Christina Rainie had been trying to reach her friend for three days. For some reason, he wasn’t responding to her wireless text messages, online instant messages, or cell phone calls.
When the pair of University of Georgia freshmen finally did make contact on the fourth day, they argued — heated cell phone exchanges interspersed with apologetic text messages.
A frustrated Rainie decided she no longer wanted him to be her date for the upcoming sorority dance.
“Three days? It’s like eternity!” she explained.
For a generation accustomed to near-instantaneous keeping in touch — primarily via instant messaging, cell phones and e-mail — Rainie’s complaint doesn’t seem so far-fetched, especially since she and her generational peers are perfectly comfortable roaming in a social sphere where real face-to-face encounters take a backseat to cyber contact.
Yet it’s unclear whether the relative ease of digital communication boosts or harms developing young adults. While it may widen social circles, it also raises questions about whether skills suffer for handling the vibrant, breathing real world.
“Sometimes I long for the days when kids went outside and played and were not so wired,” said Sid Royer, a Seattle lawyer with an 18-year-old daughter and a son, 21. “To some extent, it affects their creativity and their attention span, and there’s a desire to have everything immediately.”
Then again, “were it not for cell phones and e-mails, I’d have much less contact with both my children” who both are away at school.
For better or worse, the new era is here.
Young couples profess puppy love for each other in their instant-messaging profiles. For teens, blogs and other Internet journals — which are public or semi-public — have become confessionals that can take gossip to a whole new level, fanning the flames of campus rumors and scandals.
Others are creating study groups and “poking” each other — essentially saying, “hey” — via a popular new online network called thefacebook now found at 200 colleges and universities.
“Digital devices are the social lubricant now,” said Derek White, an executive vice president at Alloy Inc., a youth marketing and research firm.
While their time spent in front of the computer and online has grown, teens are now spending less time on other social activities. In a 2004 survey of youths aged 13 to 18, White said the number of teens going to the mall and out on dates dropped by five percent, compared to 1997. Those going to dances decreased by 10 percent.
Chris Saribay, 17, of Hawaii, quit the regular school scene altogether for an all-online public high school, where he watches video lectures and frequently instant messages or e-mails his teachers. But the junior is anything but lonely — he has friends from all over the world and has maxed out the allowed instant messaging buddy list of 200.
He became close friends with Clark Mueller, 18, of Columbia, Mo., after Mueller solicited Saribay, a.k.a. hawaiiansuperman, in an online community forum for Macintosh enthusiasts, for some Hawaii sightseeing tips a few years ago.
The strangers-turned-pals haven’t met in person. But they have watched each other eating while talking online, using a popular video conferencing program that piggybacks on AOL Instant Messenger.
“It’s great — 50 years ago this was impossible. Your friends ranged from those maybe five miles away to across the hall,” Saribay said. “But this generation, we could communicate with whoever we want — time and place doesn’t matter.”
Contrary to some perceptions, youths spend most of their time online communicating with people they know, not strangers, said Elisheva Gross, a psychology researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Far from digging a social black hole, they are using high-tech means to maintain or expand their network of relationships. “It’s used to hang out with friends, relieve boredom, or flirt,” Gross said.
And while experts agree that communication in the online world can be as wonderful or painful as it is in the off-line world, psychologists are only in the first stages of studying how faceless interactions affect a teenager’s social development.
Initial observations are that, more than shaping one’s personality, the use of online communication extends existing habits and traits.
“If they happen to not be physically active already in life, then I think the Internet just pushes them in the direction of not doing anything,” said Kaveri Subrahmanyam, an associate professor of child development at California State University at Los Angeles. “But if they’re already active, the Internet doesn’t pull them away, it just bolsters their activity.”
For instance, 15-year-old Gabby McCone of Seattle, spends hours online daily instant messaging her friends but she is also on her school basketball team and plays guitar, often using the Web to find music sheets.
Meanwhile, bullies in so-called “meatspace” will find just another way to taunt with cyberspace, experts say. Of course, it’s easier to block out the bullies online. There’s software for that.
It’s a tough, sometimes subjective, call, to say whether young people’s lives are made richer or not.
“Teens are doing the same types of things, but they’re doing it in different ways than they may have done before,” Subrahmanyam said. “They’re not meeting friends face-to-face as much, but that’s how we’ve all changed. So we can’t compare teenagers today to teenagers from 20 years ago.”
Nearly three-quarters of the nation’s teens use the Internet, and about half say the online resources improve their friendships, according to a 2001 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Gabriel Goldstein, a freshman at James Madison University in Virginia, and his former girlfriend spent at least 90 percent of their relationship typing messages over the Internet.
“It’s fast and convenient,” the 18-year-old said. “It’s easier to say things that you might not want to say over the phone. And you don’t have to be there to see the rejection or reaction.”
Rana Hanocka, a high school freshman in Norwalk, Conn., admits she was considered a dork until she started expressing herself and reaching out to others more via instant messaging. Her voice and confidence emboldened, she now hangs with a more popular crowd.
Her conversations that start on campus almost always continue online as soon as she gets home from school and parks herself in front of the computer, usually for about four hours a day. During the past summer, she hardly used the phone at all and instead kept up with dozens of her buddies in cyberspace.
It’s not just with friends.
Hanocka is closer to her 36-year-old aunt in Brooklyn than she would ever have been without their thrice weekly instant message sessions. Her aunt, Lara Wechsler, a graduate student in philosophy, says she knows what moods her young niece is in just by reading her instant messaging profile, which the teen constantly updates.
For Rana’s mother, Kayla Hanocka, as with many other parents, there’s no more leaving notes on refrigerators.
“I just e-mail her,” Kayla Hanocka said, “or text message her instead.”