Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/5/2006 3:30:38 PM ET 2006-09-05T19:30:38

When they were babies, compact discs were phasing out audio cassettes. When they hit pre-school, the Internet came into widespread use. In elementary school, they learned how to surf that ‘Net while vying for the high scores in video games and watching Disney on DVD. In middle school, pagers and PC’s were part of daily life. In high school, cell phones with organizers, instant messaging and cameras were in every classroom.

In college, they can order books online, bring laptops to class and IM friends while on study breaks in the library.

This generation of students is as comfortable with computer screens as the pages of their textbooks — if not more so. As they go back to school, they’ll continue the seamless integration of technology into their lives.

They’re known as Millennials — young adults whose gadgets are like appendages to them. They can’t imagine life without their cell phones, iPods, computers and being online. As the Pew Internet & American Life Project astutely observed, they are “digital natives in a land of digital immigrants.”

One such native, Samantha Wachtel, 17, a senior at Tamalpais High School in Marin County, Calif. does two things when she gets up every morning: checks her pink Razr for missed calls while she slept and she turns on her Dell computer. Before she leaves the house for school, she checks e-mail, MySpace, listens to iTunes, instant messages her friends and sometimes just surfs the Web via Google.

At school, she is enrolled in the two-year film-based Academy of Integrated Humanities an New Media (AIM) program for juniors and seniors. It integrates three subjects — English, social studies and computer applications. Each year, AIM has a certain theme that students follow in each of the three classes. Each student in the program draws from these classes to make documentaries.

Video: Back-to-school gadgets “This generation is really about expressing themselves — ‘me media’ — where they get to connect and do it themselves,” said Caitlin McBride of Fresh Films, a sponsored organization that allows high school students in certain cities to compete to make films in a week.

The road to Wachtel’s tech savviness began almost from the moment she came into the world.

She can’t really remember audio cassettes, going right into CD’s as a child. VHS tapes and players quickly became replaced by DVD’s. She grew up using computers, recalling how even as a child she used Microsoft Word to type up brief assignments. On family vacations to Lake Tahoe, her family would use CD players for those eight-hour round-trip car rides.

“We still do these trips but the only difference is that instead of CD players, we all have iPods. We are a family of 6 and 4 of us have iPods,” she said.

Anastasia Goodstein runs the YPulse blog and is due to release her first book, “Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens Are Really Doing Online” next spring, which is about demystifying the relationship between teens and technology. She said Wachtel’s experience, like other teens', has been defined by communal links forged online.

“Napster and peer to peer networks was a really defining moment for this generation and explains their sense of entitlement around intellectual property. They grew up file sharing,” Goodstein said.

Growing up online
A speech by Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, published in March, “Life Online: Teens and technology and the world to come” described how “Millennials have a special relationship to technology. They are not all tech-savvy…in the sense that they all know what’s going on ‘under the hood’ of their gadgets... but they have a unique attachment to the communications power of these new technology tools.”

It’s an attachment Goodstein said stems from some pivotal points in their upbringing.

“IM was a huge development in that it revolutionized the way younger teens communicate with each other — especially younger ones, they’re not going out quite as much. They’re spending a lot of time on IM and text messaging finally taking off in the states. All these are new ways for teens to stay hyper connected to each other,” Goodstein said.

It’s such a part of this generation’s daily life to maintain connectivity, said Beverly Wilkes, an executive with Oz, a Montreal-based company whose gear allows IM programs to function on cell phones.

“This is a technology instant generation, instant with staying connected with group of friends,” she said. “If you’re running to school you’re still able to chat with your friend… In study period, you can’t jump on the phone, but you’re able to quietly tap over a message and keep the conversation going.”

While Malcolm Gladwell points to a select group of people who are natural “Connectors” who link to a wide variety of people in “The Tipping Point,” this generation of students has practically been reared to do that without thinking. They’ve tapped into the communal kind of flow of information and have figured out quickly how to use the technology they’ve got on hand to further it.

“They’re individuating from their parents and finding new family with peers and they want to talk to them constantly — whether that means commenting on MySpace, texting, IM’ing, etc,” Goodstein said. “These are all these different ways to keep conversation going digitally, 24-7. Any devices, any technology that helps them do that is less about gear and gadgets and more about utility.”

Ten, 20 years ago, going back to school meant shelling out for a new wardrobe and a Trapper Keeper, she said. Now, it’s laptops, desktops and cell phones.

Friendster, MySpace and YouTube
In a timeline of development for these teens, besides the aforementioned technology, the major highlights would include: Internet based e-mail, laptops, portable gaming, blogging/vlogging/podcasting, Friendster, MySpace and YouTube.

Wachtel explains  how important it is to maintain that connectivity through MySpace.

“I was against havng a MySpace for a very, very long time. I claimed my house a ‘MySpace free zone’ for a while because I hated it when people came over and went on their MySpaces to send comments and what not. Then one of my best friends made me one without my consent and that is probably the only reason I have one today,” she said. “I wouldn’t consider myself one of the many ‘MySpace addicts’ who go on five times a day and compete for the amount of friends and constantly put up new pictures of themselves hoping people will think it’s cool and comment on it. I simply go on to keep in touch with people I hardly ever see or talk to.”

In Wachtel’s world, pocket electronic dictionaries and Donkey Kong racing with her older brother was the norm.  Now, she finds herself on the computer every night either typing up a report or doing research for a class. And in applying for colleges, she downloads applications and finds out about the schools online.

When Stefani Beser, 19, of Pikesville, Maryland, applied to colleges two years ago she did it all online, eventually ending up at the nearby Villa Julie College, where she is about to begin her sophomore year.

“I personally though it was easier,” she said. “With paperwork things get lost and ripped and you also have to deal with postage.”

Like Wachtel, she grew up with video games (a very early edition Gameboy), CD’s (her first one being No Doubt’s “Tragic Kingdom”) and always, a portable CD player. While she didn’t get her first cell phone until she was 15, her younger sister got one when she was 11 — a fact of how advanced and how necessary that particular piece of mobility has become.

It wasn’t until about third grade that Beser was introduced to the Internet by the school librarian.

“I remember at first wondering, how does this work, and it got to be where I can’t live without it,” Beser said. Like many people her age, she uses her computer for e-mail, IM’s, music, video watching, some blogging, Facebook and MySpace.”

For her, IM’ing is a means to an end. And parents, you might want to pay attention to what she’s saying as your students go back to school this fall.

“I also think cell phone bills can get expensive, so it’s easier to send a quick message,” she said. “With college friends split up all over the country, it’s saving you a lot of money and it’s still a conversation.”

From the cradle to college, this is a generation that’s not only emerged as one of the most tech efficient and adaptable, and more than ever, linked to peers learning and adapting the same way.

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