Teens Forge Forward With The Internet And Other New Technologies

Jul 29, 2005

The number of teenagers using the Internet has grown 24 percent in the past four years and 87 percent of those between the ages of 12 and 17 are online. Compared to four years ago, teens' use of the Internet has intensified and broadened as they log on more often and do more things when they are online.

Among other things, there has been significant growth over the past four years in the number of teens who play games on the Internet, get news, shop online, and get health information.

In short, today's American teens live in a world enveloped by communications technologies; the Internet and cell phones have become a central force that fuels the rhythm of daily life.

These are some of the highlights of "Teens and Technology," issued by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, based on a November 2004 survey of 1,100 youth between the ages of 12 and 17 and their parents:

  • About 21 million teens use the Internet and half of them say they go online every day.
  • 51 percent of online teens live in homes with broadband connections.
  • 81 percent of wired teens play games online, which is 52percent higher than four years ago.
  • 76 percent of online teens get news online, which is 38percent higher than four years ago.
  • 43 percent have made purchases online, which is 71percent higher than four years ago.
  • 31 percent use the Internet to get health information, which is 47percent higher than four years ago.

Not only has the number of users increased, but also the variety of technologies that teens use to support their communication, research, and entertainment desires has grown. When asked about their individual ownership of networked devices such as desktop and laptop computers, cell phones, and blackberries, 84 percent of teens reported owning at least one of these devices. Some 45 percent of teens have their own cells phones and many own several devices that can connect to the Internet.

"Increasing numbers of teenagers live in a world of nearly ubiquitous computing and communication technologies that they can access at will," said Amanda Lenhart, Senior Research Specialist at the project and co-author of the report. "More and more teens go online frequently and from a wider array of places. They take ever-greater advantage of this new technology ecology by mastering features like instant messaging and phone-text messaging on their tethered and mobile computing devices."

These technologies enable a variety of methods and channels by which youth can communicate with one another as well as with their parents and other authorities. Email, once the cutting edge "killer app," is losing its privileged place among many teens as they express preferences for instant messaging (IM) and text messaging as ways to connect with their friends.

Fully 75 percent of online teens use instant messaging and the average amount of time spent instant messaging in a day has increased over the last four years. One third of all American teens have sent a text message. Nonetheless, the trusty telephone remains the most often cited communication technology used by teens.

In focus groups, teens described their new environment. To them, email is increasingly seen as a tool for communicating with "adults" such as teachers, institutions like schools, and as a way to convey lengthy and detailed information to large groups. Meanwhile, IM is used for everyday conversations with multiple friends that range from casual to more serious and private exchanges.

It is also used as a place of personal expression. Through buddy icons or other customization of the look and feel of IM communications, teens can express and differentiate themselves. Other instant messaging tools allow for the posting of personal profiles, or even "away" messages, durable signals posted when a user is away from the computer but wishes to remain connected to their IM network.

Mary Madden, Research Specialist and co-author of the report notes, "Away messages, in effect, maintain a "presence" in this virtual IM space, even when a teen isn't directly tied to a technology. Away messages aren't just telegraphing location, but may include any type of information, such as in-jokes, quotes, coded messages or even contact information."

Teens, too, are accessing the Internet from a variety of locations, including their homes, schools, community centers, libraries, and friends' and relatives' houses. It seems that teens may come to expect access to the virtual world from any physical world location.

  • 87 percent of teens have ever logged on from home
  • 78 percent of teens log on from school
  • 74 percent of teens log on from a friend or relative's house
  • 54 percent of teens log on at the library
  • 9 percent of teens log on from a community center, youth center or house of worship
Leading the way are older teenaged girls, who are putting burgeoning technologies to use to support their already honed communication styles. Girls ages 15-17-year-old are the power users of the online teen cohort. Older girls dominate in use of email, IM, text messaging, and selected information-seeking activities:
  • 97 percent of girls 15-17 have used instant messaging, compared to 89 percent of younger boys and girls and 87 percent of older boys
  • 57percent of older girls have ever sent a text message compared 40 percent of older boys
  • 51 percent of older girls have bought something online
  • 79 percent of girls 15-17 have gone online to search for information about a school they might attend, vs. 70 percent of older boys.
  • Older girls are more likely to search for information on health topics both mundane and sensitive, for spirituality or religious information, and for entertainment topics like favorite sports or movie stars or TV programs.
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