59% of Young People Say the Internet Is Shaping Who They Are

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An opinion survey commissioned by The Atlantic finds telling differences among America's generations.

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One thing that we often overlook as we try to understand how the Internet is remaking our world is just how recently it appeared in our lives. We have adopted new technologies with such remarkable speed and enthusiasm that they seem like they have been here much longer than they actually have.

A few points of reference:

  • When the country elected Barack Obama just four years ago, Twitter was a fledgling startup. During the campaign, Obama overtook Kevin Rose as the most followed person on Twitter, passing him at 56,482 followers.
  • Five years ago, according to Pew, less than half of Americans used email daily; less than a third used a search engine.
  • YouTube was founded in 2005 and Facebook in 2004 -- and it would be a while after that until they became such integral parts of our day-to-day Internet experience.
  • Today nearly half of Americans own a smartphone. The iPhone is five years old.

Our world has been remade in short order. We have no idea what this new technology will mean for our society. What are the effects of so many people being able to pursue their own obscure passions? What does it mean that 13,000 people can tune in live to watch the internal workings of a university's governing body? What will a generation of young people coming of age in the electric hive of Reddit do with themselves? There will be businesses, projects, organizations, ideas, and political movements that will come of this time that we cannot begin to anticipate. We are only at the very beginning.

In the new survey, commissioned by The Atlantic and The Aspen Institute and conducted by Penn Schoen Berland and Associates, we can see some hints of what this early generation of Internet users looks like, vis-a-vis that very technology that they've grown up on, and also with regard to questions of values that cut to the core of what America will look like in the years ahead.

Most younger people say that the Internet is shaping who they are. On a question that asked people to rank different sources of influence on their sense of right and wrong, 59 percent of people ages 18 to 29 said that social media or the Internet had a "great deal" or a "fair amount" of influence. Fascinatingly, 38 percent of Americans older than 65 said the same. Both statistics fill out the picture of a society just beginning to display the Internet's role in culture, with a generation it has substantially shaped rising into prominence. (Other interesting results from this question: older Americans see religious leaders as much greater influencers, and younger Americans are more likely to point to political satirists such as Jon Stewart, television, and movies. Both groups rank family and education at the top.)

Of course, younger people are more shaped by the Internet because they use it more, and both a cause and an effect of this greater use is greater trust: Younger Americans express a greater expectation that the personal information they use on sites such as Facebook and Twitter will remain private. Slightly more than half of 18-to-29-year-olds said they held this expectation, whereas only 38 percent of Americans over 65 said the same. (Side note: What is wrong with these younger Americans? They must not read The Atlantic's technology coverage.)

If you dig into the numbers a bit further the picture gets a little more complicated. Both groups say in equal number (47 percent) that they do not expect privacy. The difference comes from a large group of older Americans (14 percent) who say they don't know. So the two groups are equally distrusting, and older Americans just have less well-formed opinions, which makes sense given that they use these sites much less.

A similar pattern appears in response to a question about whether respondents approve or disapprove of tracking from websites: A far greater proportion of younger Americans approve of this behavior (40 percent) than older Americans (18 percent), but the percent who disapprove is similar (58 versus 62, respectively). Again the gap comes from a sizable chunk of the 65+ group who say they don't know (20 percent). 

Together the two questions seem to indicate that there is a baseline level of distrust online, and that it's possible that the greater trust younger people display is the result (and maybe cause) of greater familiarity with these services. Perhaps it is naive, but if you have been sharing your information freely with Facebook for a few years and nothing so bad has come of it, maybe Facebook has earned your trust -- regardless of what they are doing with your information to sell you personally targeted ads. Trust is not a static quantity. By using Facebook regularly, younger users may develop more trust for the site, which then leads them to use it more, resulting in a feedback loop that could partly explain the gap between the two groups -- and additionally explains why so few younger Americans say they don't know, while so many older Americans feel that way.

The big question is whether these differences are a generational change or simply the result of pairing youth with these new technologies. That is to say, perhaps today's trusting youth will become tomorrow's distrusting parents.

Moreover, it's unclear what optimal answers to these questions about trust and privacy would look like. Should we all have our guard up when sharing information online? Certainly. But a society too skeptical of the people and sites they interact with online and off is going to produce a pretty dull Internet. It's hard to imagine Craigslist working in a place with little general trust; it's even harder to imagine new ridesharing apps gaining any popularity. Some reasonable level of trust -- taking into account risk and making a calculated judgment -- is the secret sauce that makes the social web work.

One thing that becomes evident throughout the survey is that when we try to compare older and younger Americans, the two sets aren't divided only by age but by values. This seems to be borne out in another question, which shows that both groups -- by a long shot -- trust private companies with their data more than they do the government, but older Americans are much more trusting of private companies. This is probably not the direct effect of a difference in age but of political affiliation: Younger Americans tend to lean Democrat and older ones tend to lean Republican. Republicans are much more distrusting of government, and that political divide carries over into the age breakdown.  

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The starkest generational divide appears not when it comes to the Internet but when it comes to moral values, and by and large younger Americans tend to be much more liberal and open-minded than their older counterparts. They say in much greater numbers that homosexuality is "morally acceptable" (62 percent for those between 18 and 29 compared with 36 percent for those over 65), that interracial marriage is A-okay (87 percent versus 65 percent), and that unmarried men and women living together is not a problem (compare 76 percent with 45 percent).

Now, the survey also showed that a huge numbers of Americans think that the country is heading in the wrong direction (63 percent), and that America's values have been getting worse (70 percent). But as hard as times may be, as scary as the rapid changes we are living through are, the tolerant picture the survey paints of the generation that has come up on the inchoate Internet is one very good reason to take heart.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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