Thursday, June 22, 2006

Tech creates a bubble for kids

Tech creates a bubble for kids By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY
Tue Jun 20, 6:54 AM ET

Julie Beasley looked out her window one morning and saw a teenager changing clothes in the middle of the street.

"She opened a passenger side door and dropped her pants. She took her pants off and reached in the car and pulled out a skirt. Then she put the skirt on and pulled off her sweatshirt. She had on a camisole with spaghetti straps with her midriff showing," says Beasley, 46, of Iowa City.

Living less than two blocks from a high school gives Beasley a bird's-eye view of teenagers - and a startling view, as well.

"I'm not a mother," she says. "All of it surprises me. I think they're oblivious to adults, period."

To baby boomers and other adults of a certain age, young people may seem rude, disrespectful and generally clueless about established social mores.

But to social scientists, the phenomenon is more complicated.

Raised by parents who stressed individualism and informality, these young people grew up in a society that is more open and offers more choices than in their parents' youth, says child and adolescent psychologist Dave Verhaagen of Charlotte.

Unlike their parents, they have never known anything but a world dominated by technology. Even their social lives revolve around the Web, iPods and cellphones. So they dress down, talk loose and reveal their innermost thoughts online.

"Put that all together and you've got a generation that doesn't have the same concept of privacy and personal boundaries as generations before," Verhaagen says.

"They're tuned out in some ways to the social graces around them and the people in their lives, in their physical realm, and tuned in to the people they're with virtually," says psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

On top of that, young people don't care as much about making a good impression as their parents and grandparents did growing up, says Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

She studied 40,745 young people who took surveys from 1958 to 2001 with questions such as "I am always careful in my manner of dress" and "I never forget to say 'please' or 'thank you.' " People who score high on social-approval questions display conventional behavior; those who score low are not as concerned with what others think.

In 1999, 76% of kids ages 8 to 12 (now in high school or college) paid little attention to social approval, up from 57% in 1970. Among college students in 2001, it was 62%, compared with 56% in 1970. The findings are published in Twenge's book, Generation Me.

Turkle, who studies the effects of technology on identity and social interaction, points to young people's "other-directedness" and use of ubiquitous technology to always be in touch with their peers.

If someone's self-identity is fragile, as is the case with many young people, he or she needs to bolster it "by constant contact with others who validate and enable them," she says. "Now you go to your Facebook entry and look at the comments left for you, and your sense of self can be shored up by the 50 people who have commented."

Says Verhaagen, author of Parenting the Millennial Generation: "Their ability to have multiple conversations through multiple technologies is different from previous generations, but in and of itself is not a bad thing.

"This generation uses technology to facilitate relationships and interactions in a way other generations never have. They are talking on a cellphone, IMing somebody, playing Xbox and having three or four parallel conversations," maybe ignoring someone else sitting in the same room.

Such multitasking "does not fit with the current social mores of adults, but over the years, I think it will not be regarded as rude."

Right now, young people are "not in positions of leadership and power, and they have to play by the rules of other generations." That will change. "Over time, these kids will bring a different attitude and shape the culture of business and adult interactions in a way that we haven't seen before."

But for now, it still drives some adults crazy when they see young people wearing jeans or camisoles with spaghetti straps to church, or talking to parents and teachers the same casual way as friends.

"I'll talk to them a certain way, kidding with them, and they take it disrespectfully," says Danielle Nelson, 15, of Edgewater, Md.

"Our generation just is not raising our kids the way our parents did," says her mother, Beth Nelson, 45.

"I think there's a difference between respect and formality. You can be casual and show appropriate levels of respect."

Adults may believe that young people don't care about social standards, but they do, says syndicated columnist Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners, author of the updated Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.

"Young people care deeply about the norms and practices of their contemporaries," she says. They just don't understand "that the standards of adults affect them."

Jacob Krell, 17, of Austin recalls his mother's warning as she helped him dye his hair during a short-lived blue-hair phase in middle school.

"She said, 'You're going to have to work twice as hard now to garner respect,' " says Krell, who will be a freshman in film studies at New York University this fall.

He says he's not sure how much respect he lost with his blue hair, but he acknowledges, "I probably didn't gain much, either."

Respect is something that Cupertino, Calif., high school teacher Arcadia Conrad has thought a lot about. At 33, she is not so far removed in age from her students, but she's eons away in attitude.

As an interviewer of prospective college students for Vassar, her alma mater, Conrad recalls a student showing up in "flip-flops and a miniskirt and her hair still wet."

"I'm one of the people making college decisions," she says. "I told her she was not on her way to the beach: 'Couldn't you have dried your hair?' "

Conrad, who teaches English and theater arts, says she often has to remind students who work as ushers or at concessions for school performances that listening to an iPod or talking with their friends on the job isn't appropriate.

"They seem to have a lot of trouble with the concept of putting your best foot forward," she says.

But technology and the way the young relate to it are creating the most adult consternation, Verhaagen says. He cites as an example a high school senior from an exclusive private school who was an intern at his office and spent a staff meeting text-messaging friends.

He didn't intend to be rude, but "he was clearly not tuned in to the fact that our expectations and cultural mores were different. If you grow up in a culture that says it's all about you, it's hard to think it isn't."

Such thinking isn't limited to the USA. In Great Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair is trying to regain some of the decorum that he believes the younger generation has lost.

This year, he outlined a Respect Action Plan that he hopes will reverse what he terms anti-social behavior - everything from neighbors refusing to lower the sound on stereos to teens menacing shop owners and customers. His plan, an updated version of his 1997 Anti-Social Behavior Orders, aims to have parents take more responsibility for children's behavior and shows young people how to live in a society of rules. Those who don't follow rules face fines or other punishments.

Teacher Conrad faults society more than she does young people.

"I don't think we're requiring civic responsibility anymore - the social graces, ceremony and ritual, dress codes, social mores and manners," she says. "My students seem to be saying, 'I can separate myself from whatever experience I'm in and create my own bubble.' "

Turkle, however, believes the infatuation with technology will lessen, and people will be better able to balance the real and the virtual parts of their lives.

"Ultimately, we're going to find a way to live in both ways at the same time - be nicer to each other in real life and not be clueless to the person sitting next to them," she says. "We'll settle down and have greater civility and care."

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