The world wide web is a communication tool, as it successfully involves itself in the “imparting or exchanging of information or news” as well as “the successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings.” Since the internet was introduced as a way for military units to communicate with one another, it has revolutionized the way we all communicate, learn, play and even think. The echo of the baby boom created a generation of Digital Natives, a generation unlike any other because they were the first to grow up completely immersed in a digital world. We now spend more time using web services than we do running traditional software applications from the computer's hard drive. Author of the book Grown Up Digital
, Don Tapscott wrote, “For the first time in history, children are more comfortable, knowledgeable, and literate than their parents with an innovation central to society. And it is through the use of the digital media that the [Digital Natives] will develop and superimpose its culture on the rest of society.” In a time where social networking sites, chat rooms, IMing, video-sharing, online games, cell phones and iPods are rudiments of Digital Native culture, it is hard to imagine life without them. These adolescents are not only developing and maturing in their offline world, but they are doing so surrounded by new mediums for communication, self-expression and forming connections.
Digital Natives have become dependent upon technology, and thus there are plenty of concerns and criticisms of this generation of young people. Don Tapscott suggests that among the top ten issues surrounding the Digital Native's use of the internet are “they are dumber than we (baby boomers) were at their age,” “they steal and have become masters of plagiarism,” “they're bullying friends online,” “they're violent,” “they have no work ethic,” “current technology fuels an increase in narcissism,” “their only interests are in popular culture, celebrities, and their friends,” and that they are “net-addicted, losing their social skills, and they have no time for sports or healthy activities.” With all of the concerns and challenges that are concomitant with digital immersion, it is hard to imagine that the immersion has not hurt Digital Natives overall. Though it will be acknowledged that in some cases the introduction of the internet and electronic multitasking may happen at the expense of some face-to-face family interaction, there is no doubt that the Digital Natives are a social and community-oriented generation who thrive in the digital world and that the introduction of the internet has increased the Digital Natives' web of connections, as the digital media has provided Digital Natives with a vehicle to both form connections with strangers that they might be able to better identify with as well as to enhance their relationships with their family and peers.
In a study done on “The Anthropology of Online Communities,” Samuel M. Wilson and Leighton C. Peterson begin by explaining that “through most of the 1980s and 1990s, the conviction was widespread that the growing and evolving communications medium comprising inter-networked computers would enable the rapid and fundamental transformation of social and political orders.” Throughout the 1990s there were a series of hypothesizes published, all suggesting different futures of the internet and what significance it might have. However, it was soon seen that these predictions could quickly become irrelevant, especially as the number of those connected through the internet increased.
Digital Natives have a vast array of electronic tools at their fingertips for communication purposes. Most often, Digital Natives are communicating through instant messaging, cell phones and social networking sites. However, popular communication forms also include e-mail, text messaging, chat rooms, bulletin boards, blogs, video sharing, photo sharing and multiplayer online computer games. “Communications or interactions mediated by these applications are best referred to as media, which, is best defined by what it is not: face-to-face communication.” With the introduction and influence of such tools in an adolescent's life, researchers and parents alike wonder how these communication forms have changed traditional patterns of interaction amongst teens, and whether all the time spent online communicating is happening at the expense of face to face communication. As Patricia Greenfield and Kaveri Subrahmanyam address in their essay on “Online Communication and Adolescent Relationships,” to accurately assess how the internet revolution has altered relationships amongst certain groups of people, the researchers must be able to compare the relationship before and after the technology is introduced. Unfortunately, it is too late for such research to occur on the Digital Natives in the United States. Other issues with this research include the fact that “the multitasking nature of most online communication makes it hard for subjects to provide a realistic estimate of time they spend on different activities,” and frequent shifts in popularity of online sites means that data on time usage can quickly become outdated. In spite of these challenges, the studies have displayed that electronic media has increased a Digital Native's connections by means of increased communication tools and an increased number of online communities. Focusing particularly on the Digital Natives' relationships with strangers, their family and their already existing friends, the introduction of the new digital media and the internet has not certainly increased the Digital Natives' web of connections.
Wilson and Peterson wrote, “the growth of the global computer network known as the Internet has facilitated the rapid emergence of online interactions of dispersed groups of people with shared interests.” There is a common misconception that Digital Natives are losing the intimacy of their connections with close friends and family because they are spending so much time on the internet making connections with strangers. Due to the fact that online communications lack important features of face-to-face communication, “they are believed to be less rich than offline ones,” and these relationships are “believed to represent weak ties, which have been characterized as relationships that have superficial and easily broken bonds, infrequent contact, and narrow focus.” In 2002, a survey revealed that 25 percent of Digital Natives had formed casual online friendships. Though one may not initially see the value of an online relationship with a stranger, online communication with strangers offers benefits for some Digital Natives as they further increase their web of connections.
Digital Natives who cannot find connections with other teens elsewhere and those teens who have extreme passions often turn to the internet based communities in the hopes of connecting with someone similar to them. The internet is filled with discussion groups devoted to the interests of many Digital Natives such as music groups and bands, TV shows, sports, health, sexuality, fashion, and college admission. Within these groups of people with shared interests, the adolescents do not always know each other. In the case of interest-driven connections, “youth turn to networked publics to connect with like-minded peers who share knowledge and expertise that may not be available to them locally.” In these discussion groups, teens seem to find satisfaction in the anonymity of such communication, feeling more comfortable asking strangers questions. Troubled adolescents are more likely to have formed close online relationships through different online communities. “Girls who had high levels of conflict with their parents and boys who had low levels of communication were more likely to have formed close relationships.” Similarly, troubled Digital Natives will turn to strangers in a chat room, looking to divulge more information that they might choose to give up with a friend or family member. In a study conducted looking to find characteristics of those who are more likely to interact with strangers, and for what reasons adolescents turn to strangers, “extroverts formed online friendships so that they could self-disclose more and engage in more frequent online communication. Introverts formed online friendships to compensate for their poorer social skills.” One study showed that “online interactions with unknown peers help adolescents recover from the sting of social rejection.”
Because teens might often turn to a stranger, one might think that this has caused a decrease in connections amongst Digital Natives, but rather, teens are increasing their connections, and benefiting by contacting strangers. “The interpersonal connections with strangers made possible by electronic media may be particularly valuable for youth suffering from illnesses such as AIDS, eating disorders, and self-injurious behavior, about which they may not feel comfortable talking with their friends in person. Online bulletin boards and chat rooms allow youth to form such connections.” For American Digital Natives, “the availability of networked public culture appears to be particularly important for marginalized youth, such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered teens, as well as for teens who are otherwise marked as different and cannot easily find similar individuals in their local schools and communities.” On these sites, they can meet different people. The internet has allowed those who do not always feel connected to the people surrounding them to feel connected to people who have shared experiences. “Contact with unknown peers in forums such as chat rooms and social networking sites might help adolescents cope with threats to “belonging” in their offline lives.”
Another common misconception is that the Digital Natives' parents feel that the internet is taking away from face-to-face communication and family interactions. A “concern is growing that adolescents' extensive use of electronic communication to interact with their peers may impair their relations with their parents, siblings and other family members.” Further, “electronic multitasking has become pervasive, sometimes at the expense of face-to-face family interaction.” Because the digital media was introduced to the parents of Digital Natives, while the Digital Natives were born into a world of technology, parents are apprehensive to acknowledge the benefits of the electronic communication tools. Both Digital Natives and their parents agree that the children know more about the internet than their parents do. “In the 2001 Pew Report, 64 percent of teens believed they knew more than their parents about communicating online and 66 percent of their parents agreed.” A 2008 survey asked Digital Natives to answer the question, “Which would you rather do: spend time with your friends or with your family?” Digital Natives growing up in the United States responded saying 60 percent would rather spend time with their family, while 40 percent would prefer to spend time with their friends, proving that electronic communication has not made adolescents less interested in face to face communication with their families. While the influence of the internet on the life of a Digital Native causes many parent-child conflicts, it has also provided them with many benefits.
Adults do not place priority on hanging out, and thus children find that they no longer have to burden their parents with their plans, as they have found other outlets for socializing. In response to the “limited availability of unrestricted computer and internet access, competing responsibilities such as household chores and extracurricular activities, and lack of mobility (transportation),” Digital Natives have developed ways to subvert barriers to hanging out through the internet. More and more parents are turning to digital media for text messaging and instant messaging to communicate with their adolescents. The introduction of digital media has also benefited families in that “parents often mobilized around their kids by trying to learn about and buy new things.” Developmentally it has been shown that children can benefit from teaching their parents. As Digital Natives have an understood expertise in the area of digital media, technology is one area in which children, who typically feel inferior to adults, can play an important role as the family's technology expert. In a study called 'The Digital Youth Project,' done to help determine how digital media is changing the way young people learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life, the primary researchers for the 'project' found that, “in contrast to the generational tensions that are so often emphasized in the popular media, families to come together around new media to share media and knowledge, play together, and stay involved in each other's lives.”
The different communication forms that Digital Natives have access to also allow them to better communicate with existing friends and family. As supported by my own ethnography on Facebook culture and use amongst teenagers, with the exception of those Digital Natives who choose to interact with strangers online, “adolescents use these communication tools primarily to reinforce existing relationships, both friendships and romantic relationships, and to check out the potential of new entrants to their offline world.” In recent years there has been a more significant turn to technology led by the Digital Natives who are more likely to use these communication tools to find their friends and family online or with their cell phones. To maintain connections, and to connect with pre-existing friends, text messaging, instant messaging an social networking sites are most often used.
When asked to describe describing why they liked AIM (AOL Instant Messaging) so much, adolescents' answers included, “Once you get used to it, you can have five or ten conversations at once!,” “I keep in touch with all my friends that way,” and “I talk to everyone all the time and I know what's going on in their lives.” Teens use instant messaging mainly to connect with offline friends. While AIM has many of the features of face-to-face communication such as turn-taking, greetings and joking, “IM usage adds one or more dimensions to the written medium—and...by doing so it transcends the written medium,” contributing to its popularity. As many Digital Natives use the same vocabulary in an IM conversation as they would in a face-to-face conversation, most of a Digital Native's connections are of the same value as a face-to-face conversation, and by talking to more people they can further extend their web of connections. At a place like Millbrook, students said they used Instant Messaging more than social networking sites not only because it was faster, but because it could serve as an effective substitute for face to face communication and phone calls to transfer information with a lot of people at the same time. Students were using IM chiefly to communicate with friends from outside of school, but one student explained that IM was more popular than Facebook because she “could ask questions to people that were on campus without having to actually go find them. It makes things a lot easier and is really convenient.” Adolescents have found IMing helpful and more convenient in staying connected, as they “negotiate a complex social world in which relationships are managed and maintained for hours at a time.” In Susan D. Blum's survey, which was a part of her study on Instant Messaging, she found that 97 percent of the students use IM. Still, 35 percent of those users said that they use face-to-face communication most, while 33 percent used IM the most. The value of IM is that in a short period of time, and while doing other things (multitasking), people can have a large number of interactions. Blum and her students also found that “By allowing users to instantly share information with a large number of people in a small amount of time, IM is helping users to better 'stay in touch' with one another.”
Another form of instant communication that has recently become popular with American Digital Natives is text messaging with their peers. A study conducted reveals that there were three primary conversation threads throughout text messages, “chatting (discussing activities and events, gossip and homework help), planning (coordinating meeting arrangements) and coordinating communication (having conversations about having conversations).” Thus, teens are better connected through this digital media they remain in constant communication with one another. The BlackBerry is a prime example of a digital media tool providing someone with a sustained connection to friends, co-workers, a workplace or a school, as the cell-phone has incorporated web services so that people can use Facebook, e-mail and other methods of instant communication. Even still, the concern arises as some might suggest that Digital Natives will use IM and text messaging as a substitute for a face-to-face talk, and thus might feel less close to their IM partners. Nevertheless, Digital Natives “have so wholly embraced instant messaging (both on cell phones and on computers) despite its perceived limitations because it satisfies two important developmental needs of adolescence—connecting with peers and enhancing their group identity by enabling them to join offline cliques or crowds without their more formal rules.”
With the intentions of broadening their social group, and extending their web and intensity of connections, “Youth use MySpace, Facebook and IM to post status updates—how they are fairing in their relationships, their social lives, and in other everyday activities—that can be viewed by the broader networked public of their peers. In turn, they can browse other people's updates to get a sense of the status of others without having to engage in direct communication.” Another common misconception about Digital Natives' use of the internet is that due to the informality of the communication methods, the lack of face-to-face contact and the public sharing of information on networking sites, their friendships may be negatively affected, and in turn their well-being. On the contrary, according to a 2001 Pew survey, “48 percent of online teens believe that the internet has improved their relationships with friends; the more frequently they use the internet, the more strongly they voice this belief. Interestingly, 61 percent feel that time online does not take away from time spent with friends.” In agreement with my own ethnographic research, participants who communicated and used the internet more actually felt closer to their existing friends because they were able to communicate regularly and keep tabs on them even without direct and instant communication by means of social networking sites. Through my own observations it was clear that a teen could be actively engaged in a conversation with their peers, in a face-to-face situation, while chatting online and using the internet, presumably “facebooking.” It seemed as though the 'facebookers' were not more distant from one another, but they had developed a way of merging their online world, with the 'real' world, so that they could actively participate in both adequately. Because doing things such as sharing discovered videos with one another, and using Facebook or MySpace have become such a large part of sociability in youth culture, it can be understood that the use of the internet is not taking away from, or diminishing relationships, but rather, adolescents have made adaptations and are constructing new social norms that reflect the heightened role of digital media in their lives.
Returning to Wilson and Peterson's observation that the internet's development has led to “online interactions of dispersed groups of people with shared interests,” there is no doubt that all Digital Natives using a social networking site have a common interest. After studying online communities, doing ethnographic fieldwork on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, danah boyd (her spelling) has suggested that the “teen years are marked by an interest in building new connections and socializing broadly.” With many teens sharing an interest in socializing and building connections, searching for ways to make and maintain connections with their friends, it is no surprise that Digital Natives turn to online communities such as social networking sites. A social networking site, like Facebook or MySpace, is a site that “connects communities of people in order to enable the flow of information among users after creating profiles and adding “friends” or other users. Friending users “lays the groundwork for building a friendship. the practice of Friending not only acknowledges a connection but does so in a public manner,” and in turn once making a wider range of connections, a teen has more opportunities to observe and learn about social norms from their peers. My informants use Facebook for enhanced communication with their peers (to keep in touch and to strengthen or publicize existing friendships), and for social comparison. According to a Pew report in early 2007, 55% of youth aged twelve to seventeen use these sites, mostly to reinforce existing relationships.” danah would agree that children spend so much time on sites such as Facebook or MySpace in order to reinforce existing relationships, but add that they do so “partly because they are marginalized in their society by adults.” Social networking is an acceptable alternative because “teens do not have as much access to physical space as they once did because they are over-scheduled or are dependent on adults to drive them places, or their parents are afraid for their safety, or their friends can't go out. Online is more easy and accessible, even when they're stuck at home.” The appeal to these sites is not the technology itself, but rather the presence of the Digital Native's peers. Because of these constraints on time and transportation, social networking sites are providing Digital Natives with an opportunity to casually connect with their friends and acquaintances by browsing the profiles and status updates, gathering information to “keep tabs” on their peers without direct communication. As supported by my own ethnographic research on the Facebook community, as teenagers learn to use these social networking sites, and online communication tools, they also develop a sense of etiquette as well as strategies for managing complexities and socially awkward situations which aids in their adolescent and social development. In my research on Facebook culture I found that contrary to the popular opinion that digital media is facilitating a Digital Native's interactions with strangers, the vast majority of the people I talked to use this media to communicate with existing friends that they met in school, their jobs, sports teams, churches and summer camps. Also supported by my ethnographic research on Facebook, Greenfield and Subrahmanyam also found that when Digital Natives are using social networking sites to keep in contact with their peers from their offline lives, they are using it both to make plans with friends whom they see often and to keep in touch with friends whom they rarely see.
Through blogs, social networking sites, online discussion groups and instant messaging, teens are spending a lot of time on the computer using social media. Still, 53 percent of Digital Natives (aged 13-18) still say that the number one way they like to spend time with their friends is in person. It is because they are so social and so committed to staying connected that they spend the rest of their time using digital media to let their friends know what has been going on. Sure, many of them still prefer to communicate with these modern communication tools for certain kinds of interactions, but that doesn't mean that they are losing either their interest in face-to-face communication or their social skills. Sure, under many circumstances, Digital Natives will use the internet to communicate, but that doesn't mean they are losing social skills, “after all, expressing one's feelings in writing was a standard practice of the nineteenth century.” The Digital Natives have a sense of logic for everything they do, and before the adults in our society attempt to criticize the Digital Native culture, they must strive to understand the native's rationale. Digital Natives are aware of the perceived limitations and detrimental effects of the internet, but they also know that they are an extremely social and connected generation and will, therefore, continue to strive to maintain constant communication and to constantly continue to extend and strengthen their web of connections.
Since the inception of the internet into daily life, there has been constant questioning as to whether there has been some sort of change in our inability or ability to act personally. While research methods seem limited due to the fact that for accurate conclusions, multi-tasking would need to be dealt with and a study on the relationships between family and friends needed to have been done before the internet was such an evident part of Digital Native culture, the research that has been done suggests that overall there is a higher level of connectedness amongst Digital Natives. Adults, especially parents, find their children's' Digital Native culture bewildering and threatening to existing social and family norms. The internet is not only providing teens with increased access to information, but has introduced a new way for Digital Natives to extend and intensify their web of connections with friends, family and, in certain cases, strangers, as the use of the internet by means of participation in online communities, instant messaging and social networking sites, has become key to the broadening of their social relations. In certain instances, the transformation into the digital age as well as these improved connections and interactions may happen at the expense of face-to-face communication, but ultimately the enhancement of peer group relations for Digital Natives as a result of digital media cannot be discredited as it is very clear that Digital Natives have a much larger web of connections.