They may have been dubbed the "Internet generation," but young people are more interested in their real-world friends than Facebook. New research shows that the majority of children and teenagers are not the Web-savvy digital natives of legend. In fact, many of them don't even know how to google properly.
Seventeen-year-old Jetlir is online every day, sometimes for many hours at a time and late into the night. The window of his instant messaging program is nearly always open on his computer screen. A jumble of friends and acquaintances chat with each other. Now and again Jetlir adds half a sentence of his own, though this is soon lost in the endless stream of comments, jokes and greetings. He has in any case moved on, and is now clicking through sports videos on YouTube.
Jetlir is a high school student from Cologne. He could easily be a character in one of the many newspaper stories about the "Internet generation" that is allegedly in grave danger of losing itself in the virtual world.
Jetlir grew up with the Internet. It's been around for as long as he can remember. He spends half of his leisure time on Facebook and YouTube, or chatting with friends online.
In spite of this, Jetlir thinks that other things -- especially basketball -- are much more important to him. "My club comes first," Jetlir says. "I'd never miss a training session." His real life also seems to come first in other respects: "If someone wants to meet me, I turn off my computer immediately," he says.
'What's the Point?'
Indeed, Jetlir does not actually expect very much from the Internet. Older generations may consider it a revolutionary medium, enthuse about the splendors of blogging and tweet obsessively on the short-messaging service Twitter. But Jetlir is content if his friends are within reach, and if people keep uploading videos to YouTube. He'd never dream of keeping a blog. Nor does he know anybody else his age who would want to. And he's certainly never tweeted before. "What's the point?" he asks.
The Internet plays a paradoxical role in Jetlir's life. Although he uses it intensively, he isn't that interested in it. It's indispensable, but only if he has nothing else planned. "It isn't everything," he says.
Jetlir's easy-going attitude towards the Internet is typical of German adolescents today, as several recent studies have shown. Odd as it may seem, the first generation that cannot imagine life without the Internet doesn't actually consider the medium particularly important, and indeed shuns some of the latest web technologies. Only 3 percent of young people keep their own blog, and no more than 2 percent regularly contribute to Wikipedia or other comparable open source projects.
Similarly, most young people in Germany ignore social bookmarking websites like Delicious and photo-sharing portals such as Flickr and Picasa. Apparently the netizens of the future couldn't care less about the collaborative delights of Web 2.0 -- that, at least, is the finding of a major study by the Hans Bredow Institute in Germany.
The Net Generation
For years, experts have been talking about a new kind of tech-savvy youth who are mobile, networked, and chronically restless, spoilt by the glut of stimuli on the Internet. These young people were said to live in perpetual symbiosis with their computers and mobile phones, with networking technology practically imprinted in their genes. The media habitually referred to them as "digital natives," "Generation @" or simply "the net generation."
Two of the much cited spokesmen of this movement are the 64-year-old American author Marc Prensky and his 62-year-old Canadian colleague, Don Tapscott. Prensky coined the expression "digital natives" to describe those lucky souls born into the digital era, instinctively acquainted with all that the Internet has to offer in terms of participation and self-promotion, and streets ahead of their elders in terms of web-savviness. Prensky classifies everyone over the age of 25 as "digital immigrants" -- people who gain access to the Internet later in life and betray themselves through their lack of mastery of the local customs, like real-world immigrants who speak their adopted country's language with an accent.
A small group of writers, consultants and therapists thrives on repeating the same old mantra, namely that our youth is shaped through and through by the online medium in which it grew up. They claim that our schools must, therefore, offer young people completely new avenues -- surely traditional education cannot reach this generation any longer, they argue.
There is little evidence to back such theories up, however. Rather than conducting surveys, these would-be visionaries base their arguments on impressive individual cases of young Internet virtuosos. As other, more serious researchers have since discovered, such exceptions say very little about the generation as a whole, and they are now avidly trying to correct the mistakes of the past.
Numerous studies have since revealed how young people actually use the Internet. The findings show that the image of the "net generation" is almost completely false -- as is the belief in the all-changing power of technology.
A study by the Hans Bredow Institute entitled "Growing Up With the Social Web" was particularly thorough in its approach. In addition to conducting a representative survey, the researchers conducted extensive individual interviews with 28 young people. Once again it became clear that young people primarily use the Internet to interact with friends. They go on social networking sites like Facebook and the popular German website SchülerVZ, which is aimed at school students, to chat, mess around and show off -- just like they do in real life.
There are a few genuine net pioneers who compose music online with friends from Amsterdam and Barcelona, organize spontaneous protests to lobby for cheaper public transport passes for schoolchildren, or use the virtual arena in other imaginative ways. But most of the respondents saw the Internet as merely a useful extension of the old world rather than as a completely new one. Their relationship to the medium is therefore far more pragmatic than initially posited. "We found no evidence whatsoever that the Internet is the dominating influence in the lives of young people," says Ingrid Paus-Hasebrink, the Salzburg-based communication researcher who led the project.
Not Very Skilled
More surprising yet, these supposedly gifted netizens are not even particularly adept at getting the most out of the Internet. "They can play around," says Rolf Schulmeister, an educational researcher from Hamburg who specializes in the use of digital media in the classroom. "They know how to start up programs, and they know where to get music and films. But only a minority is really good at using it."
Schulmeister should know. He recently ploughed through the findings of more than 70 relevant studies from around the globe. He too came to the conclusion that the Internet certainly hasn't taken over the real world. "The media continue to account for only a part of people's leisure activities. And the Internet is only one medium among many," he says. "Young people still prefer to meet friends or take part in sports."
Of course that won't prevent the term "net generation" being bandied about in the media and elsewhere. "It's an obvious, cheap metaphor," Schulmeister says. "So it just keeps cropping up."
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