The digital generation gap

Great FRONTLINE documentary on kids online, definitely worth checking out. From an online Q&A with the producers: "The report mentions that the Internet has created the greatest generation gap since rock 'n' roll. Caitlin, you're in your 20s; did you experience that gap while working with these kids?

McNally: More than once, I'd be trying to follow up with a kid and I would discover pretty quickly that the only way I could elicit a response was through a text message or social networking site. I would place call after call, or send e-mail after e-mail -- nothing. But with a text, or a message on Facebook, a response would ping back within minutes.

This phenomenon was a surprise; it made me feel old-fashioned -- and old. I thought my experience would resemble that of the kids more than their parents, as I'm not a parent yet and certainly still empathize with being someone's child. The majority of teenagers we talked to expressed good-natured exasperation that their parents "didn't know how to work a computer" or barely understood text messaging. I was confident that because I'm completely comfortable using a computer, e-mail and a cell phone, I'd relate pretty quickly to how the kids we met communicate online. This was not the case.

Writing an e-mail for a lot of the kids we talked to is equivalent to sitting down and hand-writing a letter for me. They described e-mail as a slow, archaic way to keep in touch with your aunt halfway across the country or apply for a summer internship. Even the most articulate kids who aced all their English classes could switch effortlessly into IM or text-speak; quick, pithy, shorthand Internet language was second nature to almost all the kids we met. They're bilingual, and they intuitively understand an entire culture generated by the Internet, with customs and vocabulary that we had to learn step-by-step.

Maybe even more striking to me was how social networking sites have become fully integrated into kids' lives. I didn't build my first profile until after college; it felt underground and novel, like being in on a joke. I'd never even heard the term "social networking." Having a profile on the Internet was ancillary to my "real" life, while for the kids we met, it has become a fundamental element of what they do each day and how they represent who they are.

When I built profiles [to communicate with kids] as we started working on this program, it was incredibly strange at first to find people from my own life popping up alongside my budding list of friends from New Jersey high schools. Anne Collier [president and editor of NetFamilyNews] talks about how the Internet has fundamentally changed our notions of privacy. While the vast majority of kids we came across were absolutely comfortable posting their pictures, thoughts and conversations online, I felt acutely self-conscious about every word I typed that would show up on a site.

This is where the generation gap was most palpable for me, and a senior at Morristown made me realize it. A lot of kids we met talked about taking pictures of yourself for your profile page using what they called "the angles": You hold a camera -- often your cell phone -- at arm's length, pose, and snap a head-shot. After learning this, I logged into my Facebook account one day to find a new comment on my profile picture. It was from the Morristown senior, and it read: "Someone's got the angles..." Needless to say, I was completely mortified."

This is a hot topic in the ODR class I'm co-teaching with Dan Rainey at Creighton this semester. I suspect there's a whole new digital culture emerging, and this will be the new generation gap.


I can most certainly relate to this as I myself only got caught up with the technology at a later age and now I'm struggling to keep my six year old from sitting at the computer at all times. Seems like social networking is taking place online nowadays. Gotta love it though :)

True enough. My nieces and nephews ranging from 9-14 years already have their Friendster accounts. And much to my surprise, I will always see them with all the updates on blogs and even photos on all angles and each day add friends which made their first account 'full'. While my profile contains 3 photos and merely 60 friends.

A thoroughly interesting read and as a 40-something person who nevertheless lives online I can relate. I dread having to update myself when my 7- and 5-year olds become teens (I suspect we'll skip right over texting to whatever holographic or instant-thought technology they'll be using then). On the other end of the spectrum, my mother will use her computer only to send and receive email (no browsing) and only to send to a preset group of closest family (no selecting an address); beyond that, she might as well be lost in the desert.
My only contention with this article is the line about "greatest generation gap since rock 'n' roll". Rock and roll was a style gap; this one is about basic functionality.

Add new comment