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Digital Natives: Always Connected, Always at Risk?

Toshie Takahashi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

The Digital Native Generation and Constant Connection

Born into a digital world, the young of today inhabit a world that is markedly different from the previous generation. These “digital natives” or “the constant contact generation”, as they have been called, spend much of their waking hours engaged in a wide variety of media including mobile phones, the Internet, video games, and TV. According to a Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications survey (2013 Survey on Usage Time and Information Behavior regarding Information and Communications Technologies, 2014), Japanese young people have a higher rate of Internet use than of television use (Figure 1). More than 60% own smartphones (age 13–19: 63.3%, age 20–29: 87.9%), and more than 70% use social media (age 13–19: 76.3%, age 20–29: 91.0%). Many of the young people I interviewed in Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom tell me that they never switch off their mobile phones. They even sleep with their mobile phones next to their pillows. If it vibrates while they were asleep, they would inevitably pick up the mobile and reply to text messages from their friends or comment on social media. No need to turn on the lights as the illumination of their phone screen would suffice. Interestingly, some may not remember this engagement the next morning.

This is just an example of how young people of the digital generation engage with their smartphones and social media, and stay connected almost constantly. Why this need among these young people to be connected constantly? How should we think about this phenomenon? What are the up sides and down sides of constant social media engagement? What, in other words, are the opportunities and risks of social media for the digital native?

Figure 1: Average Usage Time and Activity Rates of Major Media Devices

*Television (real-time): All real-time viewing excluding recordings, regardless of device
*Activity rate: For weekdays, this is the average value after determining the ratio of people engaging in certain types of information behavior (usage proportion) on each survey day (for holidays, the ratio for 1 survey day is calculated)
Source: Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, Institute for Information and Communications Policy (2014) 2013 Survey on Usage Time and Information Behavior regarding Information and Communications Technologies.
http://www.soumu.go.jp/iicp/chousakenkyu/data/research/survey/telecom/2014/h25mediariyou_1sokuhou.pdf (accessed 11 May 2014).

Opportunities and Risks of Social Media: LINE, Twitter, Facebook

LINE is currently the most popular form of social media among young people in Japan (age 13–19: 70.5%, age 20–29: 80.3%) (Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 2014, cited above). And there are at least three good reasons why this is so: it is free of charge; it operates as a closed space; and it enables the sharing of emotional feelings by the use of ‘stickers'. With LINE, one can create different groups among your contacts, which are closed off to others. So you can constantly communicate within the group and not worry about others who do not belong. For Japanese youths, they can use LINE to create and reorganize multiple uchis (uchi means “insiders” or an intimate circle of friends). As each group is a closed communication space that they created from among their contacts, users of LINE can feel secure from unwanted intrusions from those they regard as “outsiders”, their soto. This is unlike more open social media such as Twitter. A study of high school and university students which I conducted in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area in 2013 shows that LINE is being used for contacting close friends, both as a space to be shared among intimate circle of friends and for strengthening bonds. It thus plays a role in reinforcing their uchi groups such as family and friends.

According to Japanese social anthropologist Chie Nakane (Personal Relations in a Vertical Society: A Theory of Homogeneous Society, Kodansha Gendai Shinsho, 1967), the uchi does not just happen naturally. It must be made tangible and the constant sharing of spaces and constant face-to-face interaction are what make it more “real”. Individual differences are inevitable in any group, which is why ‘group consciousness' must be nurtured, for example, through the daily recitation of the company philosophy in some companies. Such ‘consciousness-raising' exercises serve to reinforce belongingness to the group and stamp out individualism. The hierarchy existing within the uchi serves to maintain ties of interdependence among members. The degree of unity of an uchi is linked to the amount of contact over time and the passion or intensity of the active reinforcement of the internal structure. These social processes are no less relevant in the digital world.

In the contemporary context, where the Internet is so widespread, constant contact and sharing of emotions using a combination of texts, emoticons and images within closed communication spaces such as LINE serve to reinforce social intimacy within the group. The traditional social norms of Japanese society, such as uchi and kuuki (a social atmosphere created by the need for harmony and conformity pressure), are being reconstructed through complex online and offline interactions, thus reinforcing their collective identity.

The way Japanese youths use a more open communication platform like Twitter and Facebook, for example, makes for an interesting contrast. Twitter is used to acquire information on one's friends, to construct new networks, or just killing time or releasing one's stress. In addition, Facebook is also used for connecting with the soto, such as friends from one's past or just people out there in the world. Furthermore, on Facebook, since people are supposed to use their “real” identities (or so they are encouraged to do so by the site), Japanese youths often create, or rather recreate their self-identity through ‘impression management' [1] (Goffman, E., The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959). On Facebook, Japanese young people do this by, for example, uploading large number of photos (sometimes decorating them with stars or hearts using the photo function of mobile phones), and by tagging each other in order to present themselves as active and popular. While managing the different forms of social media in such ways, young people today may be said to be seizing the wealth of new opportunities on offer.

At the same time, however, the constant connections of social media are also giving rise to new types of risk. American clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle (Turkle, S., Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011) initially offered a positive perspective on technology but, concerned about young people growing up with an expectation of constant connection, she has since investigated the powerful psychological influences of mobile communication and social media on young people who ‘connect' with each other all day rather than ‘communicate'. Such concern about high levels of dependence on social media is not limited to the United States. Even in Japan, the LINE function of displaying whether (how immediately) messages have been read is causing the acceleration of pressure to emphasize “emotional bonds” and “constant contact,” generating the risks such as “LINE fatigue” and addiction.

While the constant connections of social media can thus yield new opportunities for reinforcement of social intimacy, network building, social sharing, and impression management, the risks such as cyber bullying, defamation, infringement of privacy, “digital tattoos” (information that can never be deleted), stalking, over-dependency, and addiction have emerged. Therefore, even for the young people known as digital natives, there is also a need for a new type of digital literacy to address the issues that have arisen in the rapidly changing contemporary society. This will enable users to fully enjoy new opportunities whilst minimizing the risks of harm.

Social Media and Global Connections

One might wonder if the reinforcement of uchi through social media only serves to intensify the tendency of Japanese young people toward introversion and to increase feelings of nationalism.

As a final point, I would like to touch upon the potential of social media as it relates to global society. As of April 2014, the total number of LINE users worldwide exceeded 400 million people (of this number, 50 million are users in Japan), with over 80% of them being users outside of Japan. ‘Global’ social media such as Facebook and LINE enable users to connect with people transnationally. These social media maintain connectivity and social intimacy with ‘distant others’ through their interactions. By continually sharing information and feelings, social intimacy and emotional bonds may develop, and ‘distant others’ may eventually become ‘close uchi members’. While social media can serve to strengthen one’s local uchi, it can also be used to connect and achieve deeper mutual understanding with ‘others’ who are also living in and sharing this world. Thus social media may provide the possibilities for creating new ‘global uchi’ which are able to transcend the differences of language and culture in this connected global society.

Note 1) “Impression management” is a concept originated by American sociologist Erving Goffman. It states that people select which aspects of themselves should be hidden and which ones should be shown, and thus to manage and control the impressions that other people have of them.

Toshie Takahashi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Toshie Takahashi is Professor at Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University, Tokyo. She was appointed faculty fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, 2010-2011 and, before that was a visiting research fellow at the Department of Education in the University of Oxford.

Her current research is a ethnography centered on cross-cultural research into youth and digital media among US, UK and Japan. Through an examination of youth engagement with digital technologies in everyday life, her current research focuses on the implications of social and cultural issues such as identity, digital literacy, creativity, opportunities and risks in the global world.

A media ethnographer, her writings have been included in both Japanese and International Media Studies anthologies, for example, Audience Studies: A Japanese Perspective (2009, Routledge), The Language of Social Media: Community and Identity on the Internet (P. Seargeant, and C. Tagg eds., 2014, Palgrave), Deconstructing Digital Natives: Young People, Technology and the New Literacies (M. Thomas ed., 2011, Routledge), International Handbook of Children, Media and Culture (K. Drotner and S.Livingstone eds., 2008, Sage).

Professor Takahashi is Deputy Head of the Audience Section of the IAMCR (International Association for Media and Communication Research). She graduated with a PhD in Media and Communications from the London School of Economics and Political Science, an MA in Sociology from the University of Tokyo and a BSc in Mathematics from Ochanomizu University.

Toshie Takahashi Official Website : http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/toshietakahashi/