The Internet Generation Prefers the Real World

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.

Little Evidence

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.”

In Touch with Friends around the Clock

In purely statistical terms, it appears that ever-greater proportions of young people’s days are focused on technology. According to a recent study carried out by the Stuttgart-based media research group MPFS, 98 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds in Germany now have access to the Internet. And by their own estimates, they are online for an average of 134 minutes a day — just three minutes less than they spend in front of the television. 

However, the raw figures say little about what these supposed digital natives actually do online. As it turns out, the kids of today are very similar to previous generations of young people: They are mainly interested in communicating with their peers. Today’s young people spend almost half of their time interacting socially online. E-mail, instant messaging and social networking together accounts for the bulk of their Internet time.

For instance Tom, one of Jetlir’s classmates, remains in touch with 30 or 40 of his friends almost around the clock. Even so, the channels of communication vary. In the morning Tom will chat briefly on his PC, during lunch recess he’ll rattle off a few text messages, after school he’ll sit down for his daily Facebook session and make a few calls on his cell phone, and in the evening he’ll make one or two longer video calls using the free Internet telephony service Skype.

The Medium Is Not the Message

For Tom, Jetlir, and the others of their age, it doesn’t seem to matter whether they interact over the Internet or via another medium. It seems that young people are mainly interested in what the particular medium or communication device can be used for. In the case of the Internet in particular, that can be one of many things: Sometimes it acts as a telephone, sometimes as a kind of souped-up television. Tom spends an hour or two every day watching online videos, mostly on YouTube, but also entire TV programs if they’re available somehow. “Everyone knows how to find episodes of the TV series they want to watch,” says fellow pupil Pia.

The second most popular use of the Internet is for entertainment. According to a survey conducted by Leipzig University in 2008, more young people now access their music via various online broadcasting services than listen to it on the radio. As a consequence, the video-sharing portal YouTube has become the global jukebox, serving the musical needs of the world’s youth — although its rise to prominence as a resource for music on demand has gone largely unnoticed. Indeed, there are few songs that cannot be dredged up somewhere on the site.

“That’s also practical if you’re looking for something new,” Pia says. Searching for specific content is incredibly simple on YouTube. In general all you need to do is enter half a line of some lyrics you caught at a party, and YouTube supplies the corresponding music video and the song itself.

In this way the Internet is becoming a repository for the content of older media, sometimes even replacing them altogether. And youthful audiences, who are always on the lookout for something to share or entertainment, are now increasingly using the Internet to find this content. But it’s not exactly the kind of behavior that would trigger a lifestyle revolution.

Teens Still Enjoy Meeting Friends

What’s more, there’s still plenty of life beyond the many screens at their disposal. A 2009 study by MPFS found that nine out of every 10 teenagers put meeting friends right at the top of their list of favorite non-media activities. More striking still, 76 percent of young people in Germany take part in sport several times a week, although among girls that figure is only 64 percent.

In January, the authors of the “Generation M2” survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation published the remarkable finding that even the most intense media users in the US exercised just as much as others of their age.

So how can they pack all that into a single day? Simply adding together the amount of time devoted to each activity creates a very false picture. That’s because most young people are excellent media multitaskers, simultaneously making phone calls, checking out their friends on Facebook and listening to music. And it appears that they’re primarily online at times they would otherwise spend lounging around.

“I go online when I have nothing better to do,” Jetlir says. “Unfortunately that’s often when I should already be sleeping.” Thanks to cell phones and MP3 players, young people can also fill gaps in their busy schedules even when they’re away from static media sources like TVs, computers and music systems. Media use can therefore increase steadily while still leaving plenty of time for other activities.

‘Time’s Too Precious’

What’s more, many young people still aren’t the least bit interested in all the online buzz. Some 31 percent of them rarely or never visit social networking sites. Anna, who attends the same school as Jetlir, says she would “probably only miss the train timetable” if the Internet ceased to exist, while fellow student Torben thinks “time’s too precious” to waste on computers. He plays handball and soccer, and says “10 minutes a day on Facebook” is all he needs.

By contrast, Tom will occasionally get so wrapped up in Facebook and his instant messaging that he’ll forget the time altogether. “It’s a strange feeling to realize you’ve spent so much time on something and have nothing to show for it,” he admits. But he also knows that others find the temptations of the virtual world much harder to resist. “Everyone knows a few people who are online all day,” Pia says, though Jetlir suggests that’s only for want of something better to do. “None of them would turn down an offer to go out somewhere instead,” he adds.

But even the most inveterate netizens aren’t necessarily natural experts in the medium. If you want to make use of the Internet, you first have to understand how the real world works. And that’s often the sticking point. The only advantage that young people have over their elders is their lack of inhibitions with regard to computers. “They simply try things out,” says René Scheppler, a teacher at a high school in Wiesbaden. “They discover all sorts of things that way. The only thing is they don’t understand how it works.”

‘I Found It on Google’

Occasionally the teacher will ask his students big-picture questions about the medium they take for granted. Questions like: Where did the Internet come from? “I’ll get replies like, ‘What do you mean? It’s just there!'” Scheppler says. “Unless they’re prompted to do so, they never address those sorts of questions. For them it’s like a car: All that matters is that it works.”

And because teenagers are basically inexperienced, they are all the more likely to overestimate their own abilities. “They think they’re the real experts,” Scheppler says. “But when it comes down to it, they can’t even google properly.”

When Scheppler scheduled a lesson about Google to teach his pupils how to better search the Web, they thought it was hilarious. “Google?!” they gasped. “We know all about that. We do it all the time. And now Mr Scheppler wants to tell us how to use Google!”

He, therefore, set them a challenge: They were to design a poster on globalization based on the example of Indian subcontractors. Now it was the teacher’s turn to laugh. “They just typed a series of individual keywords into Google, and then they went click, click, click: ‘Don’t want that! Useless! Let’s try another one!'” Scheppler recalls. “They’re very quick to jettison things, sometimes even relevant information. They think they can tell the wheat from the chaff, but they just stumble about — very rapidly, very hectically and very superficially. And they stop the moment they get a hit that looks reasonably plausible.”

Few have any idea where the information on the Web comes from. And if their teacher asks for references, he often gets the reply, “I found it on Google.”

Learning How to Use the Internet Productively

Recent research into the way people conduct Internet searches confirms Scheppler’s observations. A major study conducted by the British Library came to the sobering conclusion that the “net generation” hardly knows what to look for, quickly scans over results, and has a hard time assessing relevance. “The information literacy of young people has not improved with the widening access to technology,” the authors wrote. 

A few schools have now realized that the time has come to act. One of them is Kaiserin Augusta School in Cologne, the high school that Jetlir, Tom, Pia, and Anna attend. “We want our pupils to learn how to use the Internet productively,” says music teacher André Spang, “Not just for clicking around in.”

Spang uses Web 2.0 tools in the classroom. When teaching them about the music of the 20th century, for example, he got his 12th-graders to produce a blog on the subject. “They didn’t even know what that was,” he says. Now they’re writing articles on aleatoric music and musique concrete, composing simple 12-tone rows and collecting musical examples, videos, and links about it. Everyone can access the project online, see what the others are doing and comment on each other’s work. The fact that the material is public also helps to promote healthy competition and ambition among the participants.

Blogs are not technically challenging and are quick to set up. That’s why they are also being used to teach other subjects. Piggybacking on the enormous success of Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia produced entirely by volunteer contributors, wikis are also being employed in schools. The 10th-graders in the physics class of Spang’s colleague Thomas Vieth are currently putting together a miniature encyclopedia of electromagnetism. “In the past all we could do was give out group assignments, and people would just rattle off their presentations,” Vieth says. “Now everyone reads along, partly because all the articles are connected and have to be interlinked.”

Not Interested in Fame

One positive side-effect is that the students are also learning how to find reliable information on the Internet. And so that they understand what they find online, there are regular sessions of old-fashioned sessions on learning how to learn, including reading, comprehension and summarizing exercises. So instead of tech-savvy young netizens challenging the school, the school itself is painstakingly teaching them how to benefit from the online medium.

For most of the pupils it was the first time they had contributed their own work to the Internet’s pool of data. They’re not interested in widespread fame. Self-promoters are rare, and most young people even shun anonymous role-playing such as that found in the online world Second Life. The youth of today, it turns out, is much more obsessed with real relationships. Whatever they do or write is directed at their particular group of friends and acquaintances.

That also applies to video, the medium most tempting for people to try out for themselves. An impressive 15 percent of young people have already uploaded at least one home-made video, mostly shot on a cell phone.

Part of Their Social Life

One student, Sven, has uploaded a video he made to YouTube. It shows him and a few friends in their bathing suits first by a lake, then all running into the clearly icy water. “No, really,” Sven says, “people are interested in this. They talk about it!” There are indeed already 37 comments under the video, all from his circle of friends.

“And here,” Sven adds, pointing to the screen. “Here on Facebook someone recently posted just a dot. Even so, seven people have clicked on the ‘Like’ button so far, and 83 commented on the dot.”

Older people might consider such activity inane, but for young people it’s part of their social life and no less important than a friendly wave or affable clowning around in the offline world. The example of the dot shows how normal the Internet has become, and debunks the idea that it is a special world in which special things happen.

“Media are used by the masses if they have some relevance to everyday life,” says Rolf Schulmeister, the educational researcher. “And they are used for aims that people already had anyway.”

Turning Point

Young people have now reached this turning point. The Internet is no longer something they are willing to waste time thinking about. It seems that the excitement about cyberspace was a phenomenon peculiar to their predecessors, the technology-obsessed first generation of Web users.

For a brief transition period, the Web seemed to be tremendously new and different, a kind of revolutionary power that could do and reshape everything. Young people don’t feel that way. They hardly even use the word “Internet,” talking about “Google”, “YouTube” and “Facebook” instead. And they certainly no longer understand it when older generations speak of “going online.”

“The expression is meaningless,” Tom says. Indeed the term is a relic of a time when the Internet was still something special, evoking a separate space distinct from our real life, an independent, secretive world that you entered and then exited again.

Tom and his friends just describe themselves as being “on” or “off,” using the English terms. What they mean is: contactable or not.

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Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,710139,00.html