A Mercury News/Kaiser Family Foundation Survey




Published: May 18, 2003

In the coming weeks, the first wave in a generation of teens unlike any other will graduate from Silicon Valley high schools: The vast majority of them will remember an adolescence lived to an astonishing degree on the Internet.

These teens, some of whom have been online nearly a decade, are among the Internet's first natives, at home in the wired world to a degree their parents may never wholly understand.

A survey of more than 800 Silicon Valley children ages 10 to 17 and their parents, conducted by the Mercury News in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation, finds that the Net is a powerful and often ubiquitous presence in school, at home and in the social lives of almost all. The telephone survey, supplemented by interviews with more than five dozen children and parents, paints a deep and multifaceted picture of a generation growing up in a digital culture.

While the rest of the United States has made great strides to match the valley's embrace of the Net, after 50 years of computer innovation, the region remains a unique incubator for technology and its impact on society. What these teens and preteens are doing today may play itself out in classrooms and living rooms across the country in years to come.

Among the survey's key findings:

  Skills that just a few years ago were considered the exclusive province of hard-core technophiles, such as building a Web site, have become common and unremarkable for this generation.

  Instant messaging and chat rooms are staples of teen communication, with half of all kids using IM or a chat room at least once a week. At the extreme, one in four online said they rely on chat, instant messaging or e-mail as the primary way to keep in touch with friends.

  Significant disparities in Net access and use persist when it comes to the valley's poorest, least-educated and Latino households, but those gaps have narrowed dramatically. This wired generation has all but erased some of the most glaring imbalances.

  School has been the crucial factor in closing the so-called ''digital divide.'' But while basic Net access at school has become nearly universal, schools have not been able to deliver the quality of access found at home -- and the advantages that go with it. Broad disparities persist between those who have a computer at home and those who can log on only at school.

The tech-savvy enjoy
range of social activities

The image of the computer geek with a pocket protector hasn't entirely vanished, but the survey found it's being eroded by ordinary kids who have Internet smarts plus well-rounded lives outside the computer lab.

Sateja Parulekar, 16, a junior at San Jose's Presentation High School, is part of this new breed of digital sophisticate. She is literate in programming languages and applications. This summer, she will work in the information-technology department at National Semiconductor, her father's employer. She has switched her intended college major to computer science from pre-law.

Fueled by the confidence that comes from being 16 and deeply accomplished in tech, she said: ''If I still want to pursue law, I can always go to law school after. I could always work for a software company, maybe as a patent lawyer.''

Technology will be her future, but it is not the entirety of her present. This summer she is going for her second-degree black belt in tae kwon do. And there's piano. And hip-hop dance. And classical Indian music.

Right behind those like Sateja are the average Silicon Valley teens and preteens who would never identify themselves as part of a tech elite, but who have skills that would mark them as power users in any region where digital culture is not so all-consuming.

Among those surveyed who said they had gone online (96 percent), nearly half said they had created a Web page, written a computer program or assembled a home computer network. Three in five had helped adults set up or repair computers.

If there are lingering stereotypes attached to technical skill, the news hasn't reached them. In the past few years, 17-year-old John Vu of Santa Clara High has gotten progressively deeper into desktop publishing. As part of a class project, he recently redesigned a course catalog for the district's two high schools, adding photos and graphics.

To John, technology is just one unremarkable element within his environment, where companies such as Intel and Sun Microsystems dominate the hometown landscape. ''When you live in Santa Clara, tech is all around you,'' he said. ''You can't help but pick it up.''

And younger boys and girls are embracing hand-to-mouse life earlier than their older brothers and sisters. While just one in six kids ages 14 to 17 said they had gone online before age 10, one in two ages 10 to 13 said they had.

Ten-year-old Esbeydy Corral, a fourth-grader at San Jose's Dahl Elementary School, enjoys the Net but admits being ''freaked out'' by scary stories of kids being abducted by people they met online.

Technology, Esbeydy said, is a regular part of the school scene, but Internet access is another story. ''We have computers in our classroom and in our lab, but our teacher doesn't let us go on the Internet,'' she said. Her working knowledge of the Net has come mostly from family.

Many using the Net
to connect with friends

For many Silicon Valley teens and preteens, the Net's true value is measured in social currency. The hours in front of the screen are spent communicating with family and friends -- and some strangers.

With its urgency, fleeting nature and capacity to accommodate multiple conversations simultaneously, instant messaging is the hot social application for kids. Two-thirds of those online use it, the survey found, while just 40 percent spend time in chat rooms or post to message boards. Together, these social tools are ever present in the lives of many young people.

Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed said they go online to use chat or IM, and of those, one in four said they use them every day. Among the 38 percent who said they use chat or IM at least a few times a week, two-thirds said they spent one to three hours per session. A few reported spending more than 10 hours a day chatting.

While juggling multiple streams of IM conversation consumes hours for many kids, it hasn't taken the place of the telephone or face-to-face communication. Aside from in-person contact, 71 percent of online teens said they preferred the phone for keeping in touch. Instant messaging was the preferred medium for 18 percent, while just 7 percent said e-mail. Girls are slightly more likely to use IM than boys are.

Monica Newman, a freshman at Branham High School in San Jose, is maxed-out on IM. When the 14-year-old boots up the computer in her bedroom, she usually finds dozens of her buddies logged onto IM. Her ''buddy list'' is at 200 screen names. ''That's the most you can have on a buddy list,'' Monica said. ''It's how I talk to my friends.''

There's a fair chance that at least a few of the people these kids chat with aren't familiar faces at home. One in three teens and preteens surveyed said they know some friends only online. One in four of those surveyed said they have met someone online whom they wouldn't have otherwise known.

Among Silicon Valley teens and preteens, there exists a hard-core 10 percent whose lives online revolve around the social networks they've built there. These hypercommunicators use the Net from home, log on to chat every day and rely on chat, IM or e-mail as the primary methods to keep in touch with friends and family. They are predominantly high school students (71 percent are ages 14 to 17) from middle- to upper-income households.

Four in 10 of the hypercommunicators have met an online friend face-to-face, compared with 10 percent of others who use e-mail, IM or chat.

Quality could become
new access benchmark

The rest of the United States has caught up to Silicon Valley on key measures such as home Internet access. But when it comes to the quality of those home connections, the valley remains a separate reality.

Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed said they have multiple computers at home, compared with 24 percent of households nationwide.

Nearly three in 10 said they have three or more computers, compared with one in 10 nationally.

Those multiple machines and multiple users demand big, fast connections to the Net. Almost half of the valley families with children 10 to 17 who have a Net connection at home have DSL or cable modems, well ahead of the 31 percent of connected U.S. households with high-speed access.

The ability to do everything from downloading music to playing online games to viewing full-motion video is increasingly predicated on high-speed access, so concerns about a so-called ''digital divide'' may shift from the question of basic access to discussions about the quality of that access.

The survey found that in valley households with Internet access, 62 percent of families earning $100,000 or more have broadband, but only 40 percent of families earning $50,000 to $100,000 do. White and Asian households with Internet access were more than twice as likely as Hispanic households to have a cable modem or DSL link.

Children leading way
for poorer households

The belief that the Internet will play an important role in their children's education and success later in life was widespread among parents of all income levels, the survey found; 96 percent said the Net is important to their children's education, and 94 percent believed it will be important later in their lives.

''Right now, a lot of things are driven by computers, and in the future, everything will be computers,'' said Danelia Lara, whose daughters, Danelia and Nereyda, are using computers to work on biotechnology projects at Andrew Hill High School in San Jose. ''It's all about advanced technology for these kids.''

But household income and a parent's educational attainment are still strong predictors of who is online at home.

The survey found that the poorest households in Silicon Valley remain out of the loop in significant numbers.

Among families with children ages 10 to 17 and annual incomes of $30,000 to $49,999, one in three lacked Internet access. Among families earning less than $30,000, nearly four in five lacked Internet access.

That sharp drop-off has been found across the country in households with incomes under $30,000 and among people with less than a high school diploma, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

''What you are seeing in the Silicon Valley, we are seeing throughout the nation,'' said Jeff Cole, director of the Center for Communication Policy at the University of California-Los Angeles. ''In five years the people offline will be those who do not want it, and the very poor. Regarding that hard-core 10 or 15 percent not online, some will never go online, and that will change with the passing of generations.''

The Mercury News/Kaiser Family Foundation survey shows dramatically how the children of poorer families have all but closed the gap in Net usage. Far more parents with household incomes more than $100,000 use the Net than do parents with incomes less than $50,000 (98 percent to 53 percent). But among their children, the gap narrows dramatically (99 percent to 90 percent).

The same trend can be seen in another group that has lagged in Internet access: Hispanics. The survey found more than nine in 10 Asian and white parents are online, while 45 percent of Hispanic parents are. (The number of blacks in the survey was too small to make comparisons.) But again, among children, 84 percent of Hispanics were online, just 14 percentage points behind whites and 16 points behind Asians.

''My mom really wants to learn,'' said Danelia Lara, 18. ''I tried to teach her how to use Microsoft Word and send e-mails, but she doesn't get how you put information on the Internet.''

On the few occasions her mother has ventured online with help from her children, it was to download recipes from Univision.com and read up on her novelas, Spanish-language soap operas.

Students make most
of limited Net access

The Clinton-era crusades to put schools online have been a resounding success. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 99 percent of public schools have Internet access, up from 35 percent in 1994, making them the provider of universal Net access for the nation's children.

The survey shows how schools in Silicon Valley serve as a crucial bridge to the virtual world for Hispanic children and those from less-affluent families. Yet access at school still leaves these kids at a disadvantage.

Among the 10- to 17-year-olds surveyed who go online, three in 10 from households earning less than $50,000 said they relied on school for their primary access to the Net, compared with one in six overall. One in three Hispanic Net users said they mainly relied on school for access, compared with one in 10 for whites and Asians. Hispanics also were twice as likely to say they learned their Internet skills in school.

In contrast, only 1 percent of all surveyed said they depend on churches and community technology centers -- the other solutions advocated in the '90s -- for primary Net access.

''Students need to have access because this is really key for their future,'' said Thien Nguyen, state and federal programs coordinator at Andrew Hill High School. ''They talk about the three R's -- reading, writing and arithmetic. Technology is really becoming the fourth thing there.''

It's unlikely that even the most ardent wire-the-schools visionary from the '90s could have predicted the degree to which children would come to rely on the Net for schoolwork.

While many teachers continue to keep the Net at arm's length and treat it as a supplemental tool, 45 percent of the Silicon Valley teens and preteens consider the Internet to be the most important resource for schoolwork -- and that rises to 57 percent of high school students ages 14 to 17.

Just one in five teens or preteens said libraries were their most important tool for schoolwork.

The news from school is undeniably encouraging. The assumptions that guided many of the Net-access efforts of the past half-dozen years have been borne out -- but not necessarily in the classroom. Only 4 percent of those who have access at school said they have Internet access at their desks. Forty percent said they can log on elsewhere in their classrooms. Two-thirds of those who go online at school do so in either a library or computer lab.

That arrangement, with the Internet as a resource apart from the rest of the school day, makes it unlikely the Net will ever become truly integrated into the fabric of instruction.

The strings attached to school access, such as time limits, make it no substitute for a computer at home. It is only at home that the computer truly comes into its own as a tool for social networking.

Of the one in 10 kids who chat every day and said they rely on chat, e-mail or instant messaging as the primary means to stay in touch with family and friends, virtually all log on mainly from home.

The school-only user may get the benefits of the Net's vast library of information, but the mercurial two-way nature of the medium and the time to explore and experiment are reserved for those who can log on from home whenever they please.

It's unlikely that children who rely on school for passage to the wired world will ever truly live on the Net the way their more affluent classmates do.


The survey is a joint project of the Mercury News and the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Representatives of the Kaiser Family Foundation worked with the Mercury News to develop the survey questionnaire and to analyze the results. The Kaiser Family Foundation paid for the survey-related expenses, and each organization bears sole responsibility for the work that appears under its name.

A representative sample of 804 randomly selected children in Silicon Valley ages 10 to 17 and their parents were interviewed by telephone between Oct. 10 and Dec. 11. The interviews were conducted by Taylor Nelson Sofres Intersearch of Horsham, Pa. The survey's margin of error is 4.3 percentage points overall. Sampling error is larger for subgroups, and sampling error is only one of many potential sources of error in this or any other survey.

The survey defined Silicon Valley as Santa Clara County and select cities within Santa Cruz, San Mateo and Alameda counties.

The Kaiser Family Foundation is an independent, national health philanthropy dedicated to providing information and analysis on health issues to policymakers, the media and the public. It is not associated with Kaiser Permanente or Kaiser Industries.

To view the survey results online go to:

''Growing Up Wired'' is a Mercury News/Kaiser Family Foundation survey of more than 800 Silicon Valley residents ages 10 to 17 and their parents and guardians. The results have been statistically weighted to provide a represetative picture of the region's families.

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