Thursday November 10, 2005
Today's teenagers use technology to stay in touch with friends at all times - turning their bedrooms into 'connected cocoons'
Being sent to your bedroom used to be a punishment: now it's a teen dream. Through personal computers, mobile phones and gaming consoles, teenagers are spurning antisocial angst for a culture of "connected cocooning".
It's a phrase coined by music channel MTV to describe how the current 16-to-24-year-old "MTV generation" is permanently plugged into a network of digital devices, bringing the world to their fingertips in a way no previous generation has ever experienced.
Such limitless communication is having a revolutionary impact on the way young people interact, socialise, work and play. This tech-savvy teen tribe is united as never before, with the lonely search for identity set to become a vision of the past.
"Technologies certainly do create cultural phenomenon, whether for good or for ill," says Windsor Holden, senior analyst at Analysys. "Young people have seen all these different facilities, adapted them and changed the means of communication."
MTV's recently released Generations report on the lives of the MTV (ages 16 to 24) and VH1 (ages 25 to 44) generations defines how technology has driven differences between these age groups.
Young, early adopters have become used to instant gratification, the report found. Globalisation and consumerism do not deter. Instead, brands define and give a sense of belonging. Devices and their uses displace the real and the virtual, creating a world where you can be who you want to be. And joining the digital march isn't just a personal choice; to play a part in youth society, it is imperative to be switched on, charged up and always connected.
As Aisha Walker, lecturer in education at Leeds University, says: "Younger people now have a wider range of communication available and their parents don't necessarily understand the technology. But they are not talking about different things, they are just perhaps talking about it in a slightly different context."
From discovering new bands on social networking site MySpace, to texting music downloads on Groove Mobile's Tell A Friend service, the supposedly alienated, antisocial youth of the 21st century are forming a world wide web of cultural critique that cannot be ignored. It is what they have always done - only now, it is easier, quicker and packs a bigger punch.
Rather than kicking a ball around in a park with a friend, they're battling a Tokyo-based teenager in the Fifa premiership league. "Videogaming is a connector and an equaliser, and has created a new type of community mindset," says the report. "The mere mention of individual games and their challenges spark conversations between strangers; high scores will cause even the roughest teenager to respect the geekiest."
A day spent watching the MTV channel confirms the eclectic, rapidly evolving tastes and trends of this generation. Alongside the musical hits and misses there is a large dose of unsubtle celebrity, branding and consumerism.
Frightening pace of change
Sound scary? To many parents, teachers and politicians, it clearly is. "Young people are more unified by watching Big Brother than they are by having a political persuasion," says Simon Brown, vice president, strategic planning at MTV. "For the older generation, the pace of change has been quite frightening."
He says social and political flux, as well as the advance of technology, is behind the change. "The VH1 generation grew up in a period where there were still a few certainties. The family was still together. You had CND marches, so had clear political divisions. You knew where you belonged. A lot of these certainties seem to have gone. So you have to try to mix and match identities to assert who you are. The MTV generation doesn't have fixed values, so they are more open to new technologies.
"Media has taken over some of the teaching that normally society would have provided. And technology has driven that; it has been the conduit."
Cyber bullying, "happy slapping", internet pornography and underage mobile gambling have tainted the takeup of technology, with many blaming it for increasing social alienation in today's youth.
But the effects of technological advancement are unavoidable. Three out of four children have access to the internet via a computer at home. One in three children who use the internet makes friends online. Children in the UK aged between 10 and 19 own approximately 7.5m mobile phones, on which they send many of the 89m text messages written daily. And one pound in every 10 of disposable income was spent by teenagers on mobile products and services this year.
It is an astonishing level of penetration. The mobile phone, especially, has become an integral part of a young adult's everyday life. Ringtones are a badge of identity as much as the clothes you wear; text and picture messaging is the way to spread the word. A phone in your pocket is not only reassuring but commands respect. Graham Brown, chief executive of DhaliwalBrown, which runs Wireless World Forum (W2F) and mobileYouth, says: "Mobile music is a tool for timeless psychological needs - the need to belong through peer group reinforcement and the need to be significant, through status." Knowledge is power
For the new MTV generation, the mobile is also one of many sources of information. And knowledge is power. What to wear, what to listen to and where to go: modern technology provides the answers.
"Word of mouth as a source of information has always been trusted, especially by younger generations," says the report. "The speed of the internet means that websites can provide information quicker, and its size means that a far greater pool of talent can potentially be accessed in a single sitting. Its information is trusted more because it is perceived to resemble word of mouth... This is why viral marketing campaigns work so well."
This viral spread of what's hot and what's not has led to a growing appetite for more diverse subcultures. W2F's Future of Mobile Music report reveals that the more advanced mobile music markets in Japan and Korea are finding success in providing increasingly niche offerings, such as reggae and blues. Few in the UK have yet taken advantage of this movement away from the mainstream - as the unimaginative T-Mobile/EMI deal with Robbie Williams shows - but companies that ignore such trends risk missing out on the economic benefits of marketing to a youth sect with pocket money to spare.
"Sixteen-to-24-year-olds just can't stop talking to each other," says Brown. "Take away their means of communication, and they are really lost."