The Online Lives of North American Teens: Some Recent Writing and Research
Dr. Yoel Finkelman
Director of Research and Projects, ATID

When thinking about the internet, the community of Jewish educators focuses primarily on the ways in which technology can be harnessed in the classroom to make learning more engaging and interactive, or alternatively focused on the dangers of the internet. In particular, educators are concerned about how technology exposes students to undesirable or prohibited ideas, images, or social contacts, as well as how that can damage young people's psyches or personalities.

In a thought-provoking essay in ATID's recent symposium, Teaching Toward Tomorrow, Jeffrey Kobrin points out that, while these issues are real, they do not get to the core of how internet and new media are transforming human encounters with information, nor do they address how identities are constructed in an age of almost unlimited communication.1

In this column, I would like to introduce the tip of the iceberg of recent research on the online lives of children and youth by focusing on three issues, each of which has been treated in various online forums: 1) the nature of online reading and research, particularly as it compares to book-and paper-based reading; 2) understanding parents' attitudes toward their children's internet use; 3) understanding how young people experience and use the internet. The field is vast, of course, as endless researchers and schools of thought attempt to explain how the emergence of new media and technologies affect the ways in which young people and adults interact with one another, process information, and form their identities. But, this introduction may be a helpful start.

Dinosaurs vs. Generation Z: What is Online Reading?

In his thought-provoking but by now outdated book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman attacks the (then) emerging television culture for being shallow and undermining serious learning, discussion, and debate.2 Right or wrong, Postman's sensibility – that electronic media are somehow inferior ways of communicating – is alive and well in the post-television world of Web 2.0. "How [do] users read the web?" asks Jakob Nielsen, a leading media researcher and consultant. He answers, quite simply, "They don't."3 They may forage, surf, and skim, but they don't read. (Anybody out there still with me? If so, you have probably printed this out and are reading it on actual paper.)

For example, Nielsen conducted eye-tracking studies, in which specially constructed equipment could determine what parts of the screen the readers' eyes were focused on. He concluded that people read websites in an "F" pattern – beginning with the upper-left-hand corner, reading horizontally for a line or so, skipping to a lower line, reading less than a whole line horizontally, and then glancing at only the left edge of the page as they continue downward. The lower right hand side of the page barely gets a glance.4 Neilsen conducted this research primarily to help the business world maximize benefit from websites (and to help sell his consulting services), but it seems to have implications for the educational realm as well.

For some, thin internet reading is a good reason to rethink the movement toward integration of technology into the classroom. If "online literacy is [of] a lesser kind," then we need not more online learning, but less of it, and a return to actual books, paper, and pens.5 Educators in this mold may use various technologies as tools, but they are fundamentally committed to countercultural, against-the-grain education, toward a more supposedly authentic literacy centered on extended reading and ongoing reflection.

I have some sympathy for this position, but critics have some good points, too. To begin with, nostalgia may be alive and well in the critique of electronic media. When Postman pines for the days when Abraham Lincoln could debate Stephen Douglas, live and in person, for hours in front of an audience not made up of college graduates, I begin to wonder whether this is really representative of a thoroughgoing intellectual concentration that characterized the less technological past, or whether this particular incident is an outlier, and that human ability to concentrate, or to appreciate sustained argument, may not have been so great once upon a time, particularly in an age prior to universal literacy.6

Furthermore, other studies suggest that sometimes people do read more carefully and fully on the internet. A study by Poynter (a resource and training institute for journalists) suggests, that at least regarding online news and at least regarding items of interest, readers may read online news more carefully than they do print news.7 There may not be such a clear line between good, quality reading on paper and shallow skimming on the screen.

Finally, some critics demand that researchers and educators re-examine what they mean by literacy in the internet age. For example, the National Endowment for the Arts issued a study in 2004 entitled "Reading at Risk"; which addressed a serious problem with reading in America. Their study showed that Americans, particularly younger Americans, do not engage in "literary reading" nearly as much as they did in the past.8 Yet, as critics were quick to point out, "literary reading" is difficult to define, and however it is defined, seems to exclude all kinds of things that are important reading experiences. One writer in The New York Times, for example, pointed out that the study excluded all reading of non-fiction, thereby giving "credit for 'The DaVinci Code' but not for 'The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire'," and excluded any reading done for work or school. But much reading occurs, and should occur, in a context other than sitting with one's feet up reading a paperback novel. And that reading is important. "It takes some gerrymandering to make a generation logging ever more years in school, and ever more hours on the BlackBerry, look like nonreaders."9 Its not that current students are not reading, or are illiterate, it's that their literacy has taken forms that tech dinosaurs of the older generation – who intuitively identify literacy with binding and page numbers – don't automatically identify.

Parents and their Media-Saturated Kids

Another study returns to the theme of danger. The Kaiser Family Foundation funded a study, released in 2007, entitled "Parents, Children, and Media," which examines parents' attitudes toward their children's online lives.10 It asks parents about the potential negative impact of violence, sex, and coarse language in the media their children consume, and examines what parents do to limit those dangers and whether they perceive those measures to be successful. I will leave the precise numbers and percentages for the interested reader, but clearly the most intriguing finding is that parents are extremely worried about other people's kids' exposure to dangerous content. That is, parents think that the violence and sexuality depicted online and in the media are potentially dangerous, but are convinced that they themselves are doing a fine job of protecting their own children. Apparently, someone else's kids are in danger.

For example, 85% of parents are somewhat or a lot concerned that "sexual content in the media contributes to children becoming involved in sexual situations before they're ready." Yet, 73% of parents claim to know "a lot" about what their children are doing online, and 65% of parents also say that they "closely monitor their children's media use." "Most parents who participated in the focus groups said that they felt like they're doing enough to monitor kids use of media." And, in the bottom line, only 20% say that "their own children are seeing 'a lot' of inappropriate content."

I suppose it is possible that the parents have it right, here, and that the overwhelming majority of parents are on top of their children's media use and online lives, but that a minority of inattentive parents are leaving their kids in danger. Perhaps. More likely, it seems to me, as it does to those who conducted the survey, that parents don't know as much as they think they do, and are not monitoring as carefully as they think. Of course, the survey doesn’t tell us whether the media exposure is actually dangerous, but it does suggest that parents may not know as much as they think they do.

What are They Doing for So Many Hours on the Computer?

Some parents and educators fear the worst. Kids on the internet may be viewing or posting inappropriate pictures of others, of themselves, of friends; they my take part or become victims of cyber-bullying; they may be chatting with or "friending" all kinds of people, from bad influences to online predators; or maybe they are just wasting time, lots and lots of time.

Recently, the MacArthur foundation undertook a massive study of the online lives of American teens, "The Digital Youth Project." To date, they have released a fifty-five page summary of their major findings and produced a half-hour documentary, entitled "Growing Up Online," tracing the experience of a handful of teens.11 A full-length book is in the offing, they say.

According to the study, students spend their online time and energy in three primary directions: "hanging out," "messing around," and "geeking out." The first involves numerous means of social networking, i.e., create new and expand existing relationships electronically, whether through Facebook and social networking sites, text messaging, or other media. Messing around involves learning by doing, creating their own online presence by constructing Facebook pages, producing content for posting on their personal or on public website, or trying out new technologies with which they are yet unfamiliar. There is a significant learning curve here, in which students learn on the fly how to create and operate the technologies. Finally, "geeking out" involves a kind of intense dedication to a particular sub-field or genre of online activity, such as massive online interactive gaming or producing and consuming aspects of musical genres and the subcultures that come with them. All of these activities have in common the core assumption of Web 2.0, that one does not consume a pre-existing cultural product created for you, but that you and a collection of online peers create the content that you consume.

This mapping of the territory is helpful, at least for me, a reader whose online life has not progressed much beyond email and online newspapers. But what makes the study particularly riveting is the way in which it breaks down old dichotomies between public and private and between learner and teacher. Students experience social networking sites as both private and public. They share personal feelings and experiences for all to see, but expect that to stay within a youth world, one where parents and teachers have no business. This may not be coherent, but it is certainly real. Also, the strict boundaries between student and teacher become harder to comprehend when students understand the means of communication better than teachers, and when much online learning is collaborative.

Furthermore, young people's online lives involve real and sustained learning, learning about how to understand the technologies that will no doubt shape and create their lives into adulthood. It seems odd, the study points out, to decry the kids for wasting time on the internet when they are learning skills that they will need to live in the future, skills that worried parents and educators don't have.

The findings are anti-alarmist. They give credence to some of the cyber-bullying concerns and to fears of posting inappropriate content. But, for example, they claim that for the most part students understand the written and unwritten rules of online socializing much better than their parents, who even with the best of intentions often don't understand what is really dangerous and what is not. And notions of propriety, danger, and privacy simply mean different things online than they do in the so-called "real world" of adults. Which is not to say that all kids do everything right, and that supervision is unnecessary. There are real dangers, but the alarmism, the study claims, is overstated.

With that, the study's findings have an agenda. They work with an assumption about what qualifies as learning and what is worth doing that not all educators, certainly not all religious educators, would agree with. What the researchers consider harmless socializing may involve things that are halakhically or hashkafically problematic. I suppose it is true that students are learning something, and doing so collaboratively, when they help each other navigate online socializing or romance, or when they work together to create a new YouTube video. But, being old-fashioned, I still put academic disciplines - including systematic reading, organized recall of information, and sustained reflection on that information, all in areas of inquiry with canonized and established methods - higher on my list of educational priorities. The claim that helping a friend with a history paper is no more learning than helping a friend navigate World of Warcraft strikes me as facile.

Be that as it may, the technological dinosaurs of the parents' and teachers' generations would be wise to understand that communication is changing the way our "generation Z" students and children process information. We must do more than just decry that; at the very least we should do what we can to understand it.


1 Jeffrey Kobrin, "An Embarrassment of Riches," in Teaching Toward Tomorrow: Setting an Agenda for Modern Orthodox Education, ed. Yoel Finkelman (Jerusalem: ATID, 2008), pp. 45-49.

2 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (New York: Penguin, 1984).

3 Jakob Nielsen, "How Users Read the Web," available at

4 Neilsen, "F-Shaped Pattern for Reading Web Content," available at

5 Mark Bauerlein, "Online Literacy is a Lesser Kind: Slow Reading Counterbalances Web Skimming,"The Chroncle Review, available at Bauerlein expanded his critique of internet culture in his The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (New York: Penguin, 2008)

6 But see Sam Anderson, "In Defense of Distraction," New York Magazine, available at

7 See

8 See, with links to the full study and to the executive summary.

9 Leah Price, "You Are What You Read," The New York Times, Dec. 23, 2007, available at Accessed June, 27, 2009.

10 Available at, viewed July 2009.

11 The summary is available at (viewed, July 2009) and the documentary film aired on PBS, and can be viewed (along with several other documentaries on youth culture) at

Copyright © 2000-2010 ATID. All rights reserved.