It sounds like the name of a painting: Lone Adult Outside Teenager's Door, Knocking. Next to it let's hang a portrait of the other side: Teenager Sends Instant Messages Amid Aural Mess — the iTunes, the TV and the DVDs that form a wall of sound to camouflage whatever is being said into the mobile phone. In the film version, Teenager eventually opens door, stares at Adult. Then, with excruciating patience and a huge implied "duh!" Teenager explains that he/she is Talking. "To. My. Friends." From deep inside the room, an IM door, the sound effect signaling friends signing on or off, slams shut.
As they would explain if they had time, these teenagers, all members of Generation M (born circa 1980 to 2000), have hundreds more friends than you, the adult, had at their age, or ever. And without having to leave their rooms. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 87 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds, or 21 million children, are regularly online — 11 million at least once a day — and so the figures go for pages: 75 percent use instant messaging (82 percent of them by seventh grade) and 84 percent own mobile phones and iPods (in a hierarchy of cool colors) as well as laptops, BlackBerrys and other PDAs. Those who cannot afford them still manage to "get on" — at friends' houses, Internet cafes or libraries — and 78 percent use school computers to shop online or to check their e-mail.
For Gen M (that's "millennial," according to sociologists, not "media"), to be "on" with your friends is a birthright. Many first played with computers in preschool, installed (then explained) the family TiVo at age nine and opened AOL Instant Messenger, or AIM, accounts at 10. "It started in a baby way in second grade," explains Laurice Fox, 16, a junior at Brooklyn Friends, a private preparatory school. "We all e-mailed because that's when AOL first introduced AIM. Even if the computer was in the family room, and we were discussing play dates, we were there at the start!"
Bobby Abramson, a senior at the Dalton School on Manhattan's Upper East Side, recalls watching his father surf the Internet "way back in the early 1990s, long before anyone else, and so it had this kind of magical quality." He adds, "I still remember picking up the phone and trying to talk to the modem."
In touch yet out of touch
Now, as they move through high school, college and beyond, the generation's seemingly obsessive need to connect has inspired concern and debate among many adults. To summarize: What are the psychological implications of simultaneously talking to 50 of one's forever best friends, who are not actually present? Are teenagers likely to misinterpret the nature of these best-friendships? As Abramson, a 17-year-old who has "studied the societal implications of the Internet" since age 10, puts it: "There's the issue of removal. Online engagement is not a viable substitute for a functional in-person social life."
And then comes the somewhat hysterical litany of issues: stalkers, cyberbullies, iPod-induced deafness, alleged attention deficit disorder and the fact that these children really don't know anyone's phone number.
Nora Delighter, 14, a freshman at the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, performs an exasperated eye roll, then, deadpan, says: "It's not like we're robot people who live in a fantasy world. Everyone, even us, has to leave their room. Because we go to school. Where we talk to other humans and get a sense of what they're really like."