I pick up my phone and see three texts and a few emails and some social media alerts, mostly Facebook and Twitter. It seems that while I was napping the world had moved on around me. I Google how to make french toast, and shoot off some Facebook replies that get plans set in both my online and on-phone calendars. While making French toast from a recipe passed down through generations in the French countryside, I pull up my homework on my phone and start listening to it, streaming it audibly. There are some emails that I don't want to deal with until I am at work, which is a particular arm chair in the corner of the room, so I push them off, acknowledge some others and set down to eat while flirting with a girl 2000 miles away. What I hope the above anecdote illustrates is how reality of the internet has a notable impact on the style and substance of lives in the modern world. Any developmental model intended for such a world needs to take that into account. This literature review attempts to survey what we know about how this new world works, and how we work in it. Welcome to the future. We live here.
This literary review is divided into two categories: a synopsis of the usage reports on digital communication, primarily text messaging and social media, and a survey of some studies on the impact of digital interaction on psychological development. A study in Japan by Ito & Okabe (The Inside Text, 2005) examined the social setting created by the text messaging among the Japanese youth, coining a useful term of which we will avail ourselves: “technosocial situations” (ibid. p137). They focused on the continual contact with intimate peer groups, defining this technosocial system as a place where teens experience “a sense of persistent social space constituted through the periodic exchange of text messages” (Ito & Okabe, 2005). I am going to use this term to refer to the digital landscape in which both text and social media interactions take place, as it appears that the same phenomena by which it is defined in relation to text messaging, the creation of a persistent social space constituted through the periodic exchange of messages, is also the case with social media communication. As the two are frequently reached through the same access point, the cell phone, the impact of each should be very similar, in the consequences in the non-technosocial reality. The goal of this review is to try and identify if the use of the technosocial space is, as it appears to be, increasing, and what that might mean for the future of human development
The data on technosocial usage in this report is primarily drawn from the PEW Internet & American Life Project, by the PEW Research Center, though some is drawn from the Nielsen Group, and the MacArthur Foundation, as well. All three are large research centers, using randomized national phone surveys. PEW uses internet tracking to add to the data on adults, but not teens. The demographic focus for this review will be the adolescent and young adult age groups. In addition to being the two groups still in the developmental window for the accompanying work, A Hitchhiker's Guide to Reality, which closes around the age of 25, these are also the two demographics with the highest text and social media usage rates.
The text message has, over the last decade, become the preferred means of communication among adolescents, surpassing face-to-face, email, voice calls either mobile or land line, or the now archaic letter writing (Lenhart, 2010). A year long study by the Nielsen Company from 2009-2010 indicated an 8% rise in text messages sent per month among American teens (Nielsen, 2010). At the time of that study barely over half of the adolescents in the United States texted on a daily basis (Lenhart, 2010), a number that has has now risen to 68% (Lenhart, 2012). This number rose from 51% in 2006 (Turkle, 2007) to 54% in 2010 then to 68% in 2012, all while frequency of text messages being sent is also on the rise. Translation: more people are texting, they are doing so more often, and in preference to other forms of communication. For young adults, aged 19-29, 95% own a cell phone, 97% use it to text on a daily basis, and the average number of texts sent per day has risen from 29.7 as recently as 2009 to 41.5 in 2011 (Smith, 2011). The indication is that text messaging is not only the predominant form of adolescent/young adult communication, but is growing increasingly more so.
General internet usage has also risen in the last ten years, with 95% of adolescents and 94% of young adults using the internet on a regular basis, a considerably higher mark than is average among the rest of the adults, at 73% (Smith, 2011). Within the target demographics there is also a significantly high percentage of users who regularly use social media sites while online, 80% for the target demographics, while only 42% for the other adult demographics. 44% of 18-30 year olds only have a cell; they do not have a home line.
Much has been made of texting while driving, and the studies show that the concern is merited. Despite recent laws banning the practice, a study by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (2011) on teenage drivers in North Carolina indicates that more teens are using their phones to either text or talk while driving. Teen drivers are more easily distracted by cell phone, and distraction is the number one cause of car accidents.
The statistics indicate that technosocial engagement is rising among American adolescents and young adults, both in frequency and priority. There are two groups of reasons for this rise. The first group of reasons for the increases in text messaging are provided by the participants in the studies themselves. Among these are the privacy, or autonomy the media provides (Oksman & Turtiainan, 2004), the social validation of being seen to be texting by others (Cupples & Thompson, 2010), to not be rude (Lenhart 2010), to take advantage of the time delay in response (Lenhart 2010), and to have an social/emotional shield to enable them to take more risks (Cupples & Thompson, 2010) - this last having the adverse effect of enabling cyber bullying and sexual abuse, but also leading to the higher number of relationships that are starting in the technosocial space before transitioning to reality. To be clear, this refers to the transition from friend or acquaintance to a more intimate relationship being initiated in the technosocial space.
The second group is comprised of the inferences or conclusions drawn from the first group by social scientists studying the phenomenon. This technosocial space also serves to foster one of the essential needs of adolescents, the development of peer to peer associations and grouping, one group found, using the Achenbach Youth Self-Report to examine a diverse group of 733 youth aged 11-18 (Newman, Lohman, & Newman, 2007). Another group, using a rigorous quantile regression analysis on the survey results from 369 Taiwanese, identified the ubiquitous accessibility of the technosocial space as a key factor in helping define adolescents' self-identity (forming and maintaining individual friendships) and social-identity (belonging to a peer group) (Lee & Sun, 2009). A qualitative 5 month study using observational and interview techniques at an English prep-school featuring 6 students, 5 girls and a boy, indicated that this sense of belonging is further bolstered with the advent of peer editing in composing text responses (Berg et al., 2005).
This technosocial space lying parallel to the physical reality provides youth a means to circumvent adult supervision, which serves to accelerate the process of adolescent emancipation, a phenomenon also observed in a qualitative focus group study of 32 participants aged 16-24 in Australia (Walsh, White & Young, 2009), an online survey of 1,210 participants aged 10-17 in the Netherlands (Valkenberg & Peter, 2007), the Taiwan adolescent study mentioned above (Lee & Sun, 2009), and in the United States (Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2008).
An online and offline survey set conducted among 110 participants aged 18-29 in urban Los Angeles indicates that the use utilization of the technosocial space serves to reinforce and extend relationships that exist in the real world. This connectedness between the technosocial space and our physical reality is a departure from previous understandings of the relationship, and sets the conversation in a separate context (Subrahmanyam, 2009). The data in this report suggests that the selective engagement afforded by the technosocial space allows for the strengthening of certain social network connections, while not others, in a manner similar to how neural networks are reinforced by repetitive activation of particular synaptic pathways. For the most part, people do not go online to find new relationships, so much as to reinforce existing ones. an exception to this is online dating sites. promote relational dysfunction.
The MacArthur Foundation recently conducted an exhaustive ethnographic study incorporating variety of geographic sites and research methods, ranging from questionnaires, surveys, semi-structured interviews, diary studies, observation, and content analyses of media sites, profiles, videos, and other materials. This study indicates, among other things, that friendship-driven and self-driven online activity promotes self-determined learning, both for online and off-line skills and knowledge (Mizuko, et al., 2008). One such example of this is that in managing their peer networks, teenagers are also learning impression management, as well as social skills.
The technosocial space, if stretched to include mass media, provides a balance within itself in regards to our ongoing conflict between Strangeness and Relatedness. The media broadcasts lots of things, but primarily things that don't go well. The Croatian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (2010) in his book Living in the End Of Times describes this as a function of us collectively locating 'evil' or the ills of society outside of ourselves in a concrete place, elsewhere. He cautions against the danger of such location, and justifiably. While there is a risk of demonizing intolerance, locating our cultural thumbs down like this helps establish for us our own Strangeness, or uniqueness, as we declare "I am not that".
Text messaging and social media provide a balance to this, as it affords broader and more diverse means of creating groups in which we declare "I am this", and connect with others who are like us in these ways that we have self-identified as central to our identity. This helps establish in wider and more diverse ways our Relatedness, or the range and degree to which we are capable of empathizing and identifying with others.