Social Technology Use and the Lifestage Fallacy

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.

5 thoughts on “Social Technology Use and the Lifestage Fallacy”

  1. I continually find much of the research around tools by age to be rather off in conclusions. There is a lack of longitudinal and contextual use studies, which would start to crack open some of these questions that continually and often we don’t see mapping to experiences and recollections over time. One of the few researchers I see who does dig deeply into the qualitative contextual reasons is danah boyd and really with more were like her.

    Along these lines, I continually see the ‘millennials’ being the reason for social tools inside organizations. But, remembering back to working in the very early 90s when internet e-mail came into the workplace the same age brackets were the reason for the shift. But, then like now those age brackets are rarely requesting these tools and often not the ones easily adopting them. Usually it is the age buckets directly (5 to 10 year buckets) and one step above that are the drivers. The key I see driving bringing these new tools in is often understanding the value proposition and change these tools will make in the work place. Then as now, it is people watching their kids using these tools for personal or even school related reasons and seeing the ease and value derived. More rarely is it the people in the younger age ranges in the workplace driving the need, but they are often an easy scapegoat that is believable to others.

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