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Kids (and adults too!) Talk to Many at Once

This past week, NPR has been doing a series on The E-mail age. I haven’t listened to all of them. In fact, I found the series serendipitously because of a story I was looking for that I heard on the radio this morning on Chinese Fans of American TV Shows, which I may try to come back to in a later post.

I listened to a few of the email stories that struck me because of their relevance to Digital Youth research.

First up: Connected Kids Talk to Many at Once. That seemed to be an old topic, but maybe there’s something new here based on the provocative abstract:

Beyond e-mail, there are ever more ways to connect and communicate: text messages, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, IM and, for the old fashioned, phone calls. Help! How many connections can one person manage? How do people decide what is the best way to keep in touch?

The piece is rather strange. It’s four minutes long and there are two people featured by the journalist, Laura Sydell. The first person is actually not a kid at all, but an adult, Lenny who is 35 and is a marketer at a “Silicon Valley tech firm.” From Lenny, we hear a bit about all of the different technologies for communication that he uses and how he segments those he uses depending on situation. He describes how he can have “multiple layers of conversation” as a part of his job (Skype calls with clients, while text messaging colleagues at work, etc.). Sydell reports that when she arrived he had three IM windows open at the same time. Apparently, he used six different technologies of communication in the forty five minutes that Sydell spent with him.

This is actually quite interesting, but so far, nothing to do with kids.

Almost a minute and a half into the story the voice of Stanford Communications professor Clifford Nass comes in and talks about how at one point psychologists would have said that these kinds of multiple conversations shouldn’t be able to happen–due to “interference” which can lead to “mixed up” and “chaotic conversation” for the brain to process–but they are. Okay, sounds reasonable: theories of communication and psychology need to be refined and reconsidered (besides, sometimes I feel like my head is exploding when I have too many conversations going at the same time).

But here’s the funny transition, about halfway through, and where kids finally come into the story:

Nass says he and other social scientists suspect that many of us are walking around a little mixed up. But, it may be different for people who adapt to it versus those who are growing up with it.

Enter 16 year old Sonia (or Sonja?). Sonia is ending an IM conversation when Sydell walks into the room and, like Lenny, has a few up on the screen of her computer at the same time. She’ll talk to up to six people at once, we learn from Sonia. We also hear that she uses different communications for difference purposes, depending on the context. So far, sounds a lot like Lenny.

Lydell says that even Sonia can get overwhelmed. Going back to the point of the story, though, we didn’t hear Lenny getting overwhelmed. Not that he doesn’t, but we didn’t hear about it. (I should add that I’m not sure Sonia’s quote really supports the interpretation of “overwhelmed.” Decide for yourself around the 3:20 mark.)

The piece ends with Nass making some good points about how, historically, communication media, for the most part, don’t replace each other when they are invented. Though that point has been made before it’s worth repeating over and over again until people stop claiming otherwise. Thus, it seems like that all of us will have to deal with more and more choices of media going forward.

Okay. I am still trying to figure out how this story ended up with the title that it did and what it says about any differences between kids and adults.

To recap: here’s what I heard, at a little more abstract level.

1. 35 year old marketing guy is using many different communications media, has reasons for using different ones with different people, and often has many conversations at the same time.
2. Researchers once thought this not possible. In fact, maybe adult brains are still a little mixed up by all of it (implication: Lenny is an outlier). Ah, but what about those “growing up” (different than “adapting”) with all of this?
3. Answer: 16 year old Sonia is is using many different communications media, has reasons for using different ones with different people, and often has many conversations at the same time.
4. Conclusion? We will continue to have lots of choices in communication technologies going forward and, well, we’ll learn to deal with them.

I think I know what Sydell (or is she paraphrasing Nass and the other social scientists?) are trying to say when they differentiate “adapt” vs. “growing up with” but I’m not sure that this distinction would really hold up as we unravel what “growing up with” really means. Superficially, sounds like “adapt” just a younger age, but adult brains, as I keep hearing more and more, don’t just stop developing. I can’t really get into this here and now, but it’s worth thinking about some more.

Even though I really enjoyed the responses that Lydell elicited from her interviewees and even liked the little concluding points offered by Nass, what bothers me about this story, is that it seems to be designed to fit into the larger narrative of how adults and kids are so different from one another when it comes to technology. I won’t say more on my thoughts on that now (mainly because they are largely incoherent and I’m still working through them). But, titling this story “Connected Kids Talk to Many at Once” and then trying to turn the story on a difference between those who adapt vs. those who grow up with seems kind of sloppy considering how what Sydell reported on doesn’t seem to fit at all.

An obvious alternative framing might have been: given all that we have heard about kids and adults being so different when it comes to technology, how are Sonia and Lenny so similar? In what other ways might they be different?


  1. Ok, first, I’ve got your blog on an RSS feed – yeah, stalker mode. And it helps that I’m supposed to be writing, and this is a great excuse for procrastinating.

    Anyway, the questions you raise are really interesting ones and ones I’ve been grappling with for as long as I’ve been doing this new literacies research thing. I haven’t seen much research or even unsubstantiated theorizing about it, but the way my thinking is going these days is that the human brain is actually developed for multitasking etc and that modernity and our educational system has taught us to be linear and one track minded. I mean how many times do educators talk about “being on task” as the holy grail of classroom management. I admit I have no background in neuropsychology or cognitive psychology or any of that stuff, but I think it would be interesting to see a longitudinal study of how the executive functioning develops starting with young children and moving into adulthood. So, I’m wondering if the difference between those of us who can and cannot multitask is learned and that the new literacies is actually enabling our brains to function the way we originally evolved. It makes me think of Latour’s argument that “we have never been modern” and that modernity is a false veneer built on faulty logic.

    Just babble here, no empirical evidence or research to back up my conjectures. Dissertation anyone?

  2. Thanks for the provocative thoughts! By the way, in Naomi Baron’s newest book “Always On” there is a fairly good review of some of the psychological studies on multitasking.

  3. Hi there, I cam across your blog while researching the SIMS program. Interesting blog post.

    I think kids who “grow up with” simply do not have predefined behavior for multitasking. They just accept multiple channels of communication and learn to use them all because they “have to”. Where as someone older has to “adapt” or redefine a certain behavior they had learned previously.

    What the 16 yr old kid and 35 yr old marketing dude have in common is they both feel they “must” use these com channels, so they feel forced to learn. Where the kid needs to stay in the social and the guy needs to do his job. If they for some reason stopped using some of these com channels they would find themselves behind in their respective environments.

    I’m just a developer and I have no formal psych education, so this may be just idiotic rambling.

  4. redblind: Thanks for the comment. I think I agree with you. And, it doesn’t take having a formal psych education to have interesting ideas like this. Actually, a sociology or anthropology education may do just as well. Or… an iSchool education! If you are interested int he program, feel free to email me: dperkel *AT* ischool *DOT* berkeley *DOT* edu.

  5. Hello, I found your site a number of weeks ago and have been through all the posts and comments quietly. I decided I might make my firstcomment. Unsure of what to comment but here goes. Cool website. Will visit in a bit to see more of what youve got to say.

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