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Online Important to Teens, Adults Don’t Understand

A new report was released today from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that suggests teenagers today use and value technologies online that adults don’t always value or understand.

I would suggest that this report describes a predictable generation gap that occurs with every few generations. Just as my parents couldn’t understand why I wanted to spend hours every evening on the phone to friends I had just seen in school all day, today’s parents don’t understand teens’ need to always be connected — via text messaging, IM, or some other technology — to their friends. A few generations prior, the technology wasn’t the telephone, but rather the automobile that upset how families and friends kept in touch. Mail that used to take weeks to deliver now took only days.

I think the first two take-aways from the report are key:

There is a generation gap in how youth and adults view the value of online activity.

  • Adults tend to be in the dark about what youth are doing online, and often view online activity as risky or an unproductive distraction.
  • Youth understand the social value of online activity and are generally highly motivated to participate.

Youth are navigating complex social and technical worlds by participating online.

  • Young people are learning basic social and technical skills that they need to fully participate in contemporary society.
  • The social worlds that youth are negotiating have new kinds of dynamics, as online socializing is permanent, public, involves managing elaborate networks of friends and acquaintances, and is always on.

Most adults tend to not fully understand the complexity of the online world, and the deep social divide that is opening up between those who are “always on” and those who are completely disconnected from the Internet. While adults continue to operate primarily in the physical world, teens are learning the value and flexibility of primarily operating in the virtual world. And they can navigate this virtual world in ways that most adults can’t even imagine.

This new generational digital divide is only to grow and I’m not certain there’s a lot that can be done to stop it. While some adults, of course, are just as connected as their children, the vast majority have an online vocabulary far more limited than their teens’.

What does this mean for the future? One, adults need to stop trying to portray online time as somehow less positive or less social than face-to-face time (based upon their own skewed, outdated definitions of quality social time). Reports like this should put that myth to rest. Two, teenagers today may have the ability to greatly redefine accepted social behavior as they turn into adults, such as texting while talking to others, or in a business meeting. They could bring an additional communication layer to our everyday lives. Of course, as an adult, I may find such things ripe with potential problems, but I also recognize the potential benefits of such changes.

This is a valuable report that, if you’re a parent or researcher into online behavior, is well worth the read.

Read the full article: Online Time Important to Teen Development

Read the full white paper: Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project (PDF)

Online Important to Teens, Adults Don’t Understand

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Online Important to Teens, Adults Don’t Understand. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 20 Nov 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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