Some years ago, John Batelle (author of The Search: How Google and its Rivals rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture , 2005) defined Internet as the “database of dreams”. Another author, Marc Prensky ( Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning, 2010) compared it to a territory shared by two types of “inhabitants”: natives and digital immigrants.
Today, we know that Internet is a public space which does not belong to just a certain type of person but to all and that it pervades through all moments of life, through individuals and institutions too. This public space is structured around certain types of “platforms”: “social media” (social networking sites, videogames, blogs, etc.) which can be defined as “non – places”, i.e. spaces without a definite identity (airports, railway stations, etc). Their efficacy, potential and risks do not only depend on their structure but mainly on who and how users participate in them. Just as there is a high level of safety and security in a soccer stadium where spectators are mainly families, social networking sites with high IT skilled users, with positive lifestyles will have a low level of risk independently of how old net users are.
Problems like bullying, paedophilia, pornography, etc. are not caused by social media (which are only technological tools) but by their users. These are not situations which can be solved by age verification systems , social awareness campaigns and other strategies focused on the “process” and not on the “inputs” of the relational system, which it is at the basement of the “Internet” universe. “Virtual life” is different to “real life” but both are part of unique identity (personal or corporate). In a Research we conducted in Guatemala in 2012 among university students, we confirmed that “real” and “digital” dimensions of an individual identity have the same key factors which influence individual behaviours regardless of the kind of space they are acting in. “Real” identity impacts significantly the “digital” one. And the virtual choices are closely associated with real life.
Such findings have been verified by the study 4GY – Adolescents and Social Media: the 4 Millennials Generations which was presented in Madrid and Turin in January 2013. The report was focused on the lifestyles of adolescents in Spain and in Italy as a part of the final publication of a European project called Safe Social Media, an international programme financed by the European Commission through the Daphne III programme, which seeks to reduce exposition, consumption and the impact of the main types of violence channelled by social media.
The study was carried out through an online, anonymous survey and was conducted on a sample of 6.782 students in 57 schools in 2012. The results confirm the abovementioned points. In response to questions on violence, bullying, sexting and pornography the results showed: 55% of adolescents thought that violence would be justified by a personal goal, 25% declared they would accept working in companies where violent material was distributed, 27% were interested in using weapons, 27% would insult friends or school companions if provoked by them, 17% had consumed pornographic materials, 19% had threatened friends or acquaintances, 12% would sign a petition for the legalisation of firearms, 8% thought that violence is necessary, useful and pleasant, only 30% would support legislation to limit violent content in the media and 56% should sign a petition against violence.
But this is not all: 72% stated that they had a profile on a social networking site and 42% connected to their own profile for three hours a day. Only 14% had a blog or uploaded videos on YouTube and 4% had participated in a social campaign through Internet. In short: online activity is prevalently passive consumption.
On questions regarding family relationships and parental control, 60% of adolescents declared that they had never or hardly ever spoken about what they did or experienced on the Internet, whereas 42% of parents do not control at all what their kids watch on TV, videogames or Internet, 48% do not receive any advice on how to use social media and 73% had never played a videogame with their parents before.
Finally, regarding their group of friends, 27% claim they lack the necessary freedom to express their opinions, only 8% consider their friends as a privileged source of information to discuss religion and politics and 28% sought help from their friends in order to deal with important issues for which they lacked parental assistance. Adolescent friendships do not generate social capital: only 30% engaged in sport or went on excursions with their friends, and 5% took part in voluntary work. Only 30% of those interviewed have a group of friends with whom they undertook specific projects.
Once the results were analysed and classified, we have been able to identify four types of generations.
The two most important are described below:
Generation GPS: it represents the 39% of the sample. They have a clear orientation towards virtual relationships, and practice active interactions online. They have high self-esteem and strong values. The consumption of violent media and the risk of bullying is low.
Generation GTA: Here we find 32% of the sample. They are high consumers of violent contents through the media. They are usually part of a large group of friends but have an opportunist concept of friendship. They spend little time studying and there is a high tendency to bullying.
Overall, what are the main factors related to a positive online lifestyle? A high level of values, parental control, high self-esteem, positive interpersonal relationships and dialogue within the family.
In conclusion: violence and negative “offline” lifestyles, lack of intergenerational dialogue and cohesion are what hinder a genuine development of social networking sites and social media in general.
Only fairly intelligent people, free to express their thoughts (despite being different from mainstream culture), who undertake projects for the common good, with other individuals or organisations, will be able to transform the “new digital spaces” into sustainable and positive communities.
*Reynaldo Rivera is CEO of Intermedia Consulting