Has the iGeneration Arrived?

by Dr. Larry Rosen author of "Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn"

Defining and understanding a generation of Americans has always been difficult until years after the generation ends. Although there is universal agreement on the Baby Boomer generation (1946-1964) and most people agree that Generation X started in 1965 and ended around 1979, after that it gets murky. In my research and writing I believe that the “Net Generation” started in 1980 when those future Internet users were born. Others have called this Generation Y, Millennial Generation, and Generation M, but I think that the defining feature has always been the importance of the Internet in the lives of these children, teens, and young adults.


Right behind the Net Generation is the “iGeneration” named after all the available devices with an “i” – iPod, iPhone, iTouch, iEverything – plus these children's thirst for any new mobile technology. Little research has been done on these preschool and elementary school-aged children, but our interviews with parents of more than 2,000 of them show that they are embracing technology and media much earlier than their older brothers and sisters. In fact, these children are getting their first taste of personal technology often before they can even sit up without assistance. To put it simply, children have grown up in an environment where technology is everywhere and much of it is invisible. Most children and adolescents have grown up with the largest storehouse of information in history – the Internet – and from an early age they learned to play online games, send e-mail to grandma and grandpa, and watch videos. As they got older, they learned to Google anything they wanted to know, MapQuestdirections, go to Wikipedia for school reports, and use dictionary.com for definitions. Many have never used a card catalog, a “real” encyclopedia, or Webster’s Dictionary. Some have never set foot in a library other than as a place to study after school. To children and teenagers, the Internet has always been just a click away and, as you will see from the data we have collected over the years, they use it for a variety of purposes that are beyond the scope of anything imagined just a decade ago.

At the George Marsh Applied Cognition Laboratory we have been doing extensive research on generational differences over the past few years and have chronicled our work on my website (www.Me-MySpace-and-I.com) with PowerPoint presentations and journal articles. We are particularly interested in similarities and differences between this new, young generation of kids and the youngest members of the Net Generation – those who are still in middle school or high school.

The table below shows the number of hours elementary and secondary school students spend using a variety of media combined from several of our studies of thousands of children, teens, and their parents. In each of our studies we ask about the use of a variety of technologies. The teenagers supplied their own estimates while parents of the younger children provided the information. The table includes the core technologies that are examined in all of our research studies while some of our other studies explore the use of additional technologies and media as they become part of the youth culture.

The data in this table, which are very consistent across other major research studies, are striking as you see technology and media consumption rise from roughly five and a half hours a day for the youngest children to more than 20 hours a day for the older teens. Clearly, teenagers are not spending their entire day using each technology one at a time. They have mastered the art of multitasking, allowing them to watch television, text message friends, listen to music, surf the web, chat on MySpace and Facebook, watch YouTube videos, and more, all at the same time. For now, however, it is important to understand that the data in this table reflect the staggering amount of media that our children are consuming on a daily basis.

Before looking at specific media activities of the younger generation, it is instructive to look at what “older” generations are doing technologically. According to our research studies, Baby Boomers spend about nine and a half hours daily with media, Generation Xers are immersed in media 15 hours per day and older Net Geners (18- to 29-years-old) consume nearly 20 media hours per day. So, all generations are using media and technology with the iGeneration and younger Net Geners leading the way.

Returning to our four groups of students, several things stand out in the table. For one, there is a major jump in online activity between the pre-teen and teen years. While 9- to 12-year olds are online an hour a day, their older siblings spend more than double that amount visiting websites in addition to four hours communicating online through e-mail, instant messaging and chatting and five-plus hours using the cell phone for calls and text messaging. What is on their computer screens while they are surfing through cyberspace? High school students spend upwards of 30 hours a week online, mostly for entertainment and socializing with friends. They spend one to two hours a day communicating on social networks such as MySpace andFacebook.

Another interesting trend is the increasing use of all communication tools including e-mail, instant messages, chats, telephone calls, and text messages. All told, 5- to 8-year-olds communicate “electronically” a half hour a day which increases to nearly two and a half hours for 9- to 12-year-olds, more than six hours for 13- to 15-year-olds, and a whopping eight and a half hours a day for the 16- to 18-year-olds. In addition, teenagers are now spending more time sending text messages from their cell phones than actually talking on them. According to a 2009 national survey by Nielsen Mobile, U.S. teens send or receive an average of 2,899 text messages a month compared to making or receiving only 191 cell phone calls. A Harris Interactive national survey of teens has even shown that 47% of the 2,089 nationally-sampled teens could compose text messages blindfolded.

This is an extremely important issue in understanding how best to parent and educate our youth. Communication is a key element in their daily lives. Several other trends are obvious and noteworthy. Music becomes increasingly important as children move into adolescence, as does text messaging. Interestingly, watching television appears to be more popular among the younger teens than any other group as is video game playing.

Another issue concerning the proliferation of media in our children’s lives concerns where they actually use their media. Universally, psychologists and educators caution against allowing young children to ensconce themselves in bedroom “TechnoCocoons” for a variety of reasons including parental monitoring and safety. However, my most recent studies of more than 1,300 parents of children and teens between the ages of 6 months and 18 years indicates that many younger children are indeed owning and using technology behind closed bedroom doors. The figure below – from a keynote speech I gave recently to pre-trial and parole officers to help them understand the generations of offenders – shows the percentages of private/personal technology usage.

Several numbers leap out of this table. First, more than one-third of children under the age of 5 have a television in their bedrooms as do two-thirds of children, pre-teens and teenagers. Second, more than half the school-aged children – up to the early teens – have a video game console and a handheld video game player. Half the pre-teen students have their own cell phone and iPod which increases to nearly all of the teenagers. Third, although only one in four 9- to 12-year-olds have a computer in their bedrooms, that increases to nearly half of all high school students.

One thing that is clear from all of our research is that there may be two halves of the Net Generation, those who have graduated high school and those who are still in secondary school. There appears to be striking commonalities in the way elementary and secondary students embrace media and technology and it all surrounds their online and communication world. They are constantly “wired” – or perhaps I should say “unwired” since most of the technologies they use are wireless – and they are omnipresent in their cyberworlds.

In my new book, Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and How They Learn (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), I argue that these are all technologies that are available for educators to consider as delivery vehicles for classroom content and homework. Combining the bedroom technologies with the extensive media use by these students, leaves a variety of vehicles that educators might choose to use for delivering virtual content, having virtual classroom discussions, and completing assignments from anywhere in the world. The time has come for us to put together the solid, research-based ideas that I have described in this new book and form a coherent plan for supercharging education. We now have the knowhow to provide an educational experience – both inside and outside the classroom – that is motivating, captivating, and engaging. We can no longer ask our children to live in a world where they are immersed in technology in all parts of their lives except when they go to school. We must rewire education or we risk losing this generation of media-immersed, tech-savvy students. As put so aptly by one educator:

"There is a persistent gap between how today's digital natives learn in schools and how they work and interact outside of school -- a trend that underscores the need for districts to keep pace with technological advances and adapt to students' learning needs."
Dr. Larry Rosen is the author of Rewired

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