Teens and Information and Communication Technologies


In the late 20th century, the digital revolution in information and communication technology (ICT) moved into the homes and private lives of ordinary people. Unsurprisingly, the early adopters of domesticated ICT have been youth, young people between the ages of 12 and 19, whose lives have become increasingly shaped and mediated by information and communication technologies. Called the “Net Generation” (Tabscott, 1998, p. 3), these young people are leading the charge toward what the United Nations has called “an unprecedented and global media culture” (United Nations, 2003. p. 311).

The focus of this article is on how young people, ages 12-19, in the early 21st century use information and communications technologies. The wide and diverse nature of the landscape, composed of multiple platforms and applications in continuous change, necessitates a broad approach. Information technologies are now bundled with communications capabilities and vice versa, making a focus on one and not the other virtually impossible. Furthermore, one ofthe difficulties in studying ICT use among children and teenagers is that statistics and studies are still limited, even within digitally privileged countries. Ironically, while research in this area has focused on the educational use of ICT, young people overwhelmingly use it for personal reasons. This article, therefore, looks at ICT through a wide angle and offers a snapshot of the role of ICT in the lives of young people in the early days of the 21st century, suggesting in broad terms where the emerging issues and trends may lie.


Youth have traditionally been the early adopters of digital ICT, forging new patterns of information and communication behavior. The next generation of ICT users, those born after 2000, will move with even greater ease among the emerging information and communications technologies. This generation will enter their teen years never having known a world without personal computers, the Internet, cellular telephones (more commonly called “cell phones” in North America and “mobile phones” in the UK), and personal digital assistants. While the Net Generation’s first experiences on the Web, and with ICT in general, were typically asynchronous and tied to a physical location, namely the home or classroom, young people who are now entering their teens increasingly find that information and communication technologies are accessible anywhere, anytime, and anyplace. Cell phones are quickly becoming personal digital assistants, providing a broad range of information services beyond basic voice capabilities. Portable hardware such as MP3 players and the “podcasts” used to deliver content from the Internet to the device have helped move the Internet beyond the desktop and into the street. The onset of Web 2.0 — the social Web — has further enhanced the immediacy of the experience.

For many young people living in digitally privileged societies, ICT represents a world of entertainment, the most popular activities being communicating with friends, online gaming, and downloading music (United Nations, 2003). ICT now rivals home and school as a “space” for socialization and identity development. While opportunities await technology-savvy educators and marketers — reaching young people “where they live” and in a language they understand — these same opportunities can turn to manipulation and threat in a technology-rich, media-saturated world that is sometimes disconnected from the worlds of parents and other adults significant in the lives of teens. Whether young people will be at risk in this world, or will adapt to and even shape it, is a question to consider.


How pervasive is ICT in the lives of youth? In the United States, 9 out of 10 teens are Internet users. The vast majority (84%) report owning one personal media device — a computer, a cell phone, or a personal digital assistant — and half of American families with teens have broadband connections to the Internet. Eighty-seven percent of American youth between 12 and 17 years old have used the Internet, and of that number, half (51%) report going online at least once a day (Lenhart, Madden, & Hitlin, 2005). Across the border in Canada, the situation is similar: 94% of young people in grades 4 to 11 (ages 9 to 17 years) report going online from home. Sixty-one percent of Canadian online youth have highspeed access and 23% have their own cell phone, 44% of which have Internet capability (Environics Research Group, 2005). Australian youth are among the world’s leading users of computers, with 94% of Australian students reporting that they have access to a home computer for schoolwork and 100% reporting that they have access to a computer at school (OECD, 2003). In the United Kingdom, 75% ofyouth between the ages 9-19 have accessed the Internet from a computer at home, and school access is nearly universal (92%). Young people in the UK use as diverse a range of platforms as those in the United States and Canada, with 71% living in a home with a computer and 38% owning a cell phone (Livingstone & Bober, 2005). Access to computers is almost universal for 15-year-olds living in countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD): 98% or more in 21 of the 25 OECD countries that participated in the 2003 PISA study have experience with computers, and the vast majority of these young people report confidence performing basic ICT skills, such as opening, deleting, and saving files, and using the Internet (OECD, 2003). Internet access is high, if not universal, in schools throughout much of Europe and large areas of Asia, specifically Australia, Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and New Zealand (Kirkman, Cornelius, Sachs, & Schwab, 2002).

Despite the seeming pervasiveness of ICT in the lives of youth, inequity of access exists. The OECD (2001) defines this as the digital divide — “the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard to both their opportunities to access information and communication technology (ICTs) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities.”

Internationally, the lines between those with access and those without are clearly drawn between developed and developing nations. In developed countries, virtually every child has access to a telephone, a television, and a computer, either at home, school, or a public library. The same cannot be said for youth in developing countries (United Nations, 2003). Access to computers in developing countries is typically through the school, but not all children go to school because many countries do not have a universal, free education system. The Internet reaches little more than 10% of the world’s population; while 331 per 1,000 people in Europe use the Internet, only 37 per 1,000 in the Middle East and Africa, 92 per 1,000 in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 15 per 1,000 in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa use the Internet (United Nations, 2005). While these figures include all Internet users, and not just youth, young people are often the first adopters of ICT. Therefore these figures suggest a profound gap between the ICT experiences of youth in developed countries and developing countries.

Even within developed nations, the distribution of ICT access can be uneven. Physical access to a computer, a network connection, and increasingly a cell phone or personal digital assistant, is the starting point. Income, social class, and proximity to urban areas play a key role in determining the accessibility of such tools. While many schools provide computers for student use, the student-computer ratio may be so high, the quality of hardware and software so poor, and the network connection so slow, that access to technology is more theoretical than practical. Beyond the basic physical access, users of ICT must have intellectual access in the form of multiple literacies: the basic literacy skills of reading and writing, the language skills to understand and contribute to the discourse, and the critical thinking skills required to decode media messages and sift through a myriad of information sources.


This section looks at what young people are doing with ICT and studies this question within the framework of “purpose” rather than format, application, or specific technology. So, how are young people using ICT in their lives? Regardless of the mode of delivery, young people use ICT for three principle reasons: as a tool for learning, a channel for human interaction, and a form of entertainment. At times, these purposes are deeply intertwined, as in the case of networked learning environments or virtual reality games that teach.

ICT and Learning

ICT has become an essential educational tool in the 21st century, and for purposes of learning, young people most commonly use it to find information resources on the Web (OECD, 2003). Fifty-five percent of students in OECD countries report searching the Internet for information about people, things, or ideas, with the highest use of the Internet as a source for information resources in Canada (75%), the United States (74%), and Australia (74%) (OECD, 2003). For Canadian youth, searching the Internet for information is as popular as playing games online, and they willingly choose the Internet over other information sources (Environics Research Group, 2004). American youth look for information about current events, politics, religion, careers and colleges, and increasingly, health. While its not clear whetherAmerican teens seek information on these topics for educational or personal reasons, the Internet is now a key source for information, especially for those who have access to broadband connections (Lenhart et al., 2005).

The shear volume of information on the Internet can be more frustrating than useful when it threatens to overwhelm young people. Young adults report feelings of being lost in a sea of information and say they have problems filtering the “good” information from the “bad” (Environics Research Group, 2004; McMillan & Morrison, 2006).A meta-analysis of research related to youth information-seeking behavior revealed that young people are not experiencing the richness of the Internet because of “poorly developed information-seeking skills or a propensity to take the easiest path possible” (Dresang, 2005, p. 181). For those teens who do happen to stumble upon information they feel is useful, the operative phrase “use with caution” still remains. In an environment where the traditional filters of editor and developer have been cast aside and anyone with Web publishing software can launch their own Web page, it is difficult to determine the reliability of information. The problem is more acute in the world of Web 2.0 — the second generation of the Internet, the social Web — where the Internet it is the facilitator of conversations and users are the content. In this new online world of wikis, blogs, and socially mediated knowledge bases such as YahooAnswers, the lines between author, and user have grown ever more fuzzy. Now, typing and clicking a mouse is all that is required to add content to the Internet. Given this profusion of information choices/sources and the corresponding decrease in their reliability, the ability to effectively find, choose, and use information has become a key educational outcome for schools — generally falling under the rubric of information literacy, the set of problem-solving skills needed to negotiate a complex world of information.

Information seeking on the Internet is the principle online learning activity of teens (OECD, 2003). Increasingly, young people have access to networked educational software, such as Blackboard or WebCT. As its name suggests, networked educational software is an ICT tool designed specifically for the purposes of teaching and learning in an online environment. It is actually a suite of applications and it operates in a closed, password-protected environment where teachers can moderate online discussions, share course materials, assess student learning, and communicate with students, parents, and other teachers. On a smaller scale, educational content can now be delivered directly into the hands of teens via their cell phones; class reminders can be e-mailed to mobile devices, Web-enabled browsers for small screens provide access to digital information resources, and podcasts

— audio files distributed by subscriptions over the Internet

— can be sent to MP3-enabled cell phones.

While the Internet plays an increasingly important role in education, its overall use by young people for school-related reasons remains surprisingly low in comparison to other functions such as communication with friends, downloading music, and online gaming (United Nations, 2003). However, as the size and cost of digital devices decreases and the number of broadband and wireless connections increases, it seems safe to say that the digital classroom, as yet more theory than practice, will move closer to the reality.

ICT and Human Interaction

One of the principle tasks of adolescence is to establish a personal identity within the social framework of family, friends, school, and community. Friendship and a sense of belonging are critical to the development of self- and social identity. It is no surprise, then, that young people increasingly take advantage of ICT tools that enable social networking. The communications possibilities offered through ICT — such as e-mail, chat and instant messaging, text messaging, multimedia messaging, blogs, and Web sites that leverage social networking capabilities — offer young people a forum for the expression of identity and a way to connect with others. Teens who live in a “wired world” can choose to communicate anytime, anywhere, and sometimes more worryingly, with anyone.

Social networking on the Internet is an essential component of Web 2.0, the next generation of the Web. The digital equivalent to “hanging out at the mall,” social networking Web sites provide a popular platform for teen communication and personal expression. Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook allow users to post a profile and build a personal network, all within the context of the free and open Web. Teens with something more to say can begin a blog (a “Web-log”), which is essentially an online journal akin to the handwritten diaries and the personal homepages of earlier days. Blogs, however, are interactive and allow readers of the journal to post comments and contribute to the discourse.

More than half (55%) of all online American youths ages 12-17 use online social networking sites (Lenhart & Madden, 2007). In the UK, Bebo attracted more than 22 million members in its first 13 months, most of them school and college students (Ward, 2006). Social networking sites are about friendship: girls use them to reinforce pre-existing friendships, while boys use them for flirting and making new friends (Lenhart & Madden, 2007). Young people use Web sites’ social networking sites to build community, to construct a social world that is distinct from their parents. Social networking is also about identity. Users in such environments can create false personas — an interesting experiment for a teenager exploring self-identity, but one that is more worrisome when created by an online predator. How to find a balance between the exploratory, identity-building behavior that is crucial for adolescent development and their online safety is a critical question for parents, educators, policymakers, and ICT developers in future decades.

E-mail and instant messaging (IM) are popular channels of communication via ICT, but a clear division between the two has arisen: E-mail is for communicating with adults and IM is for friends. E-mail is task-oriented; IM is for fun (Schiano et al., 2002; Lenhart et al., 2005). Young people in the early 21st century are indeed the “IM Generation,” instant messaging being the most popular of Internet communication modalities (Greenfield, Subrahmanyam, Suzuki, & Tynes, 2006, p. 198). IM allows young people to have private real-time conversations with a friend while “hanging out” with a group of friends — two important functions built into one application. While there are concerns regarding who teens let into their “buddy” group when communicating via IM, they tend not to stray beyond their in-person network of friends, most typically other teens they have met at school or who live nearby (Boneva, Quinn, Kraut, Kiesler, & Shklovski, 2006). But interestingly, IM can be used to maintain ties with family; in the United States, almost one in three American teens (29%) say they use IM to communicate with their parents (Lenhart et al., 2005). As a space for personal expression, IM offers users many options beyond text-based communication. IM-using teens also share photos, music and video files, and links to Web sites or articles (Lenhart et al., 2005). The medium of IM opens up possibilities for information seeking on topics that teens may be too embarrassed to ask in person. That information is, of course, only as reliable as the person who answers the question. In a move to fill this “reliability gap,” libraries have begun to offer synchronous, online reference services using IM technology. Called “virtual reference,” these services are aimed squarely at the young adult clientele.

As IM spreads to new, smaller platforms, such as cell phones and handheld digital assistants, teens are taking their text-based conversations to the street, with the subsequent blurring between the distinction of “home” and “not home” (Minoura, 2001). While this means that teens are no longer “land locked” by their desktop computers, they are also ” placeless” and often “faceless,” a development that threatens to break the social bonds that are built through face-to-face communication. But teens still prefer face-to-face time spent with friends and seem to use IM as a supplement to, and not a replacement for, in-person communication (Lenhart et al., 2005; Boneva et al., 2006).

The cell phone has become a part of the everyday lives of youth living in affluent countries. Portable, easy to use, and inconspicuous, cell phones are a basic tool for young people growing up in the information age. For example, in North America at least 45% of American teens and 46% of Canadian youth in grade 11 own cell phones (Lenhart et al., 2005; Media Awareness Network, 2005). Approximately 80% of young people in the European Union use a cell phone at least once a week (United Nations, 2005). The growth of cell phone use among young people has been phenomenal and continues to expand. In 1999, only 15% of Finnish 15-year-olds owned a cell phone. Three years later, in 2001, that number had climbed to 66% (United Nations, 2003).

The functionality of cell phones has moved beyond the traditional voice capabilities to include text messaging, multimedia messaging, wireless e-mail, MP3 players, Internet browsers, and digital cameras, and young people are taking full advantage of this array of options. For many young people, cell phones are the e-mail terminal of choice, some even accessing a scaled-down Web built for small screens, slower speeds, and keypunching. “Texting” (or SMS) — short text messages sent between cell phones — is growing in use, with at least 33% of American youth reporting that they text, rather than talk by cell phone. Interestingly, almost one in three (29%) of teens who use text messaging or IM use it to communicate with their parents, indicating the emergence of a new channel of communication between parent and child (Lenhart et al., 2005).

ICT and Entertainment

Teens and technology go hand in hand when it comes to leisure and recreation, and for many young people, ICT is synonymous with entertainment (United Nations, 2003, p. 321). Most large-scale studies that have looked at teens and ICT have focused on its use in educational settings and as a tool for communication. Reports from the PEW/American Life series and the Kaiser Family Foundation, which both looked at youth in the United States, provide a snapshot of how online teens use ICT to interact with media in the service of fun and entertainment (Lenhart et al., 2005; Lenhart & Madden, 2007; Rideout, Roberts, & Foehr, 2005). While these reports do not represent the global picture, they illustrate how the separate worlds of teens, entertainment, and ICT are converging in the 21st century. Calling today’s young people “Generation M” — for media — the Kaiser Foundation reports that youth, ages 8-18, in the United States spend an average of up to six-and-a-half hours each day with media (Rideoute et al., 2005). While this statistic includes both analog and digital media, such as television, movies, magazines, music, and video games, it nevertheless represents an enormous chunk of time in the lives of youth; and given that the “amount of media a person used to consume in a month can be downloaded in minutes and carried in a device the size of a lipstick tube” (Rideout et al., 2005), media is now rooted in all aspects of the lives of teens who have access to ICTs. The following section discusses briefly two uses of ICT for entertainment — music downloading and online gaming.

Music is a vital part of many teens’ lives: on a typical day, 68% of young people in the United States listen to music, either by CD, tape, or MP3 player (Rideout et al., 2005), so it is no surprise that the Internet, embedded as it is in the lives of many, has been appropriated by young people as a tool for retrieving and sharing music. Using peer-to-peer networks, online music services such as iTunes or BuyMusic. com, instant messaging, or e-mail, music can be downloaded and then listened to using a computer or an MP3 player. In the United States, just over half (51%) of online teens in the United States say they have downloaded music, and nearly one-third (31%) have downloaded video files (Lenhart & Madden, 2005). While these teens are at ease downloading content, many have little concern for the actual source of music, with the majority (55%) of downloading teens saying they do not care whether the music is copyrighted or not (Lenhart & Madden, 2005, p. 14). But over half of online teens are creating content too, for their own amusement and to entertain other teens (Lenhart & Madden, 2005).

Eight in ten teens in the United States (81%) who use the Internet play online games (Lenhart & Madden, 2007), interacting with other players in virtual worlds via multiplayer online games. Some games are limited to a few players; others have worldwide subscriptions in the millions. One example is the game “Second Life,” a 3D virtual world inhabited by 1.3 million people/players. A teen version, called “Teen Second Life” exists as well. Players in “Second Life” occupy a digital continent, where they meet new people, buy property and build homes, learn new skills, and create businesses. In this virtual world, entertainment, communication, and education have merged, and educators have taken note. Already one public library in the United States, aware that gaming, multimedia, and ICTs play a huge role in the lives of many of their teen patrons, has launched a pilot project exploring the creation of teen library services in a virtual world (PLCMC, 2006). McMaster University in Canada has opened a library facility in “Second Life.” Students can visit it and even speak to a librarian, represented of course by an avatar (McMaster University, 2006). The use of online gaming as a platform for information seeking and learning is still in its infancy, but opportunities for such experiences can be expected to expand in the 21rst century.


There is little doubt that teens will increasingly live in a wired world. Computers and cell phones will in time converge into mobile personal digital assistants — the digital “Swiss Army knives” of the 21st century (Rainie, 2006) — and the Internet will continue to spread worldwide. And yet little is known about teen patterns of behavior in relation to ICT and, more importantly, its impact on their lives. Many profound questions regarding the effect of ICT on the lives of teens remain, suggesting fruitful areas for research:

• How do we bring ICT to those who as yet have no access to it?

• For those who do have access to ICT, how are they using it? As ICT becomes more ever-present in the lives of teens worldwide, we might begin asking if the patterns of use are universal or if local culture makes a difference in the way young people use ICT.

• Given the ubiquitous nature of ICT in the lives of many teens, it seems critical to ask whether it has an effect on the intellectual, emotional, and physical development of young people.

• Do teens have the intellectual skills needed to safely and effectively use ICT? If not, what should be the focus of intervention?

• Should ICT-related applications and interfaces be designed specifically for teens, and if so, how? To what extent do teens adapt to existing technology? To what extent do they shape it?

• We know that teens use ICT as a channel for socializing and interacting with their peers. What, then, is the nature of teen online culture? Does it affect family relationships? Does participation in social groups mediated by ICT differ from traditional participation? Are traditional modes of socializing and participating falling to the wayside, or does ICT simply supplement them?

• The Internet is a primary source of information for online teens and yet we are only just beginning to understand how they use it to look for information. How do teens use ICTs to fulfill their information needs?

• For teens who use ICTs, the lines between learning, socializing, and entertainment are merging. How close can the lines be drawn? Are there aspects of these activities that should remain distinct? If not, what is the best way to leverage one, without sacrificing the other two?

• Computers and cell phones will in time converge into mobile personal digital assistants. How are teens using these portable tools, and what is the impact on their lives? A natural extension of this question should be asked by educators: Can personal digital assistants be used in service to teaching and learning, and if so, how?

• And finally, does ICT function within a policy framework that meets the needs of young people?


Despite its phenomenal growth, information and communication technology remains a tool for the privileged, and access to it is not the norm throughout the world. It is still the case that on a global scale, very few teens actually have access to ICTs. This digital divide is an inequity so fundamental that one could compare it to the effects of being illiterate in a world of people who read. Even so, experience has shown that when they do have access to ICT, it is young people who lead the charge in adopting it into their everyday lives.


Information and Communication Technology (ICT): Technology that enables the handling of information and facilitates different forms of communication.

Instant Messaging (IM): A text-based method for communicating one to one or in groups in real time over the Internet using standard IP protocol.

OECD Countries: The member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OEDC) include: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Personal Digital Assistant (PDA): A handheld digital device that combines the functionality of the telephone with computing and networking. It can operate as a cell phone, a Web browser, an e-mail terminal, digital camera, and personal assistant.

Podcast: A method of publishing audio files to the Internet. The term is a combination of the word “iPod” and “broadcasting.” Podcasts are often distributed through RSS feeds.

Social Networking Web Sites: Web sites that facilitate the development of online social networks and collaborative knowledge building through the use of social software.

Social Software: Software tools for computer-mediated communication. Includes instant messaging, text chat, blogs, wikis, and Internet forums. From these have arisen new areas of collaborative knowledge building such as folksonomies, social bookmarking, social citations, and knowledge bases.

Text Messaging: Short text messages received by and sent to a mobile, handheld communication device such as a cellular phone, a personal digital assistant, or a pager. Text messages can be also sent from the Web, either through the Web page of the cellular service provider or through some Web sites that offer to send text messages free of charge. Also called texting, short message service, or SMS.

Virtual Reference: An online information service that uses computer-mediated communication to answer questions. The service can be asynchronous (e-mail) or synchronous (instant messaging). Also called digital reference.

Web 2.0: The so-called second generation of the Web. A suite of Web-based services where users control the content by contributing, collaborating, and sharing. Sometimes called the social Web, Web 2.0 architecture is dependant on the participation of its users.

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