EDITOR’S NOTE — This is the first in a two-part series looking at a generation of young people who’ve grown up with the Internet, how they use it and how it has influenced them.
CHICAGO — Even when he’s asleep, Scott Kearnan is hooked into the Internet. He just turns down the volume on his computer, so he’s not awakened by the “brrring” of a late-night instant message.
“It’s become something for me that’s almost like a telephone. I may not use it, but it could ring anytime,” says the 22-year-old from Mendon, Mass., who works for a search-engine marketing company. “If I don’t have it, I feel cut off.”
For 21-year-old William Herbert, the Internet has replaced newspapers and TV weather reports (he visits Weather.com every morning). He pays his bills online, registers for classes, books airline and train tickets, checks TV listings, buys movie tickets and gets travel directions.
“My parents, when we would go on road trips, would get a booklet with travel directions that were printed and mailed. Can you imagine? Mailing away for travel directions?” asks Herbert, a senior at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts who’s studying business and highway design.
It’s one small indication of just how far the Internet has come — and how its existence is taken for granted by a generation of young Americans who “have not known life without it,” says Malcolm Bird, head of America Online’s services for kids and teens.
Young people are now the savviest of the tech-savvy, as likely to demand a speedy broadband connection as to download music onto an iPod, or upload digital photos to their Web logs.
The Internet has shaped the way they work, relax and even date. It’s created a different notion of community for them and new avenues for expression that are, at best, liberating and fun — but that also can become a forum for pettiness and, occasionally, criminal exploitation.
“Students are continuously connected to other students and friends and family in ways that older generations never would have imagined,” says Steve Jones, chairman of the communications department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a senior research fellow with the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
More than any previous generation, today’s young people are plugged in — all the time — with a world of communication and information at their fingertips.
Take Suhas Sridharan, whose introduction to the Web came as a sixth-grader in South Carolina. In those days, she regularly visited the Disney Web site to play games; by high school, she was researching assignments online and checking her e-mail daily.
“Now I think even my ‘senior self’ in high school would be surprised how much I use the Internet,” says Sridharan, a 17-year-old freshman at Emory University in Atlanta, where the Web is woven into the framework of students’ lives via a system called LearnLink.
Assignments are dispersed online. Students are much more likely to do research online than use the library. And even the proverbial class handout has gone the way of the Web, posted on electronic bulletin boards for downloading after class.
So when Emory’s computer server went down for a few hours one evening this fall, you would’ve thought the world had come to an end. “A lot of people were at loose ends,” Sridharan says. “They couldn’t do their homework.”
As time and innovations move ahead, many young people only see the Internet becoming that much more vital.
Crystal Cienfuegos, for instance, found a public relations job via the Web — sending out an “electronic” resume, arranging an in-person interview by e-mail and securing the job with a writing test, taken online.
“Nowadays, a person employed at one company can be coordinating interviews via Hotmail during lunch and literally finding a new job without even leaving their desk,” says 25-year-old
Cienfuegos, from Long Beach, Calif. “It’s quite amusing, but not so funny if you are a business owner.”
Gabriel Schaffzin, a senior at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., has used the Internet to rejuvenate his father’s personalized calendar business, now called gaboosh.media inc.
Through the Internet, he’s found seed funding, business plan competitions and industry data. And perhaps, most importantly, the Web has given customers another way to find the business — and order products.
It’s the sort of reach that would’ve been “unfathomable, not even 20 years ago,” says Susannah Stern, a professor of communication studies at the University of San Diego who has studied young people’s Internet habits.
“For them, accessing information is easy,” she says, noting that the Internet also opens up a chance for teens and 20somethings to communicate with people who are different from them, “people in another state or country, or kids at school they don’t talk to.”
Of course, there is a dark side to having such broad access: It gives identity thieves and sexual predators a new place to look for victims.
Perhaps more common than those well-publicized dangers are the everyday dramas caused by online rumor-spreading. And it can get ugly, particularly when people post comments on their online profiles and Web logs, commonly known as blogs.
Jennifer Anello recalls the time a friend got drunk one Saturday night, called her ex-boyfriend and ended up arguing with him.
“The following Monday his profile had something to the effect of ‘Can someone tell (my ex-girlfriend) how to hold her liquor and get her a shrink?’” says Anello, who’s 24 and lives in Stamford, Conn.
Online rumors and innuendo cause angst among teens, too. “Parents say, ‘We never knew it would take on this velocity and ferocity,’” says Amanda Lenhart, another Pew researcher.
Andreea Johnson, a student at Central Michigan University and a regular Web user, says those bad experiences make some people, including the grandmother who raised her, wary of the Internet.
“Are you kidding? She would never get an e-mail account,” Johnson says, laughing. “I think some older people still think of it as the devil — like it’s kind of evil.”
But the Internet also has produced many unexpected benefits. Stern, for instance, notes that the Web provides an anonymous outlet to troubled young people who want to talk about everything from suicide and self-mutilation to eating disorders.
“There’s nowhere for a lot of kids to go, there’s no hanging out on the corner. So the Internet is a place for kids to figure out who they are,” she says.
In her research, Stern says it was common to hear young people who’ve posted online diaries say, “I’d never tell someone this in person.”
Indeed, Jones has seen firsthand how students have used the Internet to enhance life — even during classes he leads on his Chicago campus. Using messages sent wirelessly from laptop to laptop, one student recently helped another who didn’t speak English very well by translating a point Jones was making during a lecture.
On other occasions, students have surfed the Net during class and found Web sites that supplement the discussion — though Jones also jokes that he’s never had his students’ undivided attention thanks to the laptops, cell phones and other gizmos they carry.
“There is a real power there, a kind of technological power. But also I think there’s a kind of intellectual power that can be harnessed. They are so curious about using these technologies. And I’d really like to be able to regularly marshal that curiosity,” Jones says, noting that students — not necessarily universities — are the ones who often drive the use of technology on campus.
He also thinks that young workers will continue to push technological advances in the corporate world, partly because they are able to handle “multiple conversations and juggle better than the previous generations.” He says the Internet — and other forms of communication — play very much into this generation’s wish for flexibility at home, work and during down time.
AOL’s Bird predicts that teens will be among the first to embrace new, Web-based video technology. “You will very soon be able to shoot video messages and play those video messages on your blog that your friends can go to,” Bird says. “So your community, your scheduling, your friends, your holidays — all of this stuff will live in an online environment.”
It’s all very exciting to Sridharan, the Emory freshman. She finds it difficult to predict how the Internet will change her life, even a few years from now. But she knows the potential is there.
“It’s just up to us to imagine it,” she says, “and put it into motion.”