What Do They Know? Dismissing a Viral Presumption About Millennials

Considerable research has shown that there is large variation in Internet skills among today's millennials often related to their socioeconomic status.
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Digital media has been abuzz recently thanks to findings from a survey about how clueless Americans are concerning Internet terminology. While further investigation of the "study" suggested that it was likely a publicity stunt on the part of a public relations firm, the reaction to the findings may be more worrisome than the findings themselves. As one reporter noted,"It's like they only interviewed my grandma and her friends!"

Assumptions are rampant about how savvy today's millennials are when it comes to technology in contrast to their apparently clueless parents and grandparents.

The glitch: neither assumption is based on empirical evidence. If anything, considerable research has shown by now that there is large variation in Internet skills among young adults, often related to their socioeconomic status, and factors other than age explain skill differences across generations such as a person's level of income and education.

I have been surveying young adults about their digital savvy for a decade and have shown repeatedly that there is large variation in their know-how. Some young adults are quite savvy indeed; they can create their own videos from material found online and upload these to websites and garner large audiences with which they actively engage. But others lack very basic skills, such as knowing how to read and parse web addresses and understanding basic email functionality such as the role of bcc.

Before jumping to the conclusion that this is because young adults do not use email, note that that is another unfounded assumption. They do use email although it may not be their preferred method of communication for corresponding with their friends.

While it is certainly the case that most children and young adults have grown up surrounded by technology and indeed spend considerable time using digital media, it is wrong to equate hours spent on such devices with automatic savvy.

Given that many youth only do a handful of things online, (such as watch playful videos, check in on Facebook or contact a friend through Snapchat) they are much less likely to be familiar with countless other web-based activities. Accordingly, they are not knowledgeable about many aspects of the online world.

Of course, some of them are.

But research has shown that these tend to be children from more privileged backgrounds. For example, those youth may live in a household with more educated parents. Worse, these socioeconomic differences are remarkably consistent over time. That fact I was able to uncover by surveying the same group of young adults over four years.

Given the mounting empirical evidence about the varied skills of young adults, believing in their digital predisposition is a mistake.

By assuming that each student who walks through the doors of an elementary, middle or high school is a fully knowledgeable online citizen, we are perpetuating societal inequalities that exist among the more and less privileged when it comes to their Internet skills and by extension, the potential benefits they may or may not reap from spending time online.

Widespread assumptions about universal digital savvy among today's youth are doing a disservice to that generation as it results in no time, effort or resources dedicated to improving their online know-how.

This is how some youth end up engaging in activities that get them into trouble whether that concerns relying on incorrect information they get from a website as they write their homework assignment, or voicing opinions publicly that may jeopardize their college admission prospects. Without a moderate level of understanding of the Web and its reach, many youth have demonstrated too much trust in content they find online or they divulge information more publicly than they may have intended not recognizing the potential repercussions of such actions.

My research with Danah Boyd has shown that college students vary considerably in their likelihood of changing the privacy settings of their Facebook accounts. Those with higher general Internet skills were more likely to have done this more often. In subsequent work with Eden Litt, we found that those with higher privacy-related Internet skills were more likely to have "changed the privacy settings or content of [their] online profile in anticipation of employers searching for information about [them]."

Again, these actions were not universal despite only young adults participating in the study. And again, careful use of the Internet was related to one's online skills.

Intergenerational assumptions of relative know-how are incorrect as well. Analyzing data from the Federal Communication Commission's Broadband Survey about the Internet skills of adults of varying ages, I found that among people 50 and under, there was no relationship between age and Internet know-how. Rather, higher income and higher education were related to higher Web-savvy.

Reports are increasingly common of people losing their jobs and getting into other trouble because of what they do online. Young adults, members of the supposedly super-savvy online generation, are not immune to these scenarios.

It is time to move past rhetorical assumptions about the universal Web-savvy of youth. By recognizing that many youth lack considerable Internet skills, we can finally take steps toward introducing relevant instruction into curricula so that we are not leaving a generation behind when it comes to tools that are now an essential part of daily life, whether at work or at play.

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