On- or offline? — This is a question only adults are still asking; young people have moved on
Harvard researchers Sandra Cortesi and Urs Gasser study digital youth. They warn that not everything is as it seems.
For frequent flyers and world travelers, one of the main findings of the latest Credit Suisse Youth Barometer will come as no surprise. Whether you are in a subway in New York, in the Maracanã football stadium in Rio de Janeiro, in Singapore's shopping malls or in a swimming pool in Zurich: Everywhere you look, young people seem to be constantly on their mobile phones and digitally connected. Youth Barometer statistics confirm that 16- to 25-year-olds in the United States, Brazil, Singapore and Switzerland "have easy access to the internet," "generally every day and at any time, thanks to now-ubiquitous smartphones."
Although today, in 2015, only a minority of the world's population has access to digital technologies, we are witnessing the emergence of a global culture of "digital natives," at least in the four countries surveyed. In our research at Harvard University, we are reaching similar conclusions regarding the importance of the digital world for young people, and we can use focus groups to learn even more.
The Youth Barometer shows, for example, that YouTube is very popular among 16- to 25-year-olds. Conversations with young people can shed new light on this finding. If you ask why YouTube is so popular, it is quickly clear – perhaps contrary to expectations – that it is not just about watching music videos. YouTube is also an important source of information needed for school (students can gain a better understanding of percentage calculations, for example) and leisure-time pursuits (gaming rules, beauty tips, cooking instructions).
The risks of the commercial use of data on the internet remain a major blind spot.
Systematic conversations with young people can also tell us more about the finding that young people handle their personal information responsibly. Young users have developed quite sophisticated mechanisms for handling privacy issues in a digital environment, from self-censorship to reputation-management techniques. However, the risks of the commercial use of data remain a major blind spot. Young people are largely unaware of the potential for abuse in this area.
It is also important to remember that the published data, and particularly the analyses of this data, reflect an adult's perspective (of course, this also holds true for this commentary!). This is evident, for example, in the report's clear distinction between "online" and "offline." As our focus groups show, such a distinction is no longer as meaningful to young people as it is to us as adults. Thanks to the widespread use of smartphones and to more affordable data plans, but also to an increase in the number of public WiFi hotspots and improved access to WiFi in schools, young people are able to be online more or less constantly. And this is increasingly blurring the distinction between on- and offline (and as the Internet of Things becomes a reality, such distinctions will probably become irrelevant for adults as well).
A closer look, finally, shows that it is not only the chosen perspective (of an adult or a young person) that plays an important role in analyzing the data. To fully comprehend the data and its significance, it is also important to have a solid understanding of the relevant social, economic and even legal framework conditions. This is particularly true when comparing different countries.
The Youth Barometer provides ample food for thought and suggests topics for further discussion. Most importantly, this report is an invitation to seek dialogue with young people, in an effort to gain a better understanding of how they deal with the digital world, and to consider together how best to shape a globally connected future.