Mesch s ince the internet and other media have been adopted and integrated into the daily lives of an Increasing number of young adolescents In Western countries, scholars and commentators are debating the impact of these new media on the activities, social relationships, and worldviews of the younger generations. Controversies about whether technology shapes values, attitudes, and patterns of social behavior are not new.
In the recent past, the rapid expansion of television stimulated similar discussions of its cultural and social effects. In this essay, I will briefly describe the ources of the debate and its specific arguments regarding the role of the internet in youth life. Then, I will describe some important trends in youth activities, attitudes, and behaviors. The literature on the internet and youth culture presents different views regarding the role of technology in society.
Two major perspectives are technological determinism and the social construction of technologies. Technological Determinism The technological deterministic view presents the internet as an innovative force that has profound Influence on children and youth; technology generates new patterns of xpression, communication, and motivation. In this view, various terms have been used to describe this generation of youth, including “Net-generation,” the “millennium genera – tlon,” and “digital natives. These labels attempt to identify a large group of young ado lescents who grew up during the expansion of the internet and from early childhood have 1 Marc Prensky, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1,” On the Horizon 9. 5 (October 2001): 1-6; Don Tapscott, Growing up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (New York: McGraw Hill, 1998). Gustavo S. Mesch is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Haifa, Israel.
His research is directed to understanding the effects of information and communication technologies on youth social behavior, parent and youth intergenerational conflict, and communication channel choice. He is currently the Chair of the Communication and Information Technologies section of the American Sociological Association. 51 been Immersed In a media-rich environment, using computers, playing online games, constantly communicating and connecting with their friends by electronic devices.
These youth create and use digital spaces for social interaction, identity expression, org Supporting this perspective, scholars of media consumption have described adoles – cents’ lives as being characterized by media privatization in a multimedia environment. 2 In Western societies, young people’s cultural consumption includes a large number of media artifacts such as television sets, VCRs, landline and cell phones, video games, compact disc players, MP3 players, and computers. Over time, households tend to acquire more than one media item.
Adolescents appropriate the media, and more and more media tools move from the public spaces of the household to private laces, from the living room to the bedrooms, accumulating in the teenager’s room. Youth are described as having created a bedroom culture that facilitates their media consump tion without parental supervision or limitation. Acting in a media-rich environment and a bedroom culture, the Net-generation or digital natives express different values, attitudes, and behaviors than previous generations.
These digital natives are described as opti mistic, team-oriented achievers who are talented with technology. Immersion in this technology-rich culture influences the skills and interests of teens in important ays. According to this view, they think and process information differently from their predecessors, are active in experimentation, are dependent on information technologies for searching for information and communicating with others, and are eager to acquire skills needed to develop creative multimedia presentations and to become multimedia producers and not merely consumers. Simply put, the argument is that the internet has created a new generation of young people who possess sophisticated knowledge and skills with information technologies, express values that support learning by xperience and the creation of a culture in a digital space, and have particular learning and social preferences. The notion of a Net-generation is consistent with a deterministic view of the effect of technology on society. Technological determinism views technology as an indepen – dent force that drives social change. Technology itself exercises causal influence on social practices, and technological change induces changes in social organization and culture regardless of the social desirability of the change. 2 Sonia Livingstone, Leen d’Haenens, and Uwe Hasebrink, “Childhood in Europe: Contexts for Comparison,” Children and Their Changing Media Environment: A European Comparative Study , ed. Sonia Livingstone and Moira Bovill (London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001) 3- See Tapscott; Prensky.
Bruce Bimber, “Three Faces of Technological Determinism,” Does Technology Drive History? : The Dilemma of Technological Determinism , ed. Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994) 79-100. Acting in a media-rich environment and a bedroom culture, the Net-generation or digital natives express different values, attitudes, and behaviors than previous generations. THE INTERNET AND YOUTH CULTURE MESCH 3 F-r: iStockphot0/ d oug Schneider Photography.
The Social Construction of Technologies This view has created controversy, as others remind us that information and com – munication technologies are not forces that homogenize young people into a single entity with unique characteristics. Technology is an inherent part of society; it is created by social actors. According to a social construction of technology approach, it is impor – tant to note that social groups differ in the extent of their access to technology, their skills, and the meanings they associate with technology.
The same technology can ave different meanings for different social groups of users. Technologies can and do have a social impact, but they are simultaneously social prod ucts that embody power relationships and social goals 5 Thus technological changes are a process and do not have a single direction. Understanding the place of the internet in the lives of young individuals requires avoiding a purely determin iStic interpretation and recognizing the social embed dedness of technology and its variable outcomes. The internet can be constitutive of new cultural features of young social life, but it can also reproduce older condi tions. A purely deterministic approach ignores the mate rial conditions and the social environment within which, and through which, these technologies operate. Digital spaces such as social networking sites, weblogs (blogs), and clip and photo sharing are owned by commercial companies that target youth and try to shape their consumption patterns. At the same time, when using these spaces, youth are becoming empowered in different social aspects.
First, they are able to overcome the limitations of geography by reaching out to others according to specific interests and not only by virtue of resi dential similarity. Second, they take an important role in society as co-producers of internet content and reach out with their innovative presentations to large and global audiences. The Internet as Culture and as Cultural Artifact In part, the discrepancy between technological determinism and the view of tech – nology as socially constructed is the result of a lack of clarity about the subject of study. Merritt Roe Smith, Military Enterprise and Technological Change: Perspectives on the American Experience (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985). Saskia Sassen, “Towards a Sociology of Information Technology,” Current Sociology 0:3 (2002): 365- Technologies can and do have a social impact, but they are simultaneously social products that embody power relationships and social goals and structures. EDGEHOG EVIEW / SPRING 2009 54 In this respect, it is useful to distinguish between the internet as culture and the internet as a cultural artifact. To study the internet as a culture means to regard it as a social space in its own right, exploring the forms of consumption and content production, and the patterns of online communication and social interaction, expression, and identity formation that re produced within this digital social space, as well as how they are sustained by the resources available within the online setting. In this sense, online activity is conceived as different and even separate from one’s offline activity, having a life of its own, usu – ally separated from real life as a parallel reality of the participating individuals.
When studied independently, the virtual space is a coherent social space that exists entirely within a computer space, and in which new rules and ways of being can emerge. Thus, youth operating within an online community may be geographically dispersed, experiencing ifferent hours of the day in different locales, but they share an identical interest, virtual space and rules, shared activities, and a common sense of belonging. Being online not only detaches individuals from the constraints imposed by loca tion, but also frees them from the constraints associated with their offline personalities and social roles.
Youth have an opportunity to express online their “real” or inner selves, using the relative anonymity of the internet to be the person they want to be and experimenting with their identity and self. 8 The internet is often used to express unexplored aspects of the self and to create a irtual persona. Cyberspace becomes a place to “act out” unresolved conflicts, to play and replay difficulties, to work on significant personal issues.
Sherry Turkle summarizes this position: “We can use the virtual to reflect constructively on the real. Cyberspace opens the possibility for identity play, but it is very serious play. ” 9 This approach has methodological implications. Conceiving of the internet as an object of study means studying only the virtual persona; online communication; and online social norms, rules, and etiquettes, without considering the other direction, amely how established social norms and values are being reflected in the online world.
The internet has been hailed for the possibilities it is perceived to offer its users of escap – ing the constraints of their material surroundings and bodies, enabling them to create and play with online identities. In these terms, the human body is regarded not only as invisible online, but also as temporarily suspended, so that it becomes partially or completely irrelevant. Similarly, in this perspective, internet communication creates new forms of social relationships, in which participants are no longer bound by the 7
Christine Hine, “Internet Research and the Sociology of Cyber-social-Scientific Knowledge,” The Information Society 21 (September 2005): 239-48. 8 John A. Bargh and Katelyn Y. A. McKenna, “The Internet and Social Life,” Annual Review of Psychology 55 (2004): 573-90. 9 Sherry Turkle, “Cyberspace and Identity,” Contemporary Sociology 28:6 (1999): 643-8. 10 Sadie Plant, “On the Matrix: Cyberfeminism Simulations,” Cultures of the Internet: Virtual Spaces, Real Histories, Living Bodies , ed.
Rob Shields (London: sage, 1996) 170-83. The internet is often used to express unexplored aspects f the self and to create a virtual persona. 55 need to meet others face to face but can expand their social arena by meeting others, located anywhere in the online universe, mind to mind. Thus, virtual relationships are seen as more intimate, richer, and more liberating than offline relationships because they are based on genuine mutual interest rather than the coincidence of physical prox – imity.
It is a zone of freedom, fluidity, and experimentation insulated from the mun – dane realities of the material world. 11 An alternative view is to see the internet as a cultural artifact, an object immersed in social context, considering how the technology is incorporated in the everyday life of individuals and how it is used as a means of communication, expression, and 12 This perspective rejects the dematerializa tion of social life that results from adopting a perspective that looks at the internet as a culture in itself.
Much of what happens in electronic space is deeply inflected by the offline culture”the material practices and imaginar les that take place outside the electronic space. Digital spaces are not exclusive conditions that stand outside the nondigital. Digital space is embedded in the larger ocietal, cultural, subjective, economic, and imaginary constructions of lived experience and the systems within which we exist and operate. 13 Conceiving of the new digital space as socially embedded allows us to go beyond the duality between technological determinism and the social construction of technology.
For example, this approach allows us to understand that adolescents use the internet for the creation of unique social spaces in which they can use instant messaging and social networking sites to sustain their friendships, but they can also overcome the geographical limitations of association. They can access others who share their concerns and interests and do not belong to their immediate social group. In doing this, they are accessing new social networks and novel information resources and opportunities.
Social disadvantage creates restrictions in access to networks and to the resources that the internet might offer. At the same time, as studies have shown, most of the use of Instant Messenger (IM) and social net – working sites is to maintain existing social ties with similar others. The view of the internet as a cultural tool calls attention to the material sources of social life, as ocio-economic status limits access, skills, and participation in the virtual world.
Thus, the internet is seen not as generating a new online world but as mostly 11 See Bargh and McKenna 573-90. James E. Katz and Ronald E. Rice, “Syntopia: Access, Civic Involvement, and Social Interaction on the Net,” The Internet in Everyday Life , ed. Barry Wellman and Caroline Haythornthwaite (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002) 114-38. See Sassen 365-88; Susan C. Herring, “Questioning the Generational Divide: Technological Exoticism and Adult Constructions of Online Youth Identity,” Youth, Identity, and Digital Media ed.
David Buckingham, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Conceiving of the new digital space as socially embedded allows us to go beyond the duality between technological determinism and the social construction of technology. 56 reflecting the existing conditions of society; individuals use the internet to do old things in new ways, expanding the possibilities of communication among individuals who know each other and are linked by friendship, kinship, or other types of relationship.
The internet is recognized as a new channel of communication, but its unction is limited to supplementing the existing ones (face-to-face interaction and phone calls) and in some cases displacing them. 14 Most fundamentally, existing characteristics of relationships are instrumental and central in determining which channels to use and when. Strong ties communicate using all the channels; weak ties use only some of them. 15 The emphasis in this view is on the actor; the integration of the internet into existing relationships reflects the actor’s rational choices in maintaining existing social ties.
In the same vein, the conception of an internet generation has been rejected as a mere xpansion of an adult discourse that reflects the difficulties and fears of adults to achieve digital literacy. Youth have incorporated IM, blogs, information search, and commerce into their lives, using them as additional technological tools to conduct the same activities that youth have always carried on. 16 The integration of the internet in the everyday life of youth means that both views need to be integrated.
Rather than expecting causation, we need to be tuned to the mutual influences. Adolescents use the internet to accomplish important developmental tasks such as identity formation, social interaction, and the evelopment of autonomy. The internet is being used to conduct these developmental tasks, and, at the same time, through its use, it is having an effect on their culture that in certain dimensions looks different than that of the previous generation.
When looking at the internet culture, one important development is a shift in the association between youth and media. Youth today are active participants in the cre – to be passive consumers of information and content online, but also to become active cre- ators and contributors. The lower costs of coordinating creative efforts and istributing materials allow individuals to generate their own content and to collaborate with others in social, economic, and political activities.
Social media platforms facilitate various ad- hoc and formal, small as well as large-scale online communities, where User-Generated- Content (UGC) flourishes: bloggers post news and analysis, independent musicians distribute their music ( Myspace ), and amateur photographers post their photos ( Flickr or distribute their videos ( YouTube ). Thus, youth today are actively involved in web production and tend to appropriate portions of it and to convert them into youth ones.