Tracking the MySpace Generation…

The Los Angeles Times recently completed a first rate series describing the media consumption practices of the contemporary youth market. “Tracking the MySpace Generation” reflected the results of a large scale survey of 12-24 year olds that shatters many of the myths that have emerged around the so-called digital generation, while at the same time focusing attention on some very important shifts in the ways people relate to media content.

Youth and Civic Media

Contrary to the myth (which I debunked here a few months ago), young people are not more apt to vote for the next American Idol than to participate in the next presidental election.

Only 21% of poll respondents ages 18 to 24 said they had voted for an American Idol contestant. But 53% said they had voted for a candidate for public office.

This is consistent with other research that has shown that young people are civically engaged, care about political issues, but often seek out information through different channels than older generations.

Youth and Traditional Media

The researchers also found that young people still consumed a great deal of traditional broadcast content and traditional media sources still exerted a strong influence on their lives:

For example, respondents say that traditional sources such as television advertising and radio airplay still tend to drive their decisions about movies and music more than online networking sites. Those interested in keeping up with current events report a surprising interest in conventional news sources, especially local TV news.

Parental Regulation

The survey also found that parents are increasingly aware of what young people are doing when they are online and that many young people are restricted in what kinds of cyberspaces they can visit:

Nearly 7 in 10 of 12- to 17-year-olds said their parents knew how they spent their time online. Nearly 3 out of 5 12- to 14-year-olds said their parents restricted what they could download. About a third of boys and girls ages 12 to 14 are not allowed to go on social networking sites such as Only 19% of boys and 13% of girls reported having no parental restrictions on computer use

This finding parallels research in the United Kingdom that I wrote about back when I had a regular column at Technology Review.

Like many other such studies, the report has a tendency to acquate restrictions on media access with good parenting. My own views are that good parenting involves a healthy acknowledgement of legitimate roles that media can play within our lives and an open dialogue with young people about our own tastes and values. Just saying No to Nintendo is a cop-out which doesn’t prepare young people for the decisions they will make as cultural participatipants when they get older.

Choices and More Choices

More than anything else, the survey found that young people wanted options — they wanted the media they wanted when they wanted it and where they wanted it — and that included via more traditional channels such as theatrical exhibition, print, and broadcast television. They weren’t being pushed towards the latest technological devices simply because they were new and wouldn’t accept them if they did not facilitate the entertainment experiences they were looking for:

Asked where they’d prefer to watch a new movie if it were simultaneously available at home and in theaters, about a third said they would choose to stay at home, and another third said it depended on the movie. Going to movies at theaters still has appeal, particularly for younger teens, but among respondents ages 21 to 24, 56% said they wanted to see the new movie at home, and only 9% said they would rather travel to a theater.

Nearly half (47%) of respondents ages 12 to 17 say they would watch a movie on a PC, well above the interest in doing the same on a cellphone (11%) or video iPod and similar devices (18%). A similar share of those 21 to 24 said they would watch movies on a computer, although they are much less willing to do the same on a cellphone (6%) or video iPod (7%)….

Interestingly, 12- to 14-year-old girls showed the greatest eagerness about small-screen viewing, with 20% of those surveyed open to watching television shows on cellphones and nearly a quarter interested in checking out programs on iPods.

The LA Times suggests that the entertainment industry was racing ahead of even its most digitally literate consumers in making some materials available for new formats such as video ipods or cell phones. A level headed young consumer explains, “Why would I want to look at a video clip on my cellphone? I’d rather make phone calls on it.”

This doesn’t suggest a generation that is embracing convergence for convergence’s sake. It does suggest a generation that is aware of a range of different media platforms and their affordances and is making reasoned chocies about which provides the most satisfying varient of any given entertainment experience.


The LA Times also found that multitasking is absolutely normative in this generation — many of them seem to flit between windows, tasks, and relationships with reckless abandon. Any future analysis of young people and media has to recognize that they are always consuming one medium in relation to another and rarely give any given content their undivided attention:

Among respondents who had homework, 53% of children ages 12 to 17 said they did at least one other thing while studying, compared with 25% of adults ages 18 to 24, the poll found.

The youngest poll respondents did the most juggling. Twenty-one percent of the 839 respondents ages 12 to 17 who were polled said they generally kept busy with at least three tasks in addition to their assignments.

Girls ages 15 to 17 were the busiest: 59% said they liked to do at least one thing in addition to homework, and 27% said they liked to do at least three other things.

“I’ll focus on my schoolwork, then if an e-mail pops up I’ll change focus for a second, answer it, then go back to what I was working on,” said Brittany Graham, 16, who also likes to surf the Web and listen to Christian rock while she studies in her family’s home in Altamonte Springs, Fla.

Among those in that same age group who did other things while studying, many reported relatively passive diversions. Eighty-four percent said they listened to music as a side activity, 47% watched TV and 22% watched a movie.

But teenage respondents also enjoyed multi-tasking with things that required active participation, the poll found, including talking on the phone (32%), going on the Internet (21%), instant messaging (15%), sending or reading e-mail (13%), text messaging (13%) and playing a video game (6%).

The Napster Generation?

Finally, the survey found that young people’s attitudes towards intellectual property were evolving and reflected some understanding of the social contract between media producers and consumers:

Among teens ages 12 to 17 who were polled, 69% said they believed it was legal to copy a CD from a friend who purchased the original. By comparison, only 21% said it was legal to copy a CD if a friend got the music free. Similarly, 58% thought it was legal to copy a friend’s purchased DVD or videotape, but only 19% thought copying was legal if the movie wasn’t purchased.

People in the recording industry often act as if kids felt no concern about “stealing” their property. Instead, the LA Times study suggests young people are struggling to make sense of a shifting set of technological options and about the intersection between the commercial economy of mass media and the gift economy of participatory culture. They seem to understand that artists should get paid for what they create but there are real questions about when we’ve paid enough and what rights we buy when we buy recordings of a performance.

Thanks to Zhan Li for calling this series to my attention.


  1. J. Schnaars says:

    Thanks for highlighting this report. This is the first I’ve seen of it, and what I find the most intriguing are the differences between survey respondents who are only a few years apart. I myself just squeeze into the upper age bracket, but I have a sister with whom I interact on a lot of media platforms who still resides in the lower age grouping.

    Most of this data points to the speed with which convergence culture shapes our consumption. My sister and I are both prolific multitaskers, but even she seems more willing to watch a long-form feature like a movie or one hour drama on a small screen, with constant interuptions, whereas I usually tend more toward streaming news or sports that doesn’t require constant attention.

    Maybe least surprising to me was the data on Youth and Traditional Media. This brought to mind a recent article on Slate that compared AFV and YouTube. The writer, Josh Levin, argued that YouTube was a natural extension of the “Groin Pains” of AFV (leaving aside his commentary on AFV’s ideological stance for the time being).

    In my mind he took an oversimplified approach that ignored much of the arc of AFV from the now near unwatchable Saget years to its current iteration. While YouTube may have strength in numbers, the majority of content to be found there is crap. Folks putting up content in their spare time will never have an edge of those who make it their life’s work to create culture for consumption. While bored kids might throw up some funny videos of dad getting hit in the groin, AFV (with Disney’s purse firmly behind it) will always have the trump card of that 10Gs at the end of every episode. Many of those who write in the mainstream media seem to think that this new digital generation (or whatever we choose to call ourselves) will watch anything that’s put in front of us, but if anything, I’d argue that we are more discerning by virtue of our high level of exposure and so when push comes to shove, ABC’s funniest videos will always trump the scattered collection of funniest videos that we might dig up from YouTube’s archive.

  2. They seem to understand that artists should get paid for what they create but there are real questions about when we’ve paid enough and what rights we buy when we buy recordings of a performance.

    I think this interpretation of the survey makes the same mistake the recording industry does, which is to assume that the rights of copyright holders are equivalent to the rights of creators.

    The public’s sense of “folk copyright law” gives a lot of rights to *creators*, but those rights aren’t alienable & infinitely transferable. And the recording industry in particular has for decades developed a reputation for exploiting creators unmercifully, getting them to sign away copyrights in exchange for a chance at 15 minutes of fame. IMHO the industry has deliberately fostered this reputation, because when “everyone knows” that you have to sign away your soul for a recording contract, artists don’t really make a fuss about it.

    Now, though, the public — especially young people — want music and don’t see why they should pay a bunch of notoriously blood-sucking music industry middlemen for it. If they were dealing directly with the artists, that would be a different situation — but respect for copyrights held by non-creators is going to be a very fragile thing.

  3. Melanie Simet says:

    I’m a little doubtful about the interpretation of the multitasking results. Teenagers may be more likely than the 18-24 group to do more things while they work on their assignments, but that may have as much to do with the difficulty of the assignments as the ability or inclination to multitask. I like checking my email, IMing, and listening to music or watching TV while I work, as do my friends, but as we get further along in our studies, that becomes less viable.

    The rest of it seems to match up with my experiences in college, though.