Teens Set Trends in Online Interaction

Many of my generation (I’m 39) and older seem to have a really hard time with the idea of 100% virtual relationships being comparable to face-to-face relationships. But today’s always-on teens (those with broadband access) are changing this right before our eyes.

E-Commerce Times recently featured an article, In the Internet Fast Lane about this trend. As an example, it tells about the social life of University of Illinois freshman Abe Hassan:

It has been a while since 18-year-old Abe Hassan read a book of fiction or went to bed before 10 p.m. After his parents signed up for broadband Internet access, Hassan began making daily rounds of the social-networking Web site LiveJournal.com, where he can talk to any of its 6.6 million other members.

“It has been a complete transformation of my lifestyle,” he says. “Now, I am up until 1 or 2 a.m. or later, because there’s always someone around [on the site].”

Hassan’s social life revolves around LiveJournal.com. He celebrates important events like National Pi Day with fellow online math enthusiasts, and his virtual friends give him suggestions on what music to buy. “These are people I spend most of my days with,” says Hassan, now a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Indeed, Hassan’s LiveJournal.com buddies make up half of his 40 or so friends and live as far away as Australia.

Being the parent of an “always on” 10-year-old, I get to experience this first-hand. I asked him one time how many of his 10 best friends were online-only, and he said 3 or 4. He makes little, if any, distinction between the quality of face-to-face vs. online interaction.

The article goes on to predict the impending dramatic shift that will result from a generation raised on ubiquitous Internet access:

Younger users, particular teenagers, are leading the way in this new broadband lifestyle. Experts say they’re often the first adopters and trendsetters. In fact, today’s Internet-savvy youth could be as influential to popular culture as baby boomers were in the 1960s.

Already, 28 percent of teens keep blogs, the Web logs that are fast becoming a prominent alternative source of news and commentary, while only 16 percent of adults do the same, according to market researchers Jupiter Research.

Some pundits call the under-25 crowd the super-communicators. They love instant messaging (IM) and spend more money on their cell phones than on cigarettes, candy or music. They like to be in touch with their friends while at school, the mall, or home.

Thanks to high-speed connections, they can do just that: They can learn, shop, play games, exchange photos and video clips, and talk with friends online. As a result, they’re “doing more and more of their interpersonal communications virtually,” says Rob Callender, trends director at TRU. “This is a wide-scale shift.”

The ubiquitous Marc Canter then comments on the growing number of social networking sites:

As youngsters embrace online social networks, adults likely won’t be far behind, and the number of social networks, now pegged at 350, is expected to surge. “We won’t have a million people in 10 social networks,” says Marc Canter, CEO of social-portals design consultancy Broadband Mechanics. “We’ll have millions of social networks with 10 people in each.”