February 10, 2010 | By Sharon Jayson
Move over, Millennials. You're not the younger generation anymore.
For the past decade, you were the ones to watch. But now, as the eldest among you are fast approaching 30, there's a new group just begging for some attention. They're still kids, and although there's a lot the experts don't yet know about them, one thing they do agree on is that what kids use and expect from their world has changed rapidly.
And it's all because of technology.
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"It's simply a part of their DNA," says Dave Verhaagen, a child and adolescent psychologist in Charlotte. "It shapes everything about them."
To the psychologists, sociologists, and generational and media experts who study them, their digital gear sets this new group (yet unnamed by any powers that be) apart, even from their tech-savvy Millennial elders. They want to be constantly connected and available in a way even their older siblings don't quite get. These differences may appear slight, but they signal an all-encompassing sensibility that some say marks the dawning of a new generation.
"The current generation seems to be moving well into adulthood, and there seems to be another generation setting itself up as a contrast to it," says Neil Howe, a historian and demographer who has co-written several books on the generations.
Kathryn Montgomery, a communication professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and author of the 2007 book Generation Digital, hears similar stories from her students. "They tell me their younger siblings have different relationships with these technologies," she says.
The difference is that these younger kids "don't remember a time without the constant connectivity to the world that these technologies bring," she says. "They're growing up with expectations of always being present in a social way — always being available to peers wherever you are."
The contrast between Millennials and this younger group was so evident to psychologist Larry Rosen of California State University-Dominguez Hills that he has declared the birth of a new generation in a new book, Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn, out next month. Rosen says the tech-dominated life experience of those born since the early 1990s is so different from the Millennials he wrote about in his 2007 book, Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation, that they warrant the distinction of a new generation, which he has dubbed the "iGeneration."
"The technology is the easiest way to see it, but it's also a mind-set, and the mind-set goes with the little 'i,' which I'm taking to stand for 'individualized,' " Rosen says. "Everything is customized and individualized to 'me.' My music choices are customizable to 'me.' What I watch on TV any instant is customizable to 'me.' "
He says the iGeneration includes today's teens and middle-schoolers, but it's too soon to tell about elementary-school ages and younger.
Wendy Nokes, a seventh-grader in Winchester, Va., got a cellphone last year when she was 12 and is always in touch with friends. "I have it 24/7," Wendy says. "Sometimes I have to be: 'I'm going to sleep now. Stop texting me.' "
Rosen identifies 13 distinct iGeneration traits, including:
- Early introduction to technology.
- Adeptness at multitasking.
- Desire for immediacy.
- Ability to use technology to create a vast array of "content."
That's no surprise to Kiley Krzyzek, 15, a high school sophomore in West Hartford, Conn. "A lot of my friends post videos on each other's Facebook walls" using webcams, she says.
Rosen says the iGeneration believes anything is possible. "If they can think of it, somebody probably has or will invent it," he says. "They expect innovation."
They have high expectations that whatever they want or can use "will be able to be tailored to their own needs and wishes and desires, because everything is."
Rosen says portability is key. They are inseparable from their wireless devices, which allow them to text as well as talk, so they can be constantly connected — even in class, where cellphones are supposedly banned.
Verhaagen says this continual contact with peers isn't limited to teens, either.
"We're seeing children in third and fourth grade have the ability to get online and chat or have their own cellphone," he says. "Their relationships are taking a more adolescent tone."
Even preschoolers aren't immune. Although it's just pretend, Wendy Noke's sister Kaci, 3, has a collection of nine cellphones; four are the non-working cast-offs of family members, and the others are plastic, including Cinderella, Tinker Bell and Dora the Explorer varieties. She also has a plastic pink-and-purple Barbie laptop, which has its own mouse and programs that teach math, vowels and Spanish, as well as some computer games.
Kaci is pretty adept at the laptop, says her mother, Lisa Nokes, as are the preschoolers Nokes supervises as a day-care provider.
"It's mainly Disney.com," says Nokes, 38. "They have a lot of easy games that we do together."
Rosen's research found 35% of those ages 6 months to 3 years have a TV in their bedroom; 10% ages 4-8 have a computer in their bedroom; and 51% of those ages 9-12 have a cellphone.
"You have kids from 18 months old who have a mouse in their hands," Verhaagen says. "That's going to make a big difference in how their brains work."
Many researchers are trying to determine whether technology somehow causes the brains of young people to be wired differently. Based on some research related to multitasking, Rosen says, he's inclined to believe some "rewiring" is going on.
"They should be distracted and should perform more poorly than they do," he says. But findings show teens "survive distractions much better than we would predict by their age and their brain development."
Researchers also are studying how preschoolers and infants deal with media exposure, both made for them and the exposure they get when parents or siblings are in the same room, using video games, TV or other content.
Psychologist Sandra Calvert, director of the Children's Digital Media Center at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says many interactive computer games today are designed for ages 2 and under.
"It's a whole change in terms of how children are growing up," she says. "You used to start off with books, and now you start off with media from Day One. It's not that books have disappeared, but video is also pervasive."
Whether middle- and high-schoolers are really a separate generation, as Rosen suggests, or "late-wave Millennials" isn't clear; Howe believes the latter.
"I think you're going to find a lot of disagreement about this," Rosen says. "I don't think you can define a generation when you're in the middle of it. The best you can do is try to characterize the similarities and differences and the overlap."
He suggests, however, that new generations arise based on their use of new technologies; he says identifiable new generational groups are emerging more frequently than in the past.
The Baby Boom generation, for example, most often thought of as those born from 1946 through 1964, lasted almost 20 years. But Generation X, born from about 1965 through 1980, was five years shorter. And the Millennials (also known as Gen Y) appear to be about 10 years, he suggests.
Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist with the Pew Internet & American Life Project, notes that "there is usually a subset of kids who don't really text-message and are not that into it. It's important to recognize there are variations."
Info at fingertips
Because these kids are more immersed and at younger ages, Rosen says, the educational system has to change significantly.
"The growth curve on the use of technology with children is exponential, and we run the risk of being out of step with this generation as far as how they learn and how they think," Rosen says. "We have to give them options because they want their world individualized."
"They know almost every piece of information they want is at their disposal whenever they need it," Verhaagen says. "They're less interested in learning facts and learning data than in knowing how to gain access to it and synthesize it and integrate it into their life. We're talking about kids in elementary school and up and talking about much younger children who know how to get ahold of information. Their brains are developing in ways where they're taking in astronomical amounts of information, screening out unimportant details and focusing on the parts they need."
Even for kids like Kiley Krzyzek, who didn't know a world before the Internet, these rapid changes are striking. She got a cellphone when she was 12.
"Now kids are getting cellphones when they're, like, in fifth grade," she says. "Which I think is crazy."