Growing Up with the Internet

November 2009

I wrote my first Internet column in 1994, when today’s 18-year-old college freshmen were three years of age. Imagine what the world is like for them growing up with the Internet.

For today’s college freshmen, there has always been the Internet and a web browser. Netscape Navigator was released in December of 1994 and Microsoft Internet Explorer was first released in 1995, when our kiddies were four years old.

Amazon.com appeared in 1995, so books have always been something that you can buy online. Also in 1995 the first MP3 encoders and players appeared online for download. And shortly after, people began illegally sharing their music. Today’s 18-year-olds are all felons with huge music libraries they haven’t paid for. (Well, maybe I exaggerate, but not much.) Their attitude is everything should be free. And it often is.

When these kids were two years old, in 1993, there were 600 websites. By the time they were five, there were 100,000. And by they time they were turning 18, there were about160 million. And in terms of the number of Web pages, Google indexes approximately 25 billion. For these kids, there has always been a web page for everything.

Consider the case of news. When I gave a talk about the Internet in the August of 1994, I could find only one website with news: San Jose Mercury News. In September, Time Warner (publisher of Time magazine) launched their first news site. By the end of November, about 200 newspapers around the world had launched a online presence. Today almost every news publication is online, and an increasing number are discontinuing their paper editions. For today’s 18-year-olds, news is something that’s always been available online, and many have probably never read a newspaper.

By the time they were 15, a survey showed that over one-third were spending three or more hours a day online, and fully 80% spent one hour or more online. About half were using the Internet to help with their homework, and 60% were using social networking sites.

And speaking of homework, when today’s 18-year-olds were 10, Wikipedia was born. Today it has some 3 million articles and is the largest reference work in the world. And for most teens, as with the rest of us, it has become a first stop when researching a topic, not realizing that it may have errors since there is no editorial control. By 2007, when our cohort was 16, Wikipedia had become so ingrained in the life of students that some schools began to ban its use. The Middlebury College history department, for example, made national news that year when it barred the use of Wikipedia as a source in students’ academic work.

When these kids were seven, in 1998, Google appeared on the scene and very quickly dominated the search engine market. To them, finding information is synonymous with using Google. They’ve never used a card catalog, and have probably never seen one. And they likely haven’t spent much time in libraries.

In fact, some schools are accepting this reality and are emptying their libraries of books and turning them into media centers — with Internet access a key component. This past summer, the New England prep school Cushing Academy dumped their 20,000 books and replaced them with $500,000 worth of technology. “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ the school’s headmaster said.

Today’s teens are so connected that it’s had a deep effect on their brain. A colleague of mine who takes them on wilderness outings says that they actually go through a sort of withdrawal when they don’t have this connectivity. It’s excruciating for them to be without their cell phones. A survey showed that by the time our freshman class turned 18, they were sending an average of nearly 80 text messages a day.

I schoolteacher I know says that he used to be able to tell if students in class were sending text messages on their phones. Their eyes would be pointing down at their lap as they were sitting at their desk. If he saw them doing that, he would, according to school rules, take their phone and give it back at the end of the day. But he says that he can no longer tell — they’ve gotten so proficient that they can sit there texting on their numeric keypad without ever looking down.

It’s a different world out there.

© 2009 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

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