As part of its ongoing Conversations series, the New York Daily News Innovation Lab last week hosted a public discussion with two 14-year-old high schoolers to get a glimpse of how the next generation of media consumers goes about their digital lives.

Will Goodall is a self-proclaimed tech geek who writes his own software programs and is likely to have scholarships thrown at him from multiple top-tier college computer science programs. Sydney Polinchock is the opposite, a “non-techy” person who loves pets, avidly reads fiction, and sometimes reads multiple books in a single day on her Kindle.

The two clearly don’t represent all of teenage America and readily admit they are outliers. Both attend private school in an affluent East Coast suburb and were provided their own laptops starting in fourth grade. They both also have been the featured speakers for this sort of panel before, in the U.S. and overseas.

Still, their behaviors point to some interesting ways the relationship to media and technology in daily life is evolving among the next cohort of young people:

They are extremely social but prefer closed groups

According to Will, when it comes to interacting with friends and posting material they generally don’t go for “the traditional blast-based social media, with thousands of followers.” Instead they are “moving to more tribe-based stuff, where it’s you and a group of friends” and things are more personal. This stems, at least in part, from their awareness of the risks of social media exposure, i.e., “saying something stupid, controversial, bad, discriminatory — things you might do by complete accident but once it’s out there it’s never going away.”

They are moving beyond mainstream social channels

A lot of Sydney’s group interactions happen not through common platforms but via the productivity tool Evernote. In addition to using it for schoolwork, her friends have several notes set up that are “basically a Tumblr page but not online.” They read each other’s stuff and respond, but it’s all hidden from public view. She also spends a lot of her time communicating with friends using Google Hangouts, but as a group text discussion rather than video.

Will checks things like Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr multiple times a day but more as boredom relievers, i.e., “killing time whenever you have the chance” like standing in line or waiting for class to start. Because of his advanced skills with technology, Will’s interaction channels are more sophisticated. He spends a lot of time on Reddit. He also hosts his own TeamSpeak server that functions as the center of his interactions with his friends.

When it comes to Facebook, both teens agreed that although people still use it, the platform, in Will’s words, “has an air of not being enjoyable.”

They operate in a kind of constant collective

Both teens are rarely disconnected from the others in their groups no matter what else they might be doing. They check in with friends while getting ready for school, send notes and reactions to each other while in class, and participate in ongoing group messaging while doing their homework after school and through the evening. Because much of this happens via group channels rather than one-to-one messaging, their individual experiences quickly morph into collective intelligence. For example, when the recent Paris bombings were being reported in the news, Sydney sat on the couch watching a live TV report (because her father had switched it on) but she simultaneously compared notes in a Google Hangout with her friends who were at their own houses watching different channels.

They can recognize the difference between quality content and everything else online

Both teens said they can tell when a story had a lot of effort put into it and they trust that more than something that seems engineered to attract page views. That often points them toward newspaper or TV news websites, but they don’t go directly to any particular news sources to find news. Will discovers news through Reddit, jumps into a topic-based sub-Reddit and follows links posted there by other users. Sydney tends to find out about news from her dad, who reads the local paper every day (but Sydney had no idea the name of that paper).

When they are actively researching something of interest, both teens said they look at URLs of search results to help them decide which to click, and they give preference to sources that seem more legitimate. This level of media literacy is one place they’ve benefited from superior education: Sydney pointed to a classroom exercise in which evaluating multiple textbook accounts of a historical event taught her that various sources might offer different ways of characterizing the same “truth.” Nevertheless, Sydney said often she’s lazy and just clicks on whatever appears at the top of the search results.

They are willing to engage with highly targeted advertising, as long as it doesn’t waste their time

The teens are aware that advertisers are tracking their online behaviors, and are generally OK with it. “I really don’t mind targeted advertising as long as it’s done somewhat tastefully,” Will said. “When targeted well it’s a better experience for the person because it’s stuff they are interested in. If advertising were tracked I’d stop getting ads for jewelry.”

However, both teens admitted to skipping over most ads, and they expressed frustration over any roadblocks to doing so.

“It’s annoying when it’s a sneaky ad when the X is too small” so that trying to tap to close it instead just opens the page being advertised, Sydney said. When forced to wait for a video pre-roll ad to play without a “skip in 5 seconds button,” she will “go to another site and start playing a game while waiting for the content to finish loading.”

Will said he’s much more willing to offer feedback to a survey in order to access content, stressing that it takes him less time than being forced to watch a 30-second video ad.

They will be cord-cutters

When asked specifically what they will buy from among all the media choices when they get older, both teens said Internet service and Netflix, but not cable. Will said he would also subscribe to HBO but was less certain about Hulu because “they still make you watch ads and you pay for it, which is ridiculous.”

They rely on both laptop computers and smartphones

Although media consumption is generally shifting toward mobile, laptops are still an important part of the mix and the devices are treated as somewhat interchangeable. The distinction: When they are trying to get work done they prefer to use a computer. Connection speed is another factor: They appreciate the faster speed that Wi-Fi-connected laptops often deliver. When they’re on the go and for simply reading, they use a smartphone, though. As Sydney put it, “If I’m just reading then I’ll deal with slowness and be disappointed.” It’s likely this pattern will continue as they go down the path of becoming white-collar office workers. It’s less clear how much the laptop or desktop computer might matter to anyone whose occupation might not involve sitting at a desk in an office.

One final word of caution: There was a lot of discussion about the teens’ news consumption and purchasing behaviors. It’s important to distinguish between what is a trend based on new norms, behaviors, etc., and what is simply an indicator of their life stage of being in high school. The consumption patterns they revealed, such as not paying much attention to local news and letting parents make product decisions for them, seems to be reflective of teenagers from any era.

If you want to watch the full panel, you can check out the hour-long video here.

Reuben Stern  
Director of NYC Partnerships


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