There’s a lot of talk about teens being “digital natives” because they text obsessively, play video games, and spend hours online. But for teens technology is just another way to maximize their social connections. They’re not as tech-savvy as we think, and despite all the digital devices at their disposal they really just want to text—it’s the content that matters.
Texting is a lifeline to friends. It’s one of the most private things in a teenager’s life, a digital diary with texts and photos documenting and consolidating their vital social relationships.
Is technology really teaching teens anything?
Neil Selwyn at the University of London’s Institute of Education points out that seeing teens as “digital natives” suggests that they have “distinct technological characteristics that set them apart from their elders.”
Selwyn thinks the discourse around this topic is caused by alarm and that we need a more realistic portrayal of young people and how they use technology. They are perceived as empowered with access to unlimited information, with the ability to build formal and informal connections, and to learn and process information differently than their predecessors. He adds that others see the trends as dangerous because they dumb down information, use digital interactions inappropriately, and foster “intellectual kleptomaniacs.”
What Selwyn and others have found—similar to what we have found in our research for media companies—is that teens are limited in the way they use technology. They don’t appear to be harnessing the power of the internet for remarkable learning and research and they don’t appear as engaged or tech-savvy as they seem.
The difference between our generation and theirs is that they now talk to their friends across platforms, via cell phones, text messages, and websites as well as face-to-face time. The conversation is the same—teens just have more ways to get in touch.
Teens text. That’s all.
What teens do is text. According to a recent Pew report half of American teens text more than fifty times a day and average one hundred messages a day. In research we conducted in Scandinavia we found similar trends—teens were texting five hundred to six hundred times a day but knew little about more helpful technologies. The problem has been so bad that schoolteachers struggled to cope with the incessant texting in class.
Schools need to find better ways to cope with the problem. Teens are primarily social beings and are interested in the simplest and fastest path to communicating with their friends.
Some schools are trying to fill the gap. Teachers are incorporating the instruction of poetry, composition, and language via text messaging, and are sending teens homework reminders via text message. In some cases teens have better recall or appear to be more engaged.
Whether it’s schools or companies taking the initiative to work around the ways teens communicate, it’s clear that those who don’t take note are going to miss out. If more people focused on what teens really want (to chat with friends all day) there could be countless opportunities to leverage the way teens really use technology.