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Young people and communication technologies: Emerging challenges in generational analysis

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Abstract

Distinct “media generations” are identified through the association of successive generations of youths with the most prevalent media of their time. The resulting labels, ranging from “television generation” to “digital natives”, seem to offer a convenient shorthand for describing media consumers of different eras. However, generational labels are often superficial and sweeping “generationalisations” that are insufficiently nuanced for understanding marginalised, understudied populations whose social and family contexts depart from the norm. Even so, the shortcomings of generationalisations should not detract from the value of the generational approach in studying media consumers and their traits, attitudes and practices. In this chapter, I argue that the generational approach can offer productive inroads into the study of youth media practices and parental mediation, but is undermined by three emerging challenges. I conclude by suggesting ways in which researchers can strive to overcome these difficulties. I illustrate with findings from my recent research on juvenile offenders and transnational youths and also discuss them in relation to previous literature.
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. (2016). Young people and communication technologies: Emerging
challenges in generational analysis. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.) Communication Across the Lifespan. Pp. 5-19 .New
York: Peter Lang.
Young people and communication technologies: Emerging challenges in generational
analysis
Sun Sun Lim
Distinct “media generations” are identified through the association of successive generations
of youths with the most prevalent media of their time. The resulting labels, ranging from
“television generation” to “digital natives”, seem to offer a convenient shorthand for
describing media consumers of different eras. However, generational labels are often
superficial and sweeping “generationalisations” that are insufficiently nuanced for
understanding marginalised, understudied populations whose social and family contexts
depart from the norm. Even so, the shortcomings of generationalisations should not detract
from the value of the generational approach in studying media consumers and their traits,
attitudes and practices. In this chapter, I argue that the generational approach can offer
productive inroads into the study of youth media practices and parental mediation, but is
undermined by three emerging challenges. I conclude by suggesting ways in which
researchers can strive to overcome these difficulties. I illustrate with findings from my recent
research on juvenile offenders and transnational youths and also discuss them in relation to
previous literature.
The Trouble with Generationalisation
Media devices have evolved over time, encroaching into the domestic realm and
becoming household essentials. With each wave of gadgets and innovations, new terms have
emerged to capture a particular generation’s socio-technical relationship with their media
devices, from the “television generation” and “NetGen” (Herring, 2008; Tapscott, 1999), to
“digital natives” (Prensky, 2001a, 2001b) and “Generation Google” (Oblinger, 2008;
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. (2016). Young people and communication technologies: Emerging
challenges in generational analysis. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.) Communication Across the Lifespan. Pp. 5-19 .New
York: Peter Lang.
Rowlands et al, 2008). Beyond the English-speaking world, similar generational labels
abound. In China, young people are often referred to as "ditouzu", literally "the tribe that
always keeps their heads lowered" to peer at their mobile devices. While in Vietnam, “s ng
o”, literally “live virtually”, 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 catchy terms that can encapsulate how young
people are connecting with, and through, media devices and services.
However, such labels are ultimately generationalisations (Driscoll & Gregg, 2008;
McRobbie, 2004), that is, gross generalisations about how particular generations’ media
practices are distinctive and consistently displayed by 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” (2001a; 2001b):
[Digital natives] have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers,
videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys
and tools of the digital age…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.
(Prensky, 2001a, p. 1)
While such generationalisations tend to gain traction in the media and public
consciousness, as well as ignite moral panics, they are ultimately reductionist, lacking in
nuance, and assume homogeneity in entire generations of media consumers (Bennett &
Maton, 2010; Bennett, Maton & Kervin, 2008; Hargittai, 2010; Helsper & Eynon, 2010;
Vittadini, Siibak, Reifová & Bilandzic, 2013). Previous research has shown that uniformity in
young people’s media usage and skills is all but a given. For example, Hargittai (2010)
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. (2016). Young people and communication technologies: Emerging
challenges in generational analysis. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.) Communication Across the Lifespan. Pp. 5-19 .New
York: Peter Lang.
assessed the internet competencies of US college students from the “net generation” and
found considerable variation in their skills and uses, with individuals from more affluent
families exhibiting a greater range of uses and more intensive incorporation of the internet
into their everyday activities. Correspondingly, those from poorer socio-economic
backgrounds demonstrated lower levels of online competencies and engaged in significantly
less information-seeking activity on the internet. Similarly, Jones, Ramanau, Cross and
Healing’s (2010) study of “digital native” university students in the UK presented a
variegated picture of usage and skills in general computer technologies and online learning
tools. Not only were there significant variations in their use of technologies for socialising
and recreation, students reported relatively low levels of confidence in their use of virtual
learning environments in their studies too. In the same vein, Cheong (2008) probed the
internet practices of young adults in Singapore and, contrary to their tech-savvy image, she
found among them secondary level digital divides in internet usage and skills, as well as
problem-solving competencies.
Besides perpetuating gross oversimplifications of entire generations’ media usage
patterns and skills, Selwyn (2009) asserts that such generationalisations are particularly
dangerous because they have commonsensical appeal and therefore go uncritiqued. Accepted
as irrevocable truths, these generational labels then become unduly powerful. He further
notes that the discourse accompanying the “digital native” trope is either overly celebratory
in exulting at the technological competencies of young people or excessively pessimistic in
underlining the multi-faceted risks young people are susceptible to as they use digital media.
With respect to the latter, Buckingham (2006) observes that generational labels are
technologically deterministic and (erroneously) signal that technology is responsible for
emergent fears and concerns surrounding young people.
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. (2016). Young people and communication technologies: Emerging
challenges in generational analysis. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.) Communication Across the Lifespan. Pp. 5-19 .New
York: Peter Lang.
Should this unbridled spread of the “digital native” rhetoric thus serve as a cautionary
warning against taking a generational approach in media studies? Must we steer clear of
identifying media usage trends and attitudes toward technology among particular age groups
for fear of propagating generational essentialisms? Or is there still inherent value to be
derived from analysing media users through a generational lens?
The Value of Generational Analysis
A generation has been defined as “a cohort of persons passing through time who come
to share a common habitus, hexis and culture, a function of which is to provide them with a
collective memory that serves to integrate the cohort over a finite period of time” (Eyerman
& Turner, 1998, p. 93). Transposing the changing media landscape over definitions of this
nature, the “media generations” approach posits that different generations can be
distinguished by the media that they avidly use in their youth, are united by this shared
experience, and will consequently sustain a special connection with that medium for the rest
of their lives (Aroldi, 2011; Gumpert & Cathcart, 1985). In other words, media generations
have cultural, temporal, and technological dimensions that collectively shape subsequent
engagement with media content and contexts. Cohort analysis of media consumers also takes
a generational approach, although some may disagree that a cohort necessarily equates to a
generation (for a more extensive discussion, see Bolin, 2014). In this chapter, I use the term
generational approach more broadly to refer to studies that focus on both generations and
cohorts. Let us first consider how a generational framework can aid in our understanding of
media consumers.
To begin with, attaching labels that demarcate different generations by salient
characteristics of their media use can have symbolic value, with accompanying practical
repercussions. While the term “thumb tribe” serves as a metonymy for young people’s
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. (2016). Young people and communication technologies: Emerging
challenges in generational analysis. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.) Communication Across the Lifespan. Pp. 5-19 .New
York: Peter Lang.
intensive use of mobile devices, it also sensitises society to the principal means by which
these young consumers are communicating, learning, and socialising and can motivate
parenting, pedagogical, and policy responses that are suitably attuned. As Selwyn (2009)
posits, “the notion of the “digital native” could be welcomed as providing a ready rhetorical
space for the expression of adult concerns over current developments in digital technology”
(p. 376).
Beyond mere symbolic value, prior research has also amply demonstrated that the
generational approach has been used to productively map different generations in terms of
their initial introduction to media, media use patterns, exposure to media content, attitudes
towards media and technology, and media literacy skills. Danowski and Ruchinskas (1983)
analysed different generations’ first introduction to television and its impact on their news
consumption. In this early study on televised presidential campaigns in the US from 1950s to
the 1970s, they found that variance in television exposure could be attributed to cohort
effects. The cohort that in midlife was exposed to television when it was first introduced went
on to use television at a higher rate in later life compared to other cohorts. They observed that
it was cohort, and not age or life stage, that determined television use and, correspondingly,
exposure to televised political campaigns. They further argued that early to middle adulthood
socialisation to communication had a stronger effect than pre-adult socialisation on media
consumption in later life.
Similarly, Dou, Wang and Zhou (2006) adopted a cohort approach, in combination
with uses and gratifications theory to identify the media preferences of China’s Generation X
consumers. This generation’s formative years coincided with China’s reform and
modernisation of the late 1970s and are the key target group for advertisers. Using syndicated
data from a large random sample of urban Chinese consumers, they found that compared to
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. (2016). Young people and communication technologies: Emerging
challenges in generational analysis. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.) Communication Across the Lifespan. Pp. 5-19 .New
York: Peter Lang.
preceding generational cohorts, Generation X consumers have a strong preference for
entertainment-based media programs, such as television drama series and radio pop music,
and eschew information-based news or business reports. This preference was especially sharp
for urban Generation X consumers and less pronounced for their rural counterparts.
In the area of technology domestication, Haddon and Silverstone undertook cohort
analyses of different generations, studying how their life experiences, values, and worldviews
shape their communicative practices and expectations of technology (Haddon, 2006; Haddon
& Silverstone, 1996). Their study of older adults in the early 1990s showed that that
particular cohort had enjoyed relative affluence from the 1950s, but their fundamentally non-
consumerist values disinclined them from acquiring new technological devices unless there
were compelling reasons to do so (Haddon, 2000). Their adoption of newer technologies was
thus fairly conservative, and they would only purchase items that were an extension of those
they were already accustomed to, such as video recorders and cordless telephones. Since they
had retired from active employment before the age of office automation, they were also
averse to acquiring information technology (IT) skills in later life.
Over time, with the rising diffusion of the internet, generational trends in internet
usage have also been tracked. Apart from the studies mentioned earlier that focused on
“digital natives”, research has also delved into the internet use of the wider population.
Notably, Helsper (2010) explored the relationship between generation, gender, and life stage
(measured as employment and marital status) in British internet users. She found small but
significant gender differences for most uses of the internet that vary for different life stages,
with gender inequalities in internet use being smaller among younger people. The study also
concluded that generation was less important than life stage in predicting gender differences
in internet use.
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. (2016). Young people and communication technologies: Emerging
challenges in generational analysis. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.) Communication Across the Lifespan. Pp. 5-19 .New
York: Peter Lang.
The growing ubiquity of the mobile phone has also impelled generational analysis of
its adoption. Bolin and Westlund (2008) studied three generations of mobile technology users
in Sweden and found generational distinctions in their uses of SMS, MMS and voice calls
and observed that the differences between the generations seemed to persist over their five
year period of study. Their survey results show that both the youngest and middle generation
make more voice calls than the oldest generation, whereas for texting, the youngest
generation are the most avid users with the middle and oldest generation trailing considerably
behind. Overall, the youngest generation displayed the greatest breadth and intensity of use of
mobile phone functions, diametrically opposed therefore to the oldest generation.
As the preceding discussion demonstrates, the generational approach to understanding
the predilections, gratifications, and impediments encountered by media consumers can
usefully inform public education, policy planning, media production, marketing, interface
design, and parental mediation. With specific regard to parental mediation, a generational
approach can help to chart the extent and nature of divergence between parents and children
in their media use so that prescriptions can be made for bridging the generation gap.
Three Emerging Challenges in Generational Analysis
However, even as the generational approach to media studies offers analytical profit,
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 these challenges and discuss them in relation to relevant
prior literature.
Calibrating a Media Generation
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
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. (2016). Young people and communication technologies: Emerging
challenges in generational analysis. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.) Communication Across the Lifespan. Pp. 5-19 .New
York: Peter Lang.
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 (Pham & Lim, 2016). 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 (Purnell, 2014). As media consumers hurtle from innovation to innovation in
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. (2016). Young people and communication technologies: Emerging
challenges in generational analysis. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.) Communication Across the Lifespan. Pp. 5-19 .New
York: Peter Lang.
such compact time windows, with seemingly rapid shifts in their communicative practices,
researchers need to be sensitive to how finely we should demarcate and splice “media
generations”. We also need to be conscious of how responsive we are to rapid technological
shifts and find ways to reconcile in our research the more compressed technological timescale
with the more long-drawn social timescale.
Characterising a Media Generation
Related to the first challenge is the growing complexity of the media landscape, or
what Couldry (2011) refers to as the “media manifold”. To fully convey just how rich a
young person’s media milieu can be today, I present here some visual artefacts. Every
semester, I ask students in my undergraduate class to draw a media map that depicts their
personal media usage. 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 Figure 1 you can see the presence of WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype, Oovoo,
Twitter, and in-game chats, an online learning platform, as well as email and mobile phone
calls.
Figure
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. (2016). Young people and communication technologies: Emerging
challenges in generational analysis. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.) Communication Across the Lifespan. Pp. 5-19 .New
York: Peter Lang.
And Figure 2, from another student in the same class, depicts multiple devices – mobile
phone, television, laptop, and a range of apps including Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat, and
Dropbox.
Figure
Clearly, whereas labelling a cohort of media audiences the “television generation” was a
relatively straightforward affair, characterising a particular generation today by any specific
medium, or even a suite of devices or applications, is an unwieldy, complicated, and perhaps
impossible task.
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. (2016). Young people and communication technologies: Emerging
challenges in generational analysis. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.) Communication Across the Lifespan. Pp. 5-19 .New
York: Peter Lang.
Compare these maps, however, to those of the at-risk youths whom I recently
interviewed, most of whom 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 (ICT; Lim, Chan, Vadrevu & Basnyat, 2013). Indeed, most of
them own the very latest smartphones in the market. Nevertheless, they were digitally
excluded in their own way (see also Selwyn & Facer, 2009). Because these young people in
my study were mostly school dropouts or undergoing vocational training, their uses of
technology primarily centred around socialising and entertainment (see Figures 3 and 4).
Figure
Figure 4
They typically use the same limited range of 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 or experimentation. Their online engagement is largely confined to the universe
of social media apps they had downloaded. Such evidence further dispels the myth of the
digital native and shows that many young people’s uses of digital technologies are actually
far less extensive in scope, and far more passive, pedestrian, and mundane than is widely
believed (Livingstone, 2009; Selwyn, 2009).
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. (2016). Young people and communication technologies: Emerging
challenges in generational analysis. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.) Communication Across the Lifespan. Pp. 5-19 .New
York: Peter Lang.
Taken together, these four media maps also conceal a lot more than they reveal. At
first glance, this generation of young people seem to all use the same range of apps and
devices and may well be expediently labelled the cloud generation, app generation, or even
the mobile generation. But on closer scrutiny, 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. How do we make sense of this vibrant mosaic of users
and uses? Given the potential diversity of usage, meaningfully characterising this media
generation with a few key devices, platforms, or services becomes more difficult, and we
court the risk of oversimplification. Be that as it may, as researchers, we need to strive to be
pithy, even as we seek to avoid reductionism, and achieving these twin goals will not be an
easy endeavour.
Identifying Sustainable Intergenerational Bridges
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 (Clark, 2009, 2013; Lim, 2006; Lim & Soon, 2010). Nevertheless, even though
there are often asymmetries in parents’ and children’s expectations, competencies and values
surrounding communication technologies (Lim, 2016), they can be harnessed as
intergenerational bridges for fostering 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 (Lugano, & Peltonen, 2012)?
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. (2016). Young people and communication technologies: Emerging
challenges in generational analysis. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.) Communication Across the Lifespan. Pp. 5-19 .New
York: Peter Lang.
To address this question, I reflected on my past decade of studying communication in
family settings and considered how communication technologies have evolved, even as
families’ needs for interaction and relationship building are a constant. A study I conducted in
2003 in Singapore, when broadband internet was pervasive and mobile phone penetration
was close to saturation, focused on older adult parents and their communication with their
children (Lim & Tan, 2004). Within the home, therefore, the main personally-used and
personally-owned devices were basic feature phones and laptop computers, while shared
media devices included the landline telephone, television, and desktop computer. Some of the
parents in our study were not especially adept at IT but, nonetheless, were making efforts to
learn how to use the computer and the internet so as to better connect with their children.
When we asked one mother if she had considered asking her adolescent children to teach her,
she expressed alarm:
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 understand. (Lim & Tan, 2004, p. 62 )
It did not appear as if her endeavours would translate into concrete, long-term benefits,
because her use of the shared home computer was simply too infrequent for her to hone her
skills. Notably too, since individually owned and individually-used multimedia devices such
as smartphones and tablets were not yet in existence, feature phones were still the most
pervasive devices and functions such as texting were beyond the capabilities of many of our
older adult respondents:
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. (2016). Young people and communication technologies: Emerging
challenges in generational analysis. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.) Communication Across the Lifespan. Pp. 5-19 .New
York: Peter Lang.
My children use their mobile phones to play games and what is that – the press
and press thing to communicate with friends? [Tries to imitate the action of
pressing mobile phone keys to compose SMS messages] (Lim & Tan, 2004, p.
61 )
In contrast, in a more recent study on communication between emerging adults and their
aging 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 (Lim & Lim, 2015). These parents, whose children were entering adulthood and not
usually homebound, leverage such messaging platforms to maintain intermittent contact with
their children throughout the day to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction. They
continue to parent their children by sending reminders, offering advice, or sharing inspiring
stories they come across:
We started a family WhatsApp group, it’s only the four of us and we call it “The
Lee Family” and we posted our whole family’s photo there. Besides all the
common talk and instructions for the children, sometimes if we want to share
useful info with them…Like recently, I came across a touching video of how the
young children treat the old folks, meaningful videos, I’ll post it. Practically
trying to educate them, or remind them. (Lim & Lim, 2015)
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 older
adults did not have much prior experience in computers or the internet, but had engaged in a
form of technological “leapfrogging” (James, 2012) by heading straight for smartphones and
tablets. Their communication with their children via these mobile devices offers a sustainable
intergenerational bridge that is likely to reap them dividends for some time to come.
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. (2016). Young people and communication technologies: Emerging
challenges in generational analysis. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.) Communication Across the Lifespan. Pp. 5-19 .New
York: Peter Lang.
Therefore, with the emergence of more intuitive and customisable communication devices
and services with multi-media capabilities, even individuals with minimal prior exposure to
technology and limited literacy can benefit from new communicative modes.
Similarly, other studies have also found that media and technology can be a hospitable
space for forging intergenerational bridges. Lugano and Peltonen (2012) surveyed a diverse
group of Finnish participants, aged between nine and 65, in a Communication Camp aimed at
building an inclusive information society. Their findings revealed that even as younger
participants have a more informal interaction style and favour text messaging and instant
messaging over phone calls, while older participants are more formal in their communication
and prefer email and voice calls, the two generations were able to connect through text
messaging, phone calls, and social media such as Facebook. Likewise, Moffatt, David and
Baecker (2012) conducted a systematic review of literature on the nature and stages of
grandparent-grandchildren relationships as they typically evolve over time and assessed how
different technologies such as the telephone, email, and video chat can help in the
maintenance and fortification of these family ties. They stress that platforms that seek to
connect different generations must cater to the diverse needs within the family, with younger
members preferring lighter communication and older adults leaning towards richer contact
(see also Lindley, Harper, & Sellen, 2009). Hence, communication platforms that aim to
promote intergenerational communication must offer both asynchronous and synchronous
features so as to grant individual users flexibility to adapt different functions to their needs
and proclivities. Beyond evaluating the potential of existing technologies, Moffatt and
colleagues (2012) also proposed prototypes of games and applications that enable
grandparents and grandchildren to play an online adventure game that requires collaboration
in problem-solving, to develop their own digital storybook with personalised photographs and
audio commentaries, or to help grandchildren to read to grandparents remotely.
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. (2016). Young people and communication technologies: Emerging
challenges in generational analysis. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.) Communication Across the Lifespan. Pp. 5-19 .New
York: Peter Lang.
With such innovations, we can more strategically exploit our increasingly fertile
media landscape to discover and cultivate intergenerational bridges that can meaningfully and
sustainably connect different generations within each family.
Proceed with Caution
Young people are at the vanguard of media and technology adoption. But by dint of
their youth, they require guidance, mediation, and support as they avail of new information
and communication opportunities and navigate significant shifts in the media environment.
As the past few decades have shown, each generation of young people is confronted by
remarkable transformations in the media landscape, and recognising these changes is a
crucial first step towards offering young people the scaffolding they require. As previously
shown, generational analysis of media consumers can help to uncover broad trends within a
cohort, while revealing notable deviations from the norm. Such generational insights can
empower pedagogical development, public education, policy formulation, media production,
and parental mediation. Furthermore, as young people advance into adulthood and enter the
workforce, generational perspectives can also help employers appreciate how best to engage
them (Bolton et al., 2013).
However, generational analysis must be undertaken with care so that the complexities
of our transient mediascape are meticulously captured in light of the relentless pace of
change. The challenges outlined above - of accurately calibrating and meaningfully
characterising a media generation, as well as being sharp to the possibility of new
intergenerational communication bridges - have to be overcome for generational analysis to
be illuminating and efficacious. To respond to these three challenges, we must first 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
This is the pre-print version of Lim, S. S. (2016). Young people and communication technologies: Emerging
challenges in generational analysis. In J. Nussbaum (Ed.) Communication Across the Lifespan. Pp. 5-19 .New
York: Peter Lang.
alert to disruptive innovations that can entrench themselves very quickly, with discernible
impact on how people communicate. However, it is also crucial for us to steer clear of blunt
generationalisations and 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 do not accord with the norm. We must also stem the
propagation of expedient generationalisations that present a skewed picture of young people’s
media use, while pursuing empirically-grounded inquiry. Finally, of course, given the rapid
renewal in our media landscape, we need to constantly and assiduously revisit our definitions
of prevailing media generations in terms of their temporal demarcations, dominant media
practices, and significant technological transitions. I invite current and future generations of
academics to address these tasks and challenges that are set to energise and invigorate our
research agenda!
References
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Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of
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