Youth Culture   /   Spring 2009   /    Essays

The Internet and Youth Culture

Gustavo S. Mesch

Person using phone. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Since 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 sources 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 expression, communication, and motivation. In this view, various terms have been used to describe this generation of youth, including “Net-generation,” the “millennium generation,” and “digital natives.”11xMarc 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). These labels attempt to identify a large group of young adolescents who grew up during the expansion of the internet and from early childhood have 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, and media production and consumption.

Supporting this perspective, scholars of media consumption have described adolescents’ lives as being characterized by media privatization in a multimedia environment.22xSonia 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) 3–31. 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 places, 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 consumption 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 optimistic, team-oriented achievers who are talented with technology. Immersion in this technology-rich culture influences the skills and interests of teens in important ways. 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.33xSee Tapscott; Prensky 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 experience 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 independent force that drives social change.44xBruce 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. 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.

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