For the Young, Reality is Already 'Augmented'

Wednesday Jan 20th 2010 by Mike Elgan
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Recent surveys reveal that young people are immersed in technology at an alarming level, and behavior patterns are expected to continue into adulthood. Where’s it all heading?

You hear futurists talking about a coming age of "augmented reality." What they mean is that mobile devices will recognize locations and objects and provide data about them in real-time. Yeah, it's cool and it's coming. But to young people, it's nothing new.

For teenagers, reality is already totally augmented.

The Kaiser Family Foundation today released the results of a 10-year study on media in the lives of young people ranging from 8 to 18 years old. The results are shocking.

They've found that recreational media exposure (which does not include the use of computers for school or work) averages 10 hours and 45 minutes per day. Kids squeeze this much media into 7 hours and 38 minutes by "consuming" more than one media stream at a time. The consumption of all media, including TV, has grown and continues to grow, so we can expect these numbers to rise.

When schedules allow, young people gravitate toward one form or two simultaneous forms of electronic entertainment (TV, videogames, music) punctuated by electronic communication, usually texting, but also voice calls and instant messaging.

When attention is required elsewhere, teens augment the activity with background media. For example, the TV tends to be on during meals, and music is playing during homework.

Active video game play tends toward the multi-media, with online games offering opportunities for chat- and voice-based trash talk.

Even socializing is augmented by electronics. While hanging out with each other, young people are constantly snapping pictures and uploading them to Facebook, or involving absent friends in the conversation via text.

A different study by Mediamark Research and Intelligence found that since 2005, the use of cell phones by 6-7 year olds has increased by a third, 8-9 year olds by two-thirds, and by 10-11 year olds by 80 percent. Now fully one-third of all America 11-year-olds carry cell phones. Most of these are used for texting, and many for Internet access.

The New York Times summarized the current state of youth and media by saying that the "average young American now spends practically every waking minute — except for the time in school — using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device." But even non-waking moments and time spent in school are being affected, too.

But Wait! There's More!

Those remaining activities involving non-augmented reality -- sleep and school -- are also being aggressively encroached upon.

Everybody's talking about 2010 as the "year of the tablet." And for good reason. The touch tablet category is the hottest topic in consumer electronics in part because Apple is expected to announce its first tablet next week. There's much to say about touch tablets, because they'll serve as low-cost TVs, DVRs, eBooks, netbooks and more.

One neglected area of discussion is tablets in education. My belief is that the conversion in K-12 to electronic eBooks in the next five years is a near certainty. However, I believe those eBooks won't be read on eBook readers like the Kindle, but on all-purpose touch tablets like the one Apple should announce or on its competitors.

The reason is that tablets will be far more useful for related educational uses, such as taking notes, sharing white boards, watching educational videos and collaborating on school projects. (Here's one example.) Plus, economies of scale may make them even cheaper than dedicated eBook readers. I don't think there's any question that both in-class education and homework will quickly become electronic.

That appears to leave sleep as the sole remaining part of life when young people are unaffected by electronic media. Unfortunately, however, that's already not the case. It turns out that electronic media has an enormous impact on the quantity and quality of sleep.

Media is keeping kids up late. A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics found that the plethora of media options is motivating kids to stay awake watching TV, surfing the Internet, talking on the phone, listening to music or playing video games.

But even when the phone isn't in use at night, electronic media can disrupt sleep. Researchers in Europe found last year found that teens who use cell phones heavily (more than 15 times a day) have more trouble falling asleep and staying asleep than others.

And that Pediatrics report said that media multitaskers have more trouble sleeping, and that only 20% of American teens get the recommended amount of sleep.

Videogames have a similar effect. According to a study published in 2007, teen boys who play videogames in the evening take longer to fall asleep, and spend less time in the stages of sleep crucial to forming memories.

You'll note that the teens affected by all this -- the heavy phone users, media multitaskers and heavy gamers -- are the growing categories. They've moving from the minority to the majority.

All this is bad news, by the way, because recent research has found a lack of sleep to contribute to teen depression.

Why All This Matters

It's tempting to belittle these trends as just young people doing what young people do, but I think they add up to something far more interesting and revolutionary. For starters, I think media habits formed in youth will be retained into adulthood. Despite what parents might say, it's not just a phase.

If that's true, then we need to understand how this affects our world.

The studies cited show that year over year, more young people are each consuming more media than the previous year. It's not as if Facebook and cell phones hit, and we've arrived at a new usage pattern. This is a journey, and we're likely to continue down this road indefinitely, with teen trends becoming more extreme, and also becoming adult trends as people age.

If you follow the trends five years into the future, it appears that kids and teens will be affected by media 24/7, as they say. Nearly all kids in K-12 will wake up to music, eat breakfast while texting, social networking and watching TV. They'll listen to music and text on their way to school, then use a variety of electronic multimedia tools all day at school, including tablets.

After school, they'll gather with friends, while video-taping each other, texting with those absent and staying connected on Facebook. They'll watch TV, movies and play videogames in their spare time, while talking and texting all the while. They'll stay up way too late engaging with one screen or another. The cell phone will ring several times at night with texts from friends, which they'll wake up to answer.

Embedded in this new media-saturated world is a world of crises. Physical and emotional health will suffer, as kids will increasingly have a hard time getting enough sleep or exercise. The prospect of holding an un-augmented conversation, or spending any period of time without being plugged into the mediasphere will seem impossible, and cause anxiety.

As today's youth enter the workforce, there will be inevitable clashes with older staff with seniority, who will expect younger workers to pay attention in meetings, focus on one task at a time, and work for hours without electronic entertainment.

Schools will have a harder time convincing students that knowledge is even worth acquiring at all. Google VP Marissa Mayer expressed this notion perfectly when she said recently that "it's not what you know, it's what you can find out."

Why learn and memorize facts that are always right there on ubiquitous mobile devices? Knowledge won't matter. Nor will time, geography or privacy.

When so-called augmented reality eventually hits, it will barely be noticed. Reality is already being augmented. And for the youngest users, that augmentation can be even more real than the reality.

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