A number of years ago, research studies were published showing that teens were heavy users of instant messaging, and more likely to use IM and less likely to use email than adults. A very brief search shows that teens’ preferences for IM were observed in studies from 2005 and 2001 These results are often cited as showing that there are generational differences in social technology use – youth preferred synchronous communication, and email was going to inevitably decline.
This past weekend, the New York Times published an article quoting very recent work by Larry Rosen, a professor at California State University, showing continued differences between teens and twenty-somethings, in which teens use more IM, and the young adults use more email. Dr Rosen believes that these teens will have a persistent desire for instant response: “the newest generations, unlike their older peers, will expect an instant response from everyone they communicate with, and won’t have the patience for anything less.”
But wait. The people who are twenty-somethings now were teens not long ago. What has happened. Is there a longterm trend, with a progressive decline among age groups in the use of email, and a progressive rise in the use of IM? Or is it the case that twenty-somethings have entered the workplace, and now need to communicate with older people who are still stuck with email. Or is it the case that as adults, the twenty-somethings find that they have more need for asynchronous communication that does not disrupt the other person?
The data (or at least the reporting of it) isn’t clear. To assess technology preferences by generation, it’s not enough to survey teens and show that that they are different from adults. There need to be studies that cover a population over time showing whether technology preferences are stable by generation, or whether preferences shift by life stage , in the same way that other socialization practices change when people mature from their teens to adulthood.
It might be that there’s a longterm shift toward instant communication, among progressively younger people. But these studies don’t yet prove it.
If you’ve seen a time series that has evidence one way or another, please comment.