Are generation Z internet junkies?

Published 10 May 2014  |  
(AP)

A new survey has revealed that a shocking two in five teenagers believe they are addicted to the internet.

It's not unusual to walk along the street and see almost everyone glued to a screen; whether that be a Smartphone, tablet or even a laptop. In fact, it's more remarkable to see someone without at least one of their hands tapping away on a digital device; especially if they are in the younger demographic.

We've all seen groups of teenagers gathered together in silence, starting intently at their phones rather than actually speaking to one another, and even when they do it's not long before someone insists on taking a selfie and uploading it to Facebook.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the results of a survey commissioned by charity Tablet for Schools show that 46 percent of teenage girls, and 36 per cent of teen boys, think they are addicted to being online.

2,000 young people between the ages of 11 and 17 were asked to share how often they connect to the internet, and their responses reveal a generation of online junkies.

"The internet nearly always controls my actions. I have been told that I am addicted to the internet, and prefer its company rather than being with other people. I feel lost without the internet," one Year 8 girl admitted.

"I seriously have withdrawal if someone takes my tablet away. I walk around the house with it even though it's not even turned on, I just like being with it!" said another girl currently in Year 9.

A third teenager shared that she feels "nervous" when she isn't able to access the internet. "I feel like I'm missing something," she said.

The study shows that teenagers aged 14-15 are most likely to feel addicted to being online, and over two thirds (64 per cent) of all those asked admitted to taking a digital device to bed with them, often to browse sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter late into the night.

Despite these statistics, however, Chair of Tablets for Schools and CEO of Carphone Warehouse Andrew Harrison maintains that Tablets are an "incredible force for good," though he admits that boundaries are important to "help maintain a healthy relationship with the internet".

Martin Saunders, Creative Director of Youthscape, says he is unsurprised by the new findings. He notes that greater access to the internet is providing a space for children and teenagers to communicate without even leaving the comfort of their homes.

"Fifteen years ago the stereotypical gathering of young people took place on a street corner or in the park, whereas now it takes place online," he explains.

"Teenagers feel a sense of liberation by hiding behind a digital avatar, but also in a more positive sense they feel quite empowered by things like video games; things that protect them from having to show too much of themselves to people. I'm not surprised, but whether or not it's a good thing I don't know."

As for whether young people are increasingly connected to one another as a result of the internet, or are in fact becoming disconnected from 'real life', Saunders says it's too early to tell.

"It's both really. They are increasingly connected; teenagers can now have 5,000 or 10,000 Twitter followers, hundreds of followers on YouTube and thousands of Facebook friends, whereas when I was young I had maybe ten friends.

"[Teenagers] are much more connected today, but it's about the depth and quality of those connections that's the cause for concern. If you have a disagreement with someone online it's easy to unfriend or block them, while in the past we had to learn to work through our differences.

"There are still good quality relationships that take place both on and offline, however, which are strengthened by the ability to be constantly connected online," he adds.

Saunders also notes that we may not discover the long-term consequences of digital addiction for years. "There are some aspects of a digital culture around teenagers that should give concern. Rightly, many Christians have raised concerns about the impact of pornography and the access that young people have to pornographic material," he says.

"But the other thing is just the sense that young people feel absolutely wedded to their mobile device, and therefore they're always on; there's never a sense of disconnection from that, and I wonder what the long term fruit of that might be.

"If you try to take a phone away from a teenager, they'd probably rather you cut off their hand and though it's too early to know – research is still quite patchy on all this stuff – there's a general sense of unease, particularly from those who haven't grown up as digital natives, that there could be some bad fruit of this down the line. It could be doing something damaging to the ability of young people to communicate, build relationships, and develop their attention span."

Dr Bex Lewis, an academic in social media and online learning with a passion for helping Christians to be a positive digital presence, agrees that the internet may well encourage addictive tendencies, "but at the end of the day we make the choice to press on/send".

"We may have to make a conscious effort not to think that the machine comes first," she adds.

In terms of disconnection from reality, Dr Bex notes that she doesn't subscribe to the idea that the internet is not "real life". "What happens online is also real life – if you tell someone you hate them online, does that not affect your offline interactions?" she asks.

She contends, however, that boundaries on digital behaviour and activity are indeed vital. "Digital needs to take its place within a full spectrum of activities that children are engaged in, with parents putting boundaries as they might around other activities, but also looking to see how to use technology positively," she says.

"I think it's a point for concern in that we need to create healthy cultures for children to live within – particularly in the way that the adults in their lives model how they make use of their own technology."

Recently, the video below – which encourages people to "look up" from their phones and enjoy life to the full rather than reducing it to a two-inch screen – went viral, racking up a staggering 32 million hits on YouTube.

In light of this recent study, perhaps it's worth paying attention.

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