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Telematics and Informatics 28 (2011) 66–76 Contents lists available at ScienceDirect Telematics and Informatics

Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

Telematics and Informatics

journal homepage: www.else

journal homepage: www.else The media use of American youngsters in the age of

The media use of American youngsters in the age of narcissism q Surviving in a 24/7 media shock and awe – distracted by everything

Patchanee Malikhao a , , Jan Servaes b

a School of Public Health and Health Sciences, USA b SBS Center in Communication for Sustainable Social Change, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA, USA

article info

Article history:

Received 22 June 2010 Received in revised form 12 September


Accepted 24 September 2010


Digital generation


Media use


Social networking

Cultural impact


Digital life in the age of nonstop connection is not easy, especially not for the so-called Millennials, youngsters born after 1980. Research findings, such as the recently released comprehensive reports by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Pew Foundation, highlight that media are among the most powerful forces in young people’s lives today. Eight- to twenty-somethings in the US spend more than 50 h in front of a screen each week. That is more than a regular working week. The TV shows they watch, video games they play, songs they listen to, books they read, text messages they send and websites they visit are an enormous part of their lives, offering a constant stream of messages about families, peers, relationships, gender roles, sex, violence, food, values, clothes, and so on. Earlier claims that they associate with and through media in different ways as the older generations, and therefore are better at multi-tasking, seem not to be supported by new findings. Among American youth, there is evidence that increasing globalization within media systems has shaped a high degree of individualism in society. High individualism can lead to narcissism, which leads to a very positive and inflated view of self. This value is growing rapidly in the American culture fueled by the mass media, including the new media and social networks, and contributes to new attitudes toward sex, sexuality, and individual identity.

2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction

American culture in the post-modern period is fueled by advanced communication and information technology. We expe- rience the compression of time and space, which are the symbolic representation of a post-modern ‘culture industry’ where people are introduced to a symbolization of the capitalistic market economy such as texts in advertisements, image portray- als in films and movies ( Tomlinson, 2001 : 19). Taylor (1997: 20) explains that post-modern cultural forms are more con- cerned with forms rather than content and have become commodified . This is due to the impact of the mass media in the contemporary globalization process. A poll for the BBC World Service (2010) suggests that almost four in five people around the world believe that access to the internet is a fundamental right. The survey – of more than 27,000 people across 26 countries – found strong support for net access on both sides of the digital divide. In this sense, the expressed need for digital interconnectedness seems to have

q An earlier version of this article was presented as a keynote at the Community-Oriented Media Conference of the Media Expertise Center in Mechelen, Belgium, on May 20, 2010. Corresponding author. Tel.: +1 4132301772. E-mail addresses: , (P. Malikhao).

0736-5853/$ - see front matter 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. doi: 10.1016/j.tele.2010.09.005

P. Malikhao, J. Servaes / Telematics and Informatics

28 (2011) 66–76


universal appeal. However, the digital gap remains and, according to some scholars, is even widening (see, e.g., Broos, 2006; Dailey et al., 2010; Mertens and Servaes, 2010 , or Zittrain, 2008 ). In this article we attempt to present some data which characterize the cultural environment of so-called American Millennials – the American teens and 20-somethings born after 1980 who are making the passage into adulthood – and how they deal with the globalized diffusion and localized appropriation of media products and processes. We try to describe the kind of culture they are communicating in and the possible implications this may have for their identity formation and self-esteem.

2. Globalized diffusion and localized appropriation

Globalization is about the emergence of completely new social, political and business models that interlink governments and big businesses and that have a great impact on every aspect of society down to the nature of the social contract ( Friedman, 2007 : 48). According to Appadurai (2001: 17), globalization is an interactive process in which ‘locality’ and ‘glob- ality’ interact via the shrinking of space–time in the world system. Not only can globality influence locality, the latter can also induce changes in the global arena and this process is called globalization from below, local globalization or grassroots globalization. Grassroots or local globalization is the capacity of local groups to upload their knowledge and opinions and pro- vide services on the internet ( Friedman, 2007 ). Nash (2000: 53) explains how the mass media – for specific definitions of ‘old’ and ‘new’ mass media, see McQuail (2005 : 51–52) – play an important role in the contemporary globalization process. He states that the mass media help create a global consciousness, by which people can compare how others live with their own local living conditions. Thompson (1995) states that, although the mass media diffuse their messages globally, consumers of the mass media consume the messages locally. This creates a process that he calls the axis of globalized diffusion and localized appropriation. Thus, the mass media (and communication in general) are inevitable in the globalization process. Hassan (2008: 27) states that globalization fueled by the mass media and information technology advocates ‘‘vast expres- sion of access to information, the centrality of the internet, and networked communities” while at the same time the infor- mation received can be meaningless; the loss of real community is evidenced; the lack of time for reflection can cause superficial and hurried cultural forms. Moreover, there arises a new problem: the so-called digital divide engenders an infor- mation gap between those who can afford the hardware and software and access the internet, and those who cannot afford such access to information ( Scholte, 2005 : 36). Therefore, a recent report by the Social Science Research Council ( Dailey et al., 2010 ), commissioned by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), concluded, among other findings, that broadband access is increasingly a prerequisite for social and economic inclusion, not an outcome of it.

3. American culture rooted in protestant puritanism

Culture can be described as a framework with four distinguishable but interrelated analytical components: a worldview ( Weltanschauung ), a value system, a system of symbolic representations, and a social organizational system ( Servaes 1999 :

12). Not only the mass media and the globalization process affect American culture, religion and other deep-rooted values also affect the culture a great deal. Berger and Luckmann (1966) discuss in ‘The Social Construction of Reality’ the interaction between thinking and action. Socialization within a tradition and culture shapes an individual’s thinking, and at the same time, this internalized form is reflected in the manifestation of culture ( Holm 1997 : 75). This model stresses the importance of religion, as it provides a

symbolic universe which explains birth, life, and death, as well as providing the individual with an identity. Religion explains the world through myths and legends and also through rational discourses. Therefore, Robertson (1972: 47) defines religious

a set of beliefs and symbols (and values deriving there from) pertaining to a distinction between an empirical

and a super-empirical, transcendent reality; the affair of the empirical being subordinated in significance to the non- empirical”. In other words, religion is an attempt to make sense of reality through the development of a subjective worldview ( Berger and Luckmann (1966) , quoted in Marsh 1996 : 481). Worldviews integrate expressions of religions and ideologies ( Smart 1983 : 2), which make the Hoppers ( Hopper and Hopper 2009 ) and Jacoby (2008) argue that the American culture is deeply rooted and determined by a protestant puritanism. Also Samuel P. Huntington (2000) describes the core of the American cul- ture as an Anglo-Protestant puritan culture. He studied American history and concluded that non-white protestants have become Americans by adopting America’s Anglo-Protestant culture and political values ( Huntington, 2000 : 61). What distin- guishes American protestantism from that of Europe is the manifestation of puritanism and congregationalism in the US, which Huntington calls dissident protestantism . This later resulted in Baptist, Methodist, pietist, fundamentalist, evangelical, Pentecostal, and other types of Protestantism ( Huntington, 2000 : 65) in the United States. The central American values of individualism, achievement and equality of opportunity are based in this dissenting Protestantism ( Huntington, 2000 :

culture as: ‘‘


Hofstede and Hofstede (2005) : 121,124) studied collectivism and individualism along with other concepts such as mas- culinity and feminity, power distance and uncertainty avoidance in 74 different countries and found that the US ranked first in individualism. For the individualistic identification, Hofstede and Hofstede (2005: 97) suggest the following key to mea- sure the concept on three dimensions: language, personality and behavior.


P. Malikhao, J. Servaes / Telematics and Informatics 28 (2011) 66–76

4. The Millennials (born after 1980)

The Millennials ‘‘are history’s first ‘always connected’ generation. Steeped in digital technology and social media, they treat their multi-tasking hand-held gadgets almost like a body part – for better and worse. More than 8-in-10 say they sleep with a cell phone glowing by the bed, poised to disgorge texts, phone calls, emails, songs, news, videos, games and wake-up jingles. But sometimes convenience yields to temptation. Nearly two-thirds admit to texting while driving” ( Taylor and Keeter 2010 : 1). According to Taylor and Keeter (2010), Millennials have begun to forge their own personalities and identities: confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change. They are more ethnically and racially diverse than older adults. They’re less religious, less likely to have served in the military, and are on track to become the most educated generation in American history ( Taylor and Keeter 2010 : Chapter 4). However, in many of their lifestyle choices, Millennials are not much different from adults of other generations. And it’s often their ideology or socioeconomic status, rather than their age, that drives their behaviors. For instance, in areas as diver- gent as gun ownership and going green, Millennials are in the mainstream. But in some corners of their lives, they find un- ique ways to express themselves. Technology usage is one. Body art with piercings and tattoos is another. Their entry into careers and first jobs has been badly set back by the recent ‘Great Recession’, but they are more upbeat than their elders about their own economic futures as well as about the overall state of the nation. They embrace multiple technological modes of self-expression . It’s not just these hi-tech gadgets – it’s the way they’ve fused their social lives into them. Three quarters have created a profile on a social networking site. One-in-five have posted a video of themselves online. Millennials have a distinctive reason for feeling distinctive. In response to an open-ended follow-up question, 24% say it’s because of their use of technology. Generation Xers (people born between 1965 and 1980) also cite technology as their gen- eration’s biggest source of distinctiveness, but far fewer – just 12% – say this. Baby Boomers’ (born 1946–1964) feelings of distinctiveness coalesce mainly around work ethic, which 17% cite as their most prominent identity badge. For the Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945) it is the shared experience of the Depression and World War II, which 14% cite as the biggest reason to stand apart (see Table 1 ) ( Taylor and Keeter 2010 : Chapter 3).

5. The post-modern American youth’s consumption of the mass media and individualism, narcissism, sexuality, and

health risk behaviors

From a more critical and general perspective, Elliot and Lemert (2006) propose that globalization has a profound impact on the individual level, and that causes a new kind of individualism. They define this new individualism as a highly risk-tak- ing, experimenting and self-expressing individual underpinned by new forms of apprehension, anguish and anxiety. As each individual has become a consumer of the media conglomerate in a capitalistic society, the impact on each person’s experi- ences of gender identity, sexuality and family life is the topic discussed by many scholars. Elliot and Lemert (2006: 114) note that sexuality in the US is currently framed and regulated through mass media, advertising, and information culture as a con- sequence of globalization and that various forms of sexuality can be called ‘ discursive sexuality’ among the new generation. This contributes to new attitudes toward sex, sexuality, and individual identity, according to the American Academy of

Pediatrics (2001). Their report states: ‘‘American media are thought to be the most sexually suggestive in the Western Hemi- sphere. The average American adolescent will view nearly 14,000 sexual references per year, yet only 165 of these references deal with birth control, self-control, abstinence, or the risk of pregnancy or STDs. In a recent content analysis, 56% of all pro- grams on American television were found to contain sexual content. The so-called ‘family hour’ of prime-time television (8– 9 pm) contains on average more than 8 sexual incidents, which is more than 4 times what it contained in 1976. Nearly one third of family-hour shows contain sexual references, and the incidence of vulgar language is also increasing. Soap operas, which are extremely popular with adolescents and preadolescents, might be one ideal venue for responsible sexual portray- als, yet a recent study of 50 h of daytime dramas found 156 acts of sexual intercourse with only five references to contra- ception or safe sex” ( American Academy of Pediatrics, 2001 : 191) (see also Collins, 2005; Hanson, 2007; Malikhao, 2010 ). Messages about sex and gender are all-over American popular culture. Levin and Kilbourne (2008) provide ample exam- ples and data for a variety of different media: advertising, fashion, films, the Internet, television, video games, magazines,

It leads to what they call a ‘‘grave disconnection between the values caring parents want to convey to their children


Table 1 What makes your generation unique?


Gen X



1. Technology use (24%)

Technology use (12%)

Work ethic (17%) Respectful (14%) Values/morals (8%) ‘‘Baby boomers” (6%) Smarter (5%)

WW II, Depression (14%) Smarter (13%) Honest (12%) Work ethic (10%) Values/morals (10%)

2. Music/Pop culture (11%)

Work ethic (11%)

3. Liberal/tolerant (7%)

Conservative/Trad’l (7%)

4. Smarter (6%)

Smarter (6%)

5. Clothes (5%)

Respectful (5%)

Note: Based on respondents who said their generation was unique/distinct. Items represent individual, open-ended responses. Top five responses are shown for each age group. Sample sizes for sub-groups are as follows: Millennials, n = 527; Gen X, n = 173; Boomers, n = 283; Silent, n = 205.

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about relationships, sex, and sexuality and the messages conveyed by the popular culture” ( Levin and Kilbourne (2008: 162) . According to the American Psychological Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, ‘‘Virtually every media form studied pro- vides ample evidence of the sexualization of women, including television, music videos, music lyrics, movies, sports media, video games, the Internet, and advertising.” ( Zurbriggen, 2007 : 1). Van Damme (2010) confirms this in her in-depth analysis of two popular US teen series. Among American youth culture, there is also evidence that increasing globalization within media systems in the US has shaped the degree of individualism in society ( Elliot and Lemert, 2006 : 4–5) and contributes to new attitudes toward sex, sexuality, and individual identity. The latter may imply the positive aspect of being more mature than adolescents from pre- vious generations. Brown et al. (2005: 424) investigated the influence of sexual media contents that adolescents consume in their private rooms. They found a relationship of earlier pubertal timing and increased interest in viewing sexual media con- tent and increase exposure to information about dating, birth control, and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The findings suggest that the mass media may replace peers in sexual related information seeking of adolescents in an environment of increas- ing physical isolation. The mass media are dubbed as a sexual super peer for early maturing girls. However, a negative aspect is that the ‘super peer’ can normalize frequent sexual activities portrayals in the media and, thus, encouraging early sexual behaviors ( American Academy of Pediatrics, 2001: 192; see also American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 2010 ). Moreover, the new identity of adolescents may be associated with self-destructive behaviors as a result of mass media con- sumption. Escobar-Chaves and Anderson (2008) report research findings on the influence of the mass media consumption among adolescents and the five health risk behaviors, identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: obesity, smoking, drinking, sexual risk taking, and violence. The researchers found no clear-cut research results that suggest any rela- tionship between electronic media use and obesity ( Escobar-Chaves and Anderson 2008 : 154). However, they report that longitudinal, experimental, and cross-sectional studies suggest strong links of viewing smoking favorably and becoming smokers, with exposure to smoking in the media. Other research findings strongly suggest that there is an association be- tween exposure to alcohol advertising and to alcohol consumption portrayed in TV and movies and the increase of adoles- cents’ alcohol use ( Escobar-Chaves and Anderson 2008 : 162). It was also found that sexual content exposure through radio, CDs, and tapes contribute to initiation of non-coital sexual behavior among adolescents ( Escobar-Chaves and Anderson, 2008 : 165). Collins et al. (2004) : 288) could not find clear-cut findings about exposure of sexual contents on TV but they suggested that exposure to sexual talk and behavior on TV is likely to advance the initiation of both coital and non-coital sexual activities. On the other hand, recent studies also show that increased sexual knowledge or access to birth control does not necessarily lead adolescents to earlier sexual activities behaviors (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2008: 192). Last but not least, research evidence shows clearly that exposure to violence through media is a causal risk factor for aggressive and violent behavior. It is expected that the long term effect of violent video games will be larger than that of TV but smaller that that of gang membership ( Escobar-Chaves and Anderson 2008 : 169). High levels of individualism can lead to narcissism . Twenge and Campbell (2009: 19) state in their book, ‘‘The Narcissism Epidemic”, that the central feature of narcissism is a very positive and inflated view of self and this value is growing rapidly in the American culture fueled by the mass media, including the new media, and changes in parental approaches to upbring- ing that emphasizes self-expression. Symbolic representations of the new American culture of self expression are the empha- sis on celebrities in the media, the success of MySpace and Facebook as social-networking sites, the uploading of personal videos on YouTube, twitter (micro-blogging and text-based social networking or SMS on the internet via its own website) and blogging ( Twenge and Campbell 2009 ). Which leads Barbara Ehrenreich (2009) to wonder how the relentless promotion of positive thinking has ‘ undermined’ America.

6. Basic data on young adults and their on- and off-line life

Research findings, such as in the recently released comprehensive report by Rideout et al. (2010) for the Kaiser Family Foundation, Steinfield et al. (2008), Subrahmanyama et al. (2008), and reports by the Pew Center (for instance: http:// ), highlight that media are among the most pow- erful forces in young people’s lives today. Eight- to twenty-somethings in the US spend more than 50 h in front of a screen each week. That is more than a regular working week. The TV shows they watch, video games they play, songs they listen to, books they read, text messages they send and websites they visit are an enormous part of their lives, offering a constant stream of messages about families, peers, relationships, gender roles, sex, violence, food, values, clothes, and so on. The study by the Kaiser Family Foundation (2010) found that the use of every type of media has increased over the past 10 years, with the exception of reading. In just the past five years, the increases range from 24 min a day for video games, to 27 min a day for computers, 38 min for TV content, and 47 min a day for music and other audio. During this same period, time spent reading went from 43 to 38 min a day; not a statistically significant change though. But focusing on different types of print does uncover some statistically significant trends. For example, time spent reading magazines dropped from 14 to 9 min a day over the past five years, and time spent reading newspapers went down from 6 to 3 min a day; but time spent reading books remained steady, and actually increased slightly over the past 10 years (from 21 to 25 min a day) ( Rideout et al., 2010 ).


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The intensity and way social media are being used is already changing. Since 2006, blogging has dropped among teens (age 12–17) and young adults (age 18–29) while simultaneously rising among older adults (older than 30). As the tools and technology embedded in social-networking sites change, and use of the sites continues to grow, youth may be exchang- ing ‘macro-blogging’ for micro-blogging with status updates ( Lenhart et al. 2010b ). Both teen and adult use of social-networking sites has risen significantly, yet there are shifts and some drops in the pro- portion of teens using several social networking site features ( Lenhart 2009; Lenhart et al. 2007, 2010a,b ):

6.1. Social networking

73% of wired American teens now use social networking websites, a significant increase from previous surveys. Just over half of online teens (55%) used social-networking sites in November 2006 and 65% did so in February 2008. As the teen social networking population has increased, the popularity of some sites’ features has shifted. Compared with social-networking sites (SNS) activity in February 2008, a smaller proportion of teens in mid-2009 were sending daily messages to friends via social-networking sites (SNS), or sending bulletins, group messages or private messages on the sites. 47% of online adults use SNS, up from 37% in November 2008. Young adults act much like teens in their tendency to use these sites. Fully 72% of online 18–29 year olds use social net- working websites, nearly identical to the rate among teens, and significantly higher than the 39% of internet users ages 30 and up who use these sites. Adults are increasingly fragmenting their social networking experience as a majority of those who use social-networking sites – 52% – say they have two or more different profiles. That is up from 42% who had multiple profiles in May 2008. Facebook is currently the most commonly-used online social network among adults. Among adult profile owners 73% have a profile on Facebook, 48% have a profile on MySpace and 14% have a LinkedIn profile. The specific sites on which young adults maintain their profiles are different from those used by older adults: Young pro- file owners are much more likely to maintain a profile on MySpace (66% of young profile owners do so, compared with just 36% of those thirty and older) but less likely to have a profile on the professionally-oriented LinkedIn (7% vs. 19%). In contrast, adult profile owners under thirty and those thirty and older are equally likely to maintain a profile on Facebook (71% of young profile owners do so, compared with 75% of older profile owners).

6.2. Twitter

While teens are bigger users of almost all other online applications, Twitter is an exception. Young adults lead the way when it comes to using Twitter or status updating. One-third of online 18–29 year olds post or read status updates. 19% of adult internet users use Twitter or similar services to post short status updates and view the updates of others online. Only 8% of internet users ages 12–17 use Twitter. Hence, teens are not using Twitter in large numbers. In other words: Older teens are more likely to use Twitter than their younger counterparts; 10% of online teens ages 14– 17 do so, compared with 5% of those ages 12–13. High school age girls are particularly likely to use Twitter. Thirteen percent of online girls ages 14–17 use Twitter, com- pared with 7% of boys that age.

6.3. Wireless

Wireless internet use rates are especially high among young adults, and the laptop has replaced the desktop as the com- puter of choice among those under thirty. 81% of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 are wireless internet users. By comparison, 63% of 30–49 year olds and 34% of those ages 50 and up access the internet wirelessly. Roughly half of 18–29 year olds have accessed the internet wirelessly on a laptop (55%) or on a cell phone (55%), and about one quarter of 18–29 year-olds (28%) have accessed the internet wirelessly on another device such as an e-book reader or gaming device. The impact of the mobile web can be seen in young adults’ computer choices. Two-thirds of 18–29 year olds (66%) own a laptop or netbook, while 53% own a desktop computer. Young adults are the only age cohort for which laptop computers are more popular than desktops. African Americans adults are the most active users of the mobile web, and their use is growing at a faster pace than mobile internet use among white or Hispanic adults.

6.4. Cell phones

Cell phone ownership is nearly ubiquitous among teens and young adults, and much of the growth in teen cell phone ownership has been driven by adoption among the youngest teens: Three-quarters (75%) of teens and 93% of adults ages 18–29 now have a cell phone.

P. Malikhao, J. Servaes / Telematics and Informatics 28 (2011) 66–76


In the past five years, cell phone ownership has become main stream among even the youngest teens. Fully 58% of 12-year olds now own a cell phone, up from just 18% of such teens as recently as 2004.

6.5. Internet

Internet use is near-ubiquitous among teens and young adults. In the last decade, the young adult internet population has remained the most likely to go online: 93% of teens ages 12–17 go online, as do 93% of young adults ages 18–29. One

quarter (74%) of all adults ages 18 and older go online. Over the past ten years, teens and young adults have been consistently the two groups most likely to go online, even as the internet population has grown and even with documented larger increases in certain age cohorts (e.g. adults 65 and older). The survey of teens also tracked some core internet activities by those ages 12–17 and found:


62% of online teens get news about current events and politics online.


48% of wired teens have bought things online like books, clothing or music, up from 31% who had done so in 2000.


31% of online teens get health, dieting or physical fitness information from the internet. And 17% of online teens report they use the internet to gather information about health topics that are hard to discuss with others such as drug use and sexual health topics.

It is obvious that social-networking sites (SNS) are popular online communication forms among the Millennials. Yet little is known about young people’s activities on these sites and how their networks of ‘friends’ relate to their other online (e.g., instant messaging) and offline networks. In the study by Subrahmanyama et al. (2008) , college students responded, in person and online, to questions about their online activities and closest friends in three contexts: social-networking sites, instant messaging, and face-to-face. Results showed that participants often used the Internet, especially social-networking sites, to connect and reconnect with friends and family members. Hence, there was overlap between participants’ online and off- line networks. However, the overlap was imperfect; the pattern suggested that emerging adults (ages 20–29) may use different online contexts to strengthen different aspects of their offline connections. ‘‘Our results indicate that college students use instant messaging and social-networking sites to interconnect with others, particularly those from their offline lives. They show that emerging adults’ offline and online worlds are connected and they use online communication for offline issues, and to con- nect with people in their offline lives. Although young people’s offline and online worlds may be connected, they are cer-

Thus, connectedness does not imply that young people’s online and offline lives

tainly not mirror images of each other

are identical. Instead it appears that when communicating online, young people may express offline concerns and interact with people from their offline lives, but in a manner adapted to the particular affordances of the online context, such as its opportunities (e.g., ability to create a public profile of oneself and have an extensive network of friends) and limitations (e.g., open and visible interaction and lack of extensive face-to-face cues)” ( Subrahmanyama et al. 2008 : 432). The results of this and other studies (see Leung, 2007 for Hong Kong, and Steinfield et al., 2008 ) show that young adults use social-networking sites to connect with people from their offline lives, such as their friends and families. Students like the social network’s convenience, its low cost, and its utility for coordinating events ( Leung, 2007 ). Despite their use of these sites for interconnection, most did not perceive any effects on their relationships.

7. Emerging issues

7.1. Privacy and ‘‘the end of forgetting

While participation in social networks is still strong, a survey released in April 2010 by the University of California, Berke- ley, found that more than half the young adults questioned had become more concerned about privacy than they were five years ago – mirroring the number of people their parent’s age or older with that worry (reported by Holson, 2010 ). They are more diligent than older adults, however, in trying to protect themselves. In a new study released in May 2010, the Pew Internet Project found that people in their 20s exert more control over their digital reputations than older adults, trying to delete unwanted posts and limiting information about themselves. ‘‘Social networking requires vigilance, not only in what you post, but what your friends post about you,” said Mary Madden, a senior research specialist who oversaw the study. ‘‘Now you are responsible for everything” ( Holson 2010 ). However, as Rosen (2010) in The New York Times Magazine ob- served: ‘‘The web means the end of forgetting”. Rosen cites a recent survey by Microsoft among 75% of US recruiters and human-resource professionals. They report that their companies require them to do online research about candidates, and many use a range of sites when scrutinizing applicants – including search engines, social-networking sites, photo- and video-sharing sites, personal Web sites and blogs, Twitter and online-gaming sites. Seventy percent of US recruiters re- port that they have rejected candidates because of information found online, like photos and discussion-board conversations and membership in controversial groups. Nosko et al. (2010) provide evidence that highly personal, sensitive, and potentially stigmatizing information is being dis- closed on social-networking sites such as Facebook. However, the study also depicts users who are expressing discretion regarding at least some personally revealing information.


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In light of the prevalence of online identity theft, and social threat issues such as stalking, the results of this study can be used to support the need for developing programs and interventions that further caution users of online social networks against placing themselves at risk. Age and relationship status were important factors in determining disclosure. ‘‘As age in- creased, the amount of personal information in profiles decreased. Those seeking a relationship were at greatest risk of threat, and disclosed the greatest amount of highly sensitive and potentially stigmatizing information” ( Nosko et al. 2010 : 416). Young women (aged 18–34) are becoming more and more dependent on social media and checking on their so- cial networks, according to a new study released by Oxygen Media and Lightspeed Research. The study sampled the habits of 1605 young people using social media between May and June 2010 to assess their social media habits. As many as one-third of women check Facebook when they first wake up, even before they get to the bathroom, according to Parr (2010) . While some of the results are in line with previous studies, others were revealing new trends (e.g. 42% of young women think post- ing photos of themselves ‘‘visibly intoxicated” is okay). Results from other studies (by Pempek et al., 2009 ) indicated that students use Facebook approximately 30 min through- out the day as part of their daily routine. Students communicated on Facebook using a one-to-many style, in which they were the creators disseminating content to their friends. They spent more time observing content or lurking than actually posting content. Facebook was used most often for social interaction, primarily with friends with whom the students had a pre- established relationship offline. In addition to classic identity markers of emerging adulthood, such as religion, political ide- ology, and work, young adults also used media preferences to express their identity. ‘‘While friendships, romantic relationships, and ideology remain key facets of adolescent development, it is fitting that in the digital age individual media preferences have also emerged as playing an important role in students’ expressions of who they are” ( Pempek et al., 2009 : 237). The erosion of privacy has become a pressing issue among active users of social networks. On 27 April 2010 the popular Civic Action site Moveon. org launched a petition to urge Facebook to change its privacy settings ( facebook/?rc=fb&-17605428-EYYkolx ). They claimed that Facebook scrambled to fix a security breach that allowed users to see their friends’ supposedly private information, including personal chats. Badiner (2010) presents an overview of these re- cent privacy issues related not only to Facebook but also Google.

7.2. Light, moderate and heavy users

Rideout et al. (2010) make a distinction between ‘Light’, ‘Moderate’, and ‘Heavy’ Media Users in their study. Heavy Users were defined as those who consume more than 16 h worth of media content in a typical day (21% of all 8–18-year olds); Moderate Users consume from 3–16 h of content in a day (63%); and Light Users consume fewer than three hours of media in a typical day (17%). They found significant relationships between media use and school grades , and media use and personal contendedness . In other words, there is a relationship between the amount of time young people spend with media and the type of grades they report getting in school. The picture of young people’s personal contentedness that emerges from the survey is largely positive. Most respondents say they have lots of friends, get along well with their parents, and are happy at school. For example, 57% say the statement ‘‘I have a lot of friends” is ‘a lot’ like them, 50% say the same about the statement ‘‘I get along well with my parents” and 38% about the statement ‘‘I have mostly been happy at school this year.” This generally positive profile holds true across age, gen- der, race, family structure, and parent education, with some modest variations. ‘‘That said, there is a relationship between media use and the level of a young person’s reported personal contentedness. While the vast majority of young people tend to score quite high on the contentedness index, those who are less content spend more time with media (13:06) than those who are at the top of the contentedness index (8:44). And, looked at from the other perspective, those who spend more time with media report being less content” Rideout et al., 2010 : 12–13). However, the researchers explicitly state that their study cannot establish whether there is a cause and effect relationship between media use versus school grades or personal con- tentment. And if there is such a relationship, it could well run in both directions simultaneously.

7.3. Gender, age, ethnicity

Using a national sample of US adults, Correa et al. (2010) investigated the relationship between three dimensions ( extra- version, emotional stability and openness to experience ) and social media use (defined as use of SNS and instant messages). They also examined whether gender and age played a role in that dynamic. Results indicate that while extraversion and openness to experiences were positively related to social media use, emotional stability was a negative predictor, controlling for socio-demographics and life satisfaction. These findings differed by gender and age. While extraverted men and women were both likely to be more frequent users of social media tools, only the men with greater degrees of emotional instability were more regular users. The relationship between extraversion and social media use was particularly important among the young adult cohort. Conversely, being open to new experiences emerged as an important personality predictor of social med- ia use for the more mature segment of the sample. No significant relationship existed between women and emotional stability . This may illustrate the differences in the ways men and women communicate – women place a greater emphasis on forging connections with others and building a sense of community ( Tannen, 1990). Given this gender-based tendency among women and previous findings that the vast majority of SNS users rely on it to build connections and maintain relationships ( Lenhart, 2009; Raacke and Bonds-Raacke, 2008 ), one

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would expect women regardless of their demeanor to be drawn to social-networking sites. Conversely, when considering the relationship between neuroticism and self-esteem, it seems men with greater emotional instability are drawn to use social media, perhaps as a way to bolster feelings about themselves by reaching out to others” ( Correa et al., 2010:252 ). For social relationships, Lewisa et al. (2008: 337) find that the association between demographic similarity and cultural similarity differs tremendously by group and by taste. White students share tastes in movies and in music, as do Asian stu- dents; Latino students Black students only share tastes in music.

7.4. Texting versus voice calling

Lenhart et al. (2010b) found that daily text messaging among American teens has shot up since 2008, from 38% of teens texting friends daily in February of 2008 to 54% of teens texting daily in September 2009. And it’s not just frequency – teens are sending enormous quantities of text messages a day. Half of teens send 50 or more text messages a day, or 1500 texts a month, and one in three send more than 100 texts a day, or more than 3000 texts. Older girls between 14 and 17 are the heavy texters, averaging 100 messages a day. The youngest teen boys are the most resistant to texting – averaging 20 mes- sages per day. Therefore Lenhart et al. (2010b) conclude that text messaging has become the primary way that teens reach their friends, surpassing face-to-face contact, email, instant messaging and voice calling as the go-to daily communication tool for this age group. However, voice calling is still the preferred mode for reaching parents for most teens ( Lenhart et al., 2010a ). Peters and Allouch (2005) show that people’s motivations for sing mobile communication technology are initially influ- enced more strongly by their perceptions about the expected use, which is more task-oriented. However, over time, perma- nent access and social interaction appear to be less manifest reasons for using the mobile communication device and become more latent, while gratifications like fashion/status and entertainment appear to become more dominant. Therefore, the boundary between work and personal life slowly disappears as people can easily use mobile communication technology simul- taneously for personal and business purposes in both social and work-related contexts (see also Aoki and Downes, 2003 ).

7.5. Multi-tasking and ‘deep thinking’

While some experts worry about whether multi-tasking may make young people less able to focus and concentrate when they need to, parents are likely to be less concerned about their children multitasking their entertainment media than they are about having them multitask with media while they are supposed to be doing their homework. Indeed, Rideout et al. (2010: 34) found that ‘‘nearly one in three (31%) 8–18-year-olds say that ‘most’ of the time they are doing homework, they are also using one medium or another—watching TV, texting, listening to music, and so on. On the other hand, about one- in-five (19%) say they ‘never’ use other media while doing their homework, and 22% say they do so only ‘a little’ of the time. These numbers have stayed relatively stable over the past five years.” However, earlier claims that teens and young adults associate with and through media in different ways as the older generations, and therefore are better at multi-tasking , seem not to be supported by new findings. For instance, research done at Stanford University concludes that it takes 15 min to fully resume a serious mental task after answering an e-mail or instant messaging ( Iqbal and Horvitz, 2007 , also reported on PBS Frontline, 2010 ). In addition, Jacoby (2008) bemoans the way electronic media, with their demand for spectacle and brevity, have shortened our attention spans . Sound bites by presidential candidates, she points out, dropped from 42 s in 1968 to less than 8 s by 2000. Nicholas Carr (2010) book ‘‘The Shallows” analyzes how information-overload negatively affects cognitive functioning . Draw- ing upon an extensive list of scientific studies, Carr questions the widely-held belief that the Internet facilitates more pro- cessing and productivity or multi-tasking. ‘‘Those who celebrate the ‘outsourcing’ of memory to the Web have been misled by a metaphor,” he argues ( Carr, 2010:191). Rather, we are losing our wisdom, creativity and experience, and hence the capacity to learn and ‘deep thinking’. Google, with its instant access to factoids of dubious veracity, is singled out as a pri- mary source of the problem. There is evidence, Carr affirms, that the internet is damaging people’s long-term memory con- solidation which is the true basis of intelligence (see also The Economist, 2010 ).

7.6. Emerging adults

Sociologists traditionally define the ‘transition to adulthood’ as marked by five milestones: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying and having a child. However, studies show that the point of ‘reaching’ these milestones comes at a later stage in life or, – for some for a number of personal, social, cultural and economic reasons – not at all ( Whitehead 2010 ). The social-psychologist Jeffrey Arnett (2000, 2004) has therefore argued that the transition to adulthood has moved on average from the age of 18 (or 21) to an age closer to 30. He calls the age-group of 20-somethings being in the life-stage of ‘emerging adults’. Arnett found that 60% of his subjects felt like both grown-ups and not- quite-grown-ups. He contends that young men and women are more self-focused than at any other time of life, less certain about the future and yet also more optimistic, no matter what their economic background. Marantz Henig (2010) adds that this new understanding is confirmed in a longitudinal study of brain development sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health, which started following nearly 5000 children at ages 3–16 (the average age at enrollment was about 10). The scientists found the children’s brains were not fully mature until at least 25.


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Which makes Levine (2005) convinced that the US culture and educational practices are ‘harming children,’ stunting their mental growth and leaving them unready to launch themselves into adulthood. In Levine’s view, kids today are too indulged, pushed to be well-rounded and focused on rote-learning. Instead, he suggests, schools should emphasize skills that could make or break start-up adults: the ability to think critically, to brainstorm, to monitor and refine one’s own performance, to communicate convincingly, and to plan and preview work.

8. Is the US ‘unique’ or just ahead of the rest?

What is the situation in Europe? Recent studies ( Carlsson, 2010; Livingstone and Bober, 2005; Nordicom, 2009; Olsson and Dahlgren, 2009 ) seem to present a more complex and ambivalent picture. Interesting to mention here is the European INCLUSO research project (2008–2010) that argues that Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), and more pre- cisely, social software tools, can facilitate social inclusion for youth at risk. European research found that a clear distinction can be made between the use of internet/ICT for entertainment, communication or serious/professional purposes. Young- sters differentiate between fun and serious business in intensity and frequency, between the type of media they use and the internet, as well as in kind of medium or application they use or trust for these different purposes. In Belgium, a public debate has started after the publication of the findings of the ‘Nationale Waardenpeiling’ (National Survey on Values) of Bond Zonder Naam (2010) , (reported in the weekly Knack, 2010 of 15 April), that 90% of Flemish young- sters ‘live’ online. 75% of 13 year-olds have already watched porn. According to a survey by the University of Antwerp (re- ported on the frontpage of the daily Het Nieuwsblad on 27 May 2010) one of five youngsters are sex-ting , sending and receiving nude pictures on their cell phones on a regular basis. Therefore ethics professors Koen Raes and Roger Burggraeve plead for a discussion on future norms and values. At a more academic level, the Belgian part of the INCLUSO research project ( Bauwens et al., 2009 ) presents the results of a qualitative and quantitative research among youngsters age 12–18 in Belgium. Seven to ten youngsters express the need for

a central office for internet complaints. 66.8% of the youngsters strongly believe online porn should be restricted by law.

65.3% of the questioned teenagers would like to receive ‘tips and tricks’ on how to use the internet safely. Youngsters show great differences in IT skills and occupations compared with one another, and show a lot of intra-group differences . A clear distinction has been made between the use of internet/ICT for entertainment and more ‘serious’ purposes like homework,

a discordance between the intensity and frequency of which media they consume media, as well as in kind of medium or

application they use or trust for these different purposes. This led the researchers to conclude: ‘‘There is no such thing as the internet generation. Not all young people are skilled ‘cyberkids’. Dependent on age, gender, social background and schooling, teenagers differ in the way they make use of information and communication technologies (ICT)” ( Bauwens et al., 2009 ). De Marez and Schuurman (2010) therefore distinguish between 5 types of user profiles in The Flanders: the ‘couch potatoes’ (18.2%), the ‘multimedia seniors’ (17.3%), the ‘social onliners’ (19.9%), the ‘gaming omnivores’ (8.8%), and the ‘conservatives’ (35.9%). In addition, research done at the Mechelen based Media Expertise Center hints at a rather pragmatic communication behavior of youngsters (age 15–25) ( Franssen and Daems, 2010 ). Belgian youngsters communicate online for ‘fun’ and share information about personal stuff or sometimes for informative matters. Typical media for communication within the private sphere are their mobile cell phones, their MSN, their Netlog, Youtube, and Facebook. For news they still use (or trust?) the ‘adult’ or mainstream media more. Despite the frequency and intensity with which this generation consumes the internet, they believe that they do not spend more time in computer communication in general than their parents, but they agree that they spend more time in using MSN and Web 2.0 applications than their parents.

9. What’s next?

In other words, the jury is still out there to assess whether it is just a matter of time to see the trends described for US youngsters duplicated in other countries and cultural contexts. Or, are the above findings only a sign of the times and should the ‘crisis in childhood’ just be interpreted as ‘‘a reflection of adult anxiety and insecurity in ‘new times’” ( Kehily, 2010 : 183), as recently argued from a post-modern cultural studies perspective. Avenues for future research include developing a richer measure of social media use. A vast list of different uses within the social media realm would greatly improve this line of research by differentiating similar forms of interaction, as sug- gested by Correa et al. (2010: 252) . A question for future research might also be whether emerging adults accrue different levels of intimacy and support depending on where a relationship is closest, in a face-to-face or online context. Future work should also examine how variables such as users’ gender, social networking site use, offline relationship strength, and per- ceived support might moderate the extent of overlap between their online and offline lives. Whatever philosophical or ideological position one wishes to take, it may be relevant to further assess the available data to see whether the above described trends warrant concerns for policymakers, media, parents and educators.


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