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A recent study from Pew Internet and American Life found that more than half of all teens online--12 million kids--create original material for the Web, whether it's through a blog, home page or school Web site, with original artwork, photos or video. A large portion of that active group also will creatively "remix" other material from the Web to create something unique.
"Some of the best designed pages on MySpace are by 14- or 15-year-olds," said Kyle Brinkman, co-founder of the MySpace social network. Judging by the network's popularity, it must be doing something right: MySpace surpassed Google in traffic a few months before the site's parent company was sold to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. for $580 million in July.
The facility with technology among millennials is not genetic; they are
For example, it is nearly impossible to shield even young children from the gruesome details of news reports, and this is a generation that has grown up with the Columbine shootings, Amber Alerts, Sept. 11, and at least one Persian Gulf war. Exposure to disturbing events online may also be unwittingly exacerbated by parents who restrict their children to in-house activities out of pervasive fears about abductions and molestations.
For their Gen X predecessors, malls and cafes were among the few sanctuaries away from home. But many proprietors have restricted the amount of time teenagers can spend at these businesses, leaving cyberspace as the hangout of choice where youths can begin to exercise their independence.
"Where do they go outside of the parental eye? Lacking a public sphere, they create one in the digital," said Danah Boyd, a doctoral student at the University of California's School of Information who also works at Yahoo Research in Berkeley.
Boyd, who has been studying how teenagers use technology for the last year, has identified their primary activities as chatting over instant messengers and mobile phones, playing games, blogging with tools like LiveJournal and socializing on networks like MySpace. "MySpace--your friends are on it, your parents hate it. That just makes it more desirable. If it's not cool they won't use it. It's that simple," she said.
America Online is the most popular instant-messaging tool for the age group, but Boyd said sometimes kids will use Yahoo or Microsoft's MSN when they want a break from their regular friends or to talk with mom and dad. "They use largely a combination of mobile phones and IM chat. Ninety percent of their conversation has no content--it's a recapturing of the day and a way of understanding the world they're living in," Boyd said.
But amid this seemingly idle chatter lies significant information. Today's youths turn to each other for news and facts in much the way that children of another era sought out parents or teachers, read the newspaper and watched televised news.
"I can't remember the last time I picked up a newspaper," university student Thomas said.
Iconoculture's Steuer said the evolving ways of consuming news is tied directly to interactivity. "That's why blogs and MySpace are such a huge deal, because they're not weaned on just mass media but also interactive media," he said.
In just two years since MySpace was created as an indie music community, it has grown into a cultural phenomenon where teenagers grapple with such formative issues as body image, peer pressure, drugs and relationships. Social networks like MySpace allow them to play with their identities or try on new ones.
"Last year it was all about AIM, and this year it's all about MySpace and chatting with boys," said Sarah, a sixth-grader. "But you have to be careful who you're talking to."
Educators, too, are seeing the role of such social networks grow in children's lives--and they don't always appreciate their influence.