Two Pew Research Studies About Teens and “Generation Next”

Two of the Pew research projects have recently released research documents.

The first document, a memo about ongoing research conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, is entitled “Social Networking Websites and Teens: An Overview.” In the study, the researchers found that “more than half (55%) of all online American youths ages 12-17 use online social networking sites…. [O]lder teens, particularly girls, are more likely to use these sites. For girls, social networking sites are primarily places to reinforce pre-existing friendships; for boys, the networks also provide opportunities for flirting and making new friends.” Rather than attempting to summarize this document myself, I defer to others more experienced in this field than I who have already produced excellent summaries and observations.

The second document is a report from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press entitled “How Young People View Their Lives, Futures and Politics: A Portrait of ‘Generation Next.’” The summary of findings tells us that “the generation that came of age in the shadow of Sept. 11 shares the characteristics of other generations of young adults. They are generally happy with their lives and optimistic about their futures. Moreover, Gen Nexters feel that educational and job opportunities are better for them today than for the previous generation. At the same time, many of their attitudes and priorities reflect a limited set of life experiences. Marriage, children and an established career remain in the future for most of those in Generation Next.” There are certainly many findings that will be of interest to educators and student affairs professionals.

Among the interesting findings about “Generation Next” is that “about half say they sent or received a text message over the phone in the past day, approximately double the proportion of those ages 26-40.” Much of the research I have read has indicated that Americans have been slow to take up text messaging. I think it’s safe to say that, at least for the younger generations, this generalization is no longer true. In fact, it’s clear that text messaging is now in the mainstream for American youths.

One particular statement with which I take issue is that “they are the ‘Look at Me’ generation.” The researchers conclude this from their finding that “a majority of Gen Nexters have used…social networking sites, and more than four-in-ten have created a personal profile.” I certainly don’t dispute the finding. I do, however, dispute the characterization that implies narcissism and attention-seeking as the motivation for employing these tools. The researchers’ characterization of these tools reveals either a bias or a shallow understanding of these tools. It’s not that people who use those tools are necessarily seeking attention but that the nature of the tools requires one to explicitly identify yourself and a significant amount of information about yourself. Further, for the age group we are discussing these tools have reached a “critical mass” in that even those who don’t really care for the tools often find themselves using them.

Both of these documents are interesting and directly applicable for college and university administrators and educators, particularly the “Generation Next” report. It helps cut through the misconceptions and anecdotes to give us a scholarly and extremely interesting view of the current generation of American youths. As the working definition of Generation Next used by these researchers includes “those Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 years old,” these young people are the current generation of undergraduates. It’s essential to understand them not only as college and university students but also as Americans who are entering the workforce and voting booths.