent of teenagers still belong to a non-technology related school club, sports program or extracurricular activity. Teens still claim to spend more time talking to their friends face to face than they do online.
For Cara, 17, MySpace is an addition rather than a replacement to her social calendar — although, she admits, it is a rather large addition.
"I don't, like, not go out with my friends so I can go on the computer," she said. "But basically, when I'm in my house, I'm on the computer."
Not only are teens leaving their computer rooms from time to time, they're also reading actual books — those archaic resources that people once relied upon to disseminate information. In a Web-based survey conducted in 2005 by Smartgirl.org on Teen Read Week, only about 25 percent of teenagers said that they do not read for fun.
Parents may worry that they're raising a generation so preoccupied with gadgets designed to make life easier that interpersonal communication skills are being jeopardized. But teens insist that technology enhances, rather than detracts from, the ancient art of human interaction.
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By Scott Conroy