Modern teens not so different after all

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The idea that teenagers are lost to their families once they log on to computers and social media is challenged by research showing that the old-fashioned concepts of family time, homework and recreation place way ahead of the online world.

An in-depth survey of 202 Canberra teenagers aged between 12 and 18 found that when typical after-school activities are ranked, playing computer games only just scrapes in at 10th, while Facebook ranks ninth.

Spending time with family, homework, TV, odd jobs, hobbies, sport, friendship and reading were activities undertaken with greater frequency than accessing digital technologies.

The research was commissioned by the Australian Computer Society Community Engagement Board and undertaken by the University of Canberra's education institute.

Report author Karen Macpherson said that while the report was commissioned to consider student engagement in information and communications technology with a view to better understanding Australia's skills shortage in the high-tech jobs, she said the findings debunked a common assumption that the average Australian teen was glued to their laptop and cut off from personal communication with their family and friends.

''We really need to rethink our stereotypes of modern teenagers,'' Dr Macpherson said, adding she had helped raise five teenagers of her own. ''No one would argue against the fact that teenagers have welcomed digital technologies into their lives with open arms. But it may be that the popular stereotype of teenagers as being consumed by Facebook and computer games needs some rethinking.''


While 80 per cent of the sample had a Facebook account, just under half accessed Facebook each day, with Facebook recognising in its annual report in February that it was having trouble keeping teens engaged.

Facebook time increased with age, while 53 per cent were not on Facebook at 12, 83 per cent were by 18. Girls were more likely to engage with Facebook, with 82 per cent using it, compared with 78 per cent of boys. Sixty-five per cent of girls were more likely to check in every day, compared with 48 per cent of boys.

Computer game consoles such as PlayStation and Xbox were played by 86 per cent of teenagers but were most popular with boys between 12 and 14 and dropped off significantly after that. YouTube was the next most popular online pursuit, with 75 per cent of teens accessing it, while just 20 per cent used Skype once or twice a month.

The study found that, as with many adults, teenagers kept their mobile phone usually within arm's reach. Ninety-five per cent owned a mobile and by 18 years, 82 per cent slept with it turned on next to their bed either ''always'' or ''sometimes''. Texting took up more use of the phone than calls.

Dr Macpherson spent two terms last year doing face-to-face surveys with all 202 students and undertook in-depth interviews with a random sample of 20 students drawn from the eight government and non-government schools that took part.

She said her research provided an ''authentic and detailed'' picture of information technology exposure among teenagers but even she had been surprised by the ''extent to which I found technology has clearly not taken over their lives''.

''This study suggested that young people today spend most of their time doing what they have done after school for generations: spending time with family; playing sport; doing jobs around the house; and doing homework - albeit with high use of the internet for research. And as they get older, casual jobs are also common.''

Dr Macpherson said it was important to understand the role of technology in young people's lives to have a clearer picture of what might influence them to take up a career in technology.

''The driver of this project was a question of Australian national interest. We need more young people to take up careers in ICT,'' she said.

''In early high school, we see a mismatch between the number of students who are interested in 'how computers work', and the lower numbers of students who are interested in 'studying ICT'. After these early years, interest in both declines.

''We have a clear opportunity to interest more students in ICT if we engage with them at around 12 to 14,'' she said.