Lim, S. S. (2015, May). Young people and communication technologies:
Emerging challenges in generational analysis. Paper presented at the opening plenary of
the International Communication Association Annual Conference, San Juan, PR
We’ve all heard the terms “digital natives”, “thumb tribe” and “Generation Google”. Beyond the
English-speaking world, similar generational labels abound.
In China, young people who are often referred to as "ditouzu", literally "the tribe that always keeps
its heads lowered".
While in Vietnam, “sống ảo” is the label for young people who constantly post photographs or
sensational status updates in a quest for ‘likes’ and social affirmation. Around the world therefore,
there is no denying the appeal of snappy terms that seem to succinctly capture a particular
generation’s socio-technical relationship with their media devices.
However, these are ultimately generationalisations (Driscoll & Gregg, 2008; McRobbie, 2004), that is,
gross generalisations about how particular generations’ media practices are distinctive and run
through every member of that generation. In the area of children, adolescents and the media, one of
the most critiqued generationalisations is Mark Prensky’s ‘digital natives’:
Prensky claimed that digital natives have been surrounded by media devices their whole lives and
consequently, “…It is now clear that as a result of this ubiquitous environment and the sheer volume
of their interaction with it, today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently
from their predecessors.”
While such generationalisations tend to gain traction in the media and public consciousness, as well
as to ignite moral panics, they are ultimately reductionist, lacking in nuance and assume
homogeneity in generations of media consumers.
However, the inadequacies of generationalisations should not detract from the inherent value of
taking a generational perspective in media studies. Indeed, previous research demonstrates how
generational analysis can be valuable.
The “media generations” approach posits that different generations are marked by the media that
they avidly use in their youth, and will consequently sustain a special connection with that medium
for the rest of their lives. This approach has been used to chart divergences between different
generations in terms of their media use patterns, exposure to media content, attitudes towards
technology, and media literacy skills. Cohort analysis, such as those undertaken in technology
domestication research, have studied how particular generations' life experiences, values and
worldviews shape their communicative practices, and expectations of technology. An extensive
range of studies has also analysed how generation interacts with other factors such as life stage,
gender and prior experience in ICT to influence individuals' media use, for example, how they access,
process and evaluate online information. Research that takes a generational analysis approach can
thus usefully inform public education, policy planning, media production, interface design and
However, even as the generational approach to media studies can be illuminating, the rapid pace of
change in our prevailing media landscape poses significant challenges for generational analysis. I will
draw on examples from my media ethnographies of understudied populations to highlight three of
The first challenge relates to how finely we should calibrate and delineate media generations,
particularly with new waves of innovations being introduced and embraced at an accelerating pace.
My recent research on migrant students from Indonesia and Vietnam revealed some
interesting distinctions in their media practices, even among young people who are only two to
three years apart. Born between 1990 and 1995, all of my respondents would typically be grouped
within the same generation. And yet, going by their communication practices, they could arguably
belong two different media generations. The older group had ventured to Singapore for their
university education three to four years ago, before smartphones and mobile social media had
become such a mainstay. The younger group had emigrated to Singapore in the last two years, by
which time mobile social media use had become more rampant and intense due to increased
smartphone penetration. What were the implications of this distinction between the two groups?
Notably, the younger students manifested a weaker instinct to acculturate to the host country and
to fraternise with local students or those of other nationalities. Our findings suggest that this was
primarily due to their pre-departure connections. Through online social connections, these students
had already befriended co-nationals online before leaving their home countries, and after arriving in
Singapore, immediately linked up with these contacts via their mobile social connections via apps
such as WhatsApp, LINE and Facebook messenger. Ensconced in this ready network of co-national
friends, the impetus to broaden their social networks and familiarise themselves with local culture
was largely absent. While the phenomenon of migrants choosing to fraternise with co-nationals is
not new, it has arguably been amplified by online social networking, thus impacting their long-term
integration into their host country.
With regard to generational analysis of media use, this example reflects the breakneck pace
at which new communication technologies emerge, diffuse and reach critical mass. Mobile social
media such as WhatsApp, LINE, WeChat and Viber have seen explosive growth in the last two years,
along with the dramatic rise in smartphone penetration in Southeast Asia. As media consumers
hurtle from innovation to innovation in compact time windows, with seemingly rapid shifts in their
communicative practices, researchers need to be sensitive to how finely we should demarcate
‘media generations’. We also need to be conscious of how responsive we are to these technological
shifts, and find ways to reconcile in our research the more compressed technological timescale with
the more long-drawn social timescale.
Related to the first challenge is the growing complexity of the media landscape, or what Nick Couldry
refers to as the ‘media manifold’.
I’d like to share with you media maps that I ask my students to draw for me every semester. I ask
them to capture how they communicate with significant people or entities in their lives such as their
family, friends, hobby group mates, school, the state and so on. As you can see, theirs is a
rambunctious multi-device, multi-platform, multi-app existence. In this map you can see the
presence of Whatsapp, facebook, Skype, Oovoo, Twitter and in-game chats, an online learning
platform, as well as email and phone calls.
And this one depicts multiple devices – phone, television, laptop, and a range of apps including
Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat and Dropbox. Clearly, whereas labelling a cohort of media audiences
as the ‘television generation’ was a relatively straightforward affair, characterising a particular
generation by any specific medium today is an unwieldy and complicated task.
Compare these maps however to those of the at-risk youths whom I have been interviewing who are
just a year younger than my students. The young people in this marginalised group did not manifest
significantly poorer access to information and communication technologies. Indeed, most of them
own the very latest smartphones out there.
However, because they were mostly school dropouts or undergoing vocational training , their uses
of technology primarily centred around socialising and entertainment. They typically use the same
phone apps all the time and even though they clearly have Internet access on their phones, do not
use web browsers to engage in much exploration. Their online engagement was quite largely
confined to the universe of social media apps they had downloaded. Taken together, all of these
media maps also conceal a lot more than they reveal. At first glance, this generation of young
people seems to use the same range of apps and devices. But each of them would have a personal
signature in terms of the purpose, extent, nature, quality, intensity and depth of use of the entire
plethora of apps and devices out there. So, are they the cloud generation? The app generation? Or
the mobile generation?
As Goran Bolin and Oscar Westlund (2009) concluded from their study of three generations
of mobile technology users in Sweden:
“it seems not very wise to argue for the label mobile technology generation, for the
very simple reason that we do not really know if ‘mobile’ will be an intelligible concept
in the near future. That we today speak of the ‘mobile,’ rather than the ‘mobile phone,’
as the device is so much more than a mobile telephone, is a case in point. With new
technological development of powerful mobile devices that can be used for surfing the
Web, accessing e-mails, chat services, news feeds and television and radio streaming,
we are facing a situation where it might be hard to distinguish a mobile (phone) from a
Nevertheless, as researchers, we need to strive to be pithy, even as we seek to avoid reductionism
in characterising a media generation. And achieving these two objectives together in our rapidly
evolving media landscape will be a significant challenge.
The third challenge relates to the domestic realm of media use. Research on children,
adolescents and the media is often conducted in the family context, offering prescriptions on
parental mediation and bridging intergenerational communication gaps.
These gaps are due in part to intergenerational differences in how communication
technologies are used and interpreted. Yet these very technologies can also be harnessed as
intergenerational bridges that can foster greater dialogue in the family. As researchers, we need to
actively track the varied pace at which different generations of the family are adopting new
communication technologies, and to chart the divergences that have to be bridged. At the same
time, how can we be more attuned to new technologies that are more inclusive and can serve as
sustainable intergenerational bridges?
Let me take you back to 2003, when I studied a group of young elderly parents and their
communication with their children. Back then, we saw parents who were less adept with technology
trying to learn how to use the computer and the internet to better connect with their children.
When we asked one mother if she had considered learning from her children, she flashed a terrified
look and said:
“I don’t want to learn from the children! ] I don’t want them to scold me. When I see
how my son scolds his father when he teaches him how to use the computer, I get very
scared. You know we old people are a bit forgetful sometimes. I don’t want him to
scold me like that! I took up computer lessons in the mosque. It’s cheap - only $25 -
and the people there are very very patient. They repeat over and over again until you
We were not particularly confident that her efforts would bear fruit because her use of the shared
home computer was simply too infrequent for her to hone her skills.
In contrast, in a more recent study on communication between emerging adults and their
young elderly parents, we were pleasantly surprised to find parents in their 60s actively
communicating with their children via Facebook and WhatsApp using their smartphones and tablets.
Unlike computers, these personally owned mobile devices are more user-friendly, with multi-
language capabilities, thus requiring a lower skill threshold. Notably, this group of young elderly did
not have much prior experience in computers or the internet, but had engaged in a form of
technological leapfrogging by heading straight for smartphones and tablets. Their communication
with their children via these mobile devices offers a sustainable intergenerational bridge that we
believe will reap dividends for some time to come.
So how can we as researchers respond to these three challenges I’ve highlighted? First, it is
critical that we keep abreast of technological trends that have implications for how young people
inform themselves, and how they communicate with their peers and their family. We also need to
be alert to disruptive innovations that can entrench themselves very quickly, and with discernible
impact on how people communicate. However, it is also crucial for us to steer clear of
homogenisation. To do so, we should endeavour to chart salient media trends of different
generations, while also casting our net wider and paying special attention to sub-populations that
deviate from the norm. Finally of course, given the relentless pace of change in our current media
landscape, we also need to constantly revisit our definitions of prevailing media generations in terms
of temporal demarcations, dominant media practices and significant technological transitions.
In conclusion, I believe these tasks and challenges will energise us for many conferences and
generations to come!
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