May 15, 2008

New communication technologies’ impact on young adults

For my master’s thesis at Georgetown University, I was interested in how 21st century communication technologies are changing the ways in which people interact with members of their social networks. Specifically, I focused my research on how Facebook is altering the methods users employ to build and maintain a network of friends. This research was facilitated by a survey of 644 Georgetown undergraduates on their uses of various communication technologies, and especially the internet, in keeping connected with others.

I recently began thinking of my research in light of Pew’s recent Writing, Technology and Teens report, and saw several interesting connections between the two. Both studies focus on digital natives, or those users who have had access to many of these newer communication technologies since a young age: Pew’s report looks at 12-17 year olds, while my research was limited to college undergraduates ages 18-25. Furthermore, both studies consider the implications of technology on communication. Therefore, the question that arose in my mind was, do the trends we found in our Pew report among younger teens also apply to young adults?

In my survey, I asked respondents about the amount of time they spend on an average day using a variety of communication methods to keep in touch with friends, family and associates. A relationship between year in school and technology use quickly emerged, with upperclassmen being significantly more likely to spend more than one hour per day using “older” communication technologies such as the phone and email. Conversely, freshmen were twice as likely as upperclassmen to spend more than an hour each day on social networking sites to communicate and more than twice as likely to be spending that much time text messaging on an average day. See the chart below for a breakout of communication usage results from my survey across students’ year in school.

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A number of possible conclusions could be drawn from these findings. Older students may be using formal communication methods more because they are looking beyond college and working on establishing a more professional online network and image. Younger students may be spending more time on newer technologies because they have, for all intents and purposes, grown up with them, and see these newer methods of communication as both quicker and easier ways of interacting. When Facebook launched in 2004, for example, current college seniors were just finishing up their high school years. Current college freshmen, however, had just begun high school; at this age, text-based gossip and IMing are a virtual institution. Consider, for example, Verizon’s recent series of commercials centering on young teens and their text messaging habits.

But what does this finding have to do with writing? The younger respondents in my survey tend to spend more time each day interacting with others via communication methods that encourage text shortcuts such as abbreviations, acronyms and emoticons. Therefore, these ways of typing — being more ingrained in younger users’ minds — are probably more likely to bleed over into their more formal writing than among upperclassmen. In the college environment, however, these students are unlikely to find sympathy from their professors if such informal writing styles appear in their midterms and exams. Likewise, these students may have learned in high school about separating their formal and informal writing and do not allow the informal styles discussed in the Pew report to appear in their collegiate writing.

One of the most important things I have learned from my master’s thesis research, and something I believe the Writing report echoes, is that we now stand at a turning point in communication technology. Longitudinal research should be conducted in future years to see if the results of these two studies are merely a reflection of a current fad or if the way we write and interact with the different types of people in our social networks is evolving.