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Youth vs. adults in gadget wars

Increasingly young people are feeling uncomfortable about their elders encroaching on what many young adults and teens consider their technological turf.
Image: Sandy Miller, Scott Seigal
Holding up their cell phones, Sandy Miller, 72, of Randolph, Mass., poses with her grandson Scott Seigal, 18. Seigal, a freshman at Binghamton University in New York, says he likes IMing with his grandma because he's "not a huge talker on the phone."Lisa Poole / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Scott Seigal was awakened one recent early morning by a cell phone text message. It was from his girlfriend's mother.

His friends' parents have posted greetings on his MySpace page for all the world to see. And his 72-year-old grandmother sends him online instant messages every day so they can better stay in touch while he's at college.

"It's nice that adults know SOME things," says Seigal, an 18-year-old freshman at Binghamton University in New York. He especially likes IMing with his grandma because he's "not a huge talker on the phone."

Increasingly, however, he and other young people are feeling uncomfortable about their elders encroaching on what many young adults and teens consider their technological turf.

Long gone are the days when the average, middle-aged adult did well to simply work a computer. Now those same adults have Gmail, upload videos on YouTube, and sport the latest high-tech gadgets.

Young people have responded, as they always have, by searching out the latest way to stay ahead in the race for technological know-how and cool. They use Twitter, which allows blogging from one's mobile phone or BlackBerry, or, a site where they can download videos and TV programs.

They customize their cell phones with various faceplates and ringtones. And, sometimes, they find ways to exclude adults — using high-frequency ringtones that teens can hear but most adults can't, for instance.

Nowhere are the technological turf wars more apparent than on social networking sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, which went from being student-oriented to allowing adults outside the college ranks to join.

Gary Rudman, a California-based youth market researcher, has heard the complaints. He regularly interviews young people who think it's "creepy" when an older person — we're talking someone they know — asks to join their social network as a "friend." It means, among other things, that they can view each others' profiles and what they and their friends post.

"It would be like a 40-year-old attending the prom or a frat party," Rudman says. "It just doesn't work."

It's a particular quandary for image-conscious teens, says Eric Kuhn, a junior at Hamilton College in upstate New York, who's blogged about the etiquette of social networking.

He accepted his mom's invitation to be Facebook friends and has, in turn, become online friends with other adults she knows. But so far, he says, his 16-year-old sister has declined to add their mom "because she thinks it is not cool."

Lakeshia Poole, a 24-year-old from Atlanta, says "my Facebook self has become a watered down version of me." Worried about older adults snooping around, she's now more careful about what she posts and has also made her profile private, so only her online friends can see it.

"It's somewhat a Catch-22, because now I'm hidden from the people I would really like to connect with," she says.

Lauren Auster-Gussman, a freshman at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, says it's particularly awkward when one of her parents' friends asks to join her social network. She thinks Facebook should only be used by people younger than, say, 40.

"I mean, I'm in college," she says. "There are bound to be at least a few drunken pictures of me on Facebook, and I don't need my parents' friends seeing them."

There are ways around the problem.

It's possible on some sites, for instance, to limit what someone can see on your profile, though some users think it's a pain to have to deal with that.

"That is the beauty of Facebook and other online social networks. If you want to only interact with your peers, then you can adjust the settings to only allow that," says Katie Jones, a senior at Ohio Wesleyan University, who's studied ways prospective students use Facebook to contact students at colleges and universities they're interested in attending.

It's also possible to simply decline or ignore an adult's request to be an online friend. Or adults could back off and only use social networking to contact their own peers.

But it's not always so easy to relinquish that control, especially for parents of teens, says Kathryn Montgomery, the author of "Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce and Childhood in the Age of the Internet" and mother of a 14-year-old.

"As parents, we have to figure out where to draw the line between encouraging and allowing our teens to have autonomy, to experience their separate culture, and when we need to monitor their use of media," says Montgomery, a professor of communication at American University.

She says it's especially important to help young people understand that social networking is often more public than they think. Sometimes monitoring them is the best way to do that.

Sue Frownfelter, a 46-year-old mom in Flint, Mich., thinks it's less of an issue for parents who discover technology with — or even before — their children. Among other things, she has a blog, uses Twitter and has a Chumby, a personal Internet device that displays anything from news and weather to photos and eBay auctions.

Her children, ages 9 and 11, begged her to allow them to have a MySpace page, because she does. Instead, she suggested, a social networking site for kids that allows parental monitoring.

"I can't imagine my life without technology! It has truly become an extension of who I am and who my family will likely be," says Frownfelter, who works at a community college.

Still, in today's world, parents are finding that the urge to stake out technological turf is starting at a very young age.

Jennifer Abelson, a mom in New York, says her 2-year-old daughter asks every day if she can play on the "'puter" on such kid-oriented sites as and

"She's constantly telling us 'I will do it!' and 'Go away!' if we try to interfere with her 'working,'" Abelson says.

"It's pretty amazing to see technology ingrained at such a young age. But I know she's learned so much from being able to use technology on her own."