Can Digital-Age Teens Still Talk to Analog Parents?

With social-networking devices transforming the way that individuals relate to each other, many fear that technology-based "generation gaps" are likely to widen not only between parents and children, but even between siblings separated by only a few years. In a worst-case scenario, some argue, this would lead to cyber-Balkanization, a sort of Internet Tower of Babel, in which meaningful communication would be limited to smaller and smaller groups as notions of relationships and even fundamental worldviews would vastly shift in an incredibly short period of time.That's the dire scenario predicted by Brad Stone, The New York Times' "digital lifestyles" columnist, who recently wrote that technological advances were speeding up generation gaps. While previous eras had witnessed yawning chasms between parents and children, Stone argued, "the ever-accelerating pace of technological change may be minting a series of mini-generation gaps, with each group of children uniquely influenced by the tech tools available in their formative stages of development." In other words, the technological leaps between middle school, high school and college-aged students may be creating fundamental divisions in society.

A Generation Of Multitaskers

To some extent, Stone has a point: Early access to a variety of technical devices and social networking tools seems to be creating a generation that is far more skilled at multitasking. Stone cites a study which determined that teens 16 to 18, on average, can perform roughly seven Internet tasks -- like checking Facebook, emailing, or texting -- while watching TV.

By comparison, 20-year-olds only average about six tasks, while those over 30 average about five and a half. Of course, anyone who still remembers doing homework while talking on the phone while listening to music might have a more sanguine reaction to this miracle of teen multitasking. And, for that matter, Stone fails to mention if the multitasking adolescents actually did any of these tasks remotely well. In other words, this generation gap may reflect a process of maturation, not evolution.

On a larger scale, Stone's argument hits a brick wall when one considers the central idea of social networking: The technological advances presuppose conversation between groups and, ultimately, across generations. Stone's suggestion that younger generations are becoming permanently incapable of relating to their elders invokes the specter of uncommunicative, secretive teens that has been a leitmotif in American culture at least since the release of Reefer Madness.

Oldsters More Loyal To Technologies

This isn't to say that the increasing pace of technology hasn't caused a major shift in the relationships between generations. As a recent Pew study shows, people in their teens and twenties tend to be early and enthusiastic adopters of new technology, while older consumers take longer to utilize the latest tools. On the other hand, younger consumers also tend to be more mercurial, quickly shifting between technologies while their older siblings and parents tend to stick with technologies for longer periods of time.

Blogging is a very good example of this trend. In 2006, 28% of teens wrote on blogs and 76% regularly commented on their friends' blogs. Within three years, those numbers had dropped precipitously: In 2009, only 14% of teens were writing blogs and only 52% were regularly commenting.

Among adults, however, the trend was almost reversed. In 2007, 7% of adults aged 30 and over regularly wrote in blogs; two years later, that number had increased by 57%: 11% of the 30-plus age group was writing in blogs. In the same period, the percentage of adults commenting on blogs increased by a third, from 18% to 24%.

Youth Pass Along Knowledge

And this trend carries into other forms of technology and interaction, including website building, use of the Internet as an information resource, online purchasing and texting. The general process, as indicated by the Pew study, is for tech-savvy youngsters to try out new tools, pass their knowledge on to the elders and move on to new tools. Of course, for anyone who has ever done unpaid, informal IT work for parents, grandparents, or other family members, this trend should seem very familiar.

As trends and technologies, music and movies have created barriers between generations, the tendency has always been to draw the direst conclusions, suggesting insurmountable boundaries dividing parents from their offspring. Yet just as Elvis's hips and Mick Jagger's lips didn't prove the end of Western Civilization, texting, twittering and blogging promise to increase, not decrease the connections between people and generations. In other words, even with advancing technology, the kids -- and their parents -- are still alright.
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