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                                                                           DIGITAL YOUTH 

 See also Topic: Internet


Whether we are talking about teenagers/tweens (11-19 years of age) or U.N. numbered youth (15-25), about 400 million young people of the world’s 2 billion population, have cell phones and/or Internet access.

These young people born since 1980 who have never been without access to a digital screen have been called digital youth (digital natives or GenNet). They have more ability in their cyber-world than most adults, take their hybrid online/offline identity for granted, and can’t stand to be disconnected.

Neural-psychological research is finding that the brains of children get wired differently in terms of the kind of communication in which they engage in the growth process. In addition, the need to be constantly connected, often in more than one way, and the necessity of talking care of online and offline responsibilities at the same time has been shown to produce information-overload, a shrinking attention span.

These digital youth are reading fewer newspapers and books as they get most of their information online. Their ethics in this digital world seems to us to have lower standards than practiced in the real, offline world. Many of them will say mean things within their social networks than they would in real life. Most accept pirating or copying of music from one another.

We recommend two books to further your study of digital youth: Anastasia Goodstein’s Totally Wired and Palfrey and Gasser’s Born Digital—both reviewed here. According to Goodstein (drawing from a 2005 Forrester Research of U.S. and Canadian 12-19-year-olds). Though now outdated, it gives important perspective:

• 83% use IM versus 32% online adults

• More than 3 out of 4 young consumers own a mobile phone.

• 25% say they plan to purchase an MP3 player in the next 12 months

• They spend almost 11 hrs. per/wk online, while one if five of the 
 youngest of this group (12-17) spends 20 hrs. or more p/wk online

• 88% of boys ages 12-17 own a game console, compared to 63% of girls

of the same age. 55% of boys would rather play games than watch TV

A 2009 Nielsen Study (Katie Hafner, ”Texting May Be Taking a Toll,” NYTimes, 26May09) reported American teenagers sending an average of 2,272 text messages each per month in a three-month period—more than twice as many as in the same 3-month-period in 2008.

Both Totally Wired and Born Digital note that young people are not only consuming vast amounts of media content, but creating vast amounts as well—often in very innovative ways. Not only are online youth significantly influenced and shaped by mass culture today, more than ever before they are, as well, creators of popular culture.

Youth leaders, teachers and parents are greatly challenged in guiding this generation. It is more important than ever for parents, teachers and youth workers to collaborate from their different positions. Even more important is for adults to learn from and collaborate with these young people in matters of privacy, safety, bullying, moral values and practice, artistic expressions, and global justice issues.



1. How does your experience with (or as a) digital youth match up with this article?

2. How would you describe the experience and world view of those whose online life is as important or more important than their real world life?

3. What further study and discussion of this phenomenon would you propose?

4. How would you suggest that those who have been called “digital immigrants” (in contrast to those who have never known any other world) might learn from and guide those who have grown up in this online world?

5. How can digital youth, and all of us, balance the pressures of online demands with the need for quality of our inner lives and deep, face-to-face relationships? 

6. How does one take his or her faith life and principles holistically into our screen lives?


  1. The world has experience a revolutionary technological change/advance. As with all previous technological advances, there are positive and negative results—particularly in the immediate aftermath of widespread use. There is a great challenge to understand these effects and to maintain balance and quality of life.

  2. It is important that we use and not abuse digital communication. It must be our tool and not our master. We must be careful in the tension between efficiency and quality of life.

  3. Secular writers are urging us to maintain a balanced of physical, emotional and mental lives—to maintain depth of thought and relationships in what can become a shallow life. People of faith also need to consider the challenge and dangers of this technical upgrade—which for some has become an obsession if not an addiction.

  4. Digital youth can achieve expertise and mastery of this technology. They are not as well equipped to reflect deeply on its implications and long-term effects.

Dean Borgman cCYS