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

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.

Presented by

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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