Tech-savvy teens aid their families

Experts: Familiarity with technology is affording youths a position of authority, even veto power on purchases.

July 11, 2002|By Mike Antonucci | Mike Antonucci,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

If knowledge is power, technology-savvy U.S. teen-agers must feel like they're ready to run the world.

So far, they're settling for an unprecedented level of influence at school and home.

New research shows that children are providing vital technical support in the classroom, helping to install and maintain equipment that might otherwise remain buggy or unusable.

At home, they're often the chief technology officers, overseeing everything from the type of computer, DVD player or speaker system their parents buy, to hooking up all the wires.

"It's part of a broad shift in families and popular culture," said Sharon Lee, co-president of the Look-Look youth research company in Los Angeles.

Teens in particular gain respect and power through technology know-how that is almost second nature to their generation but unfamiliar to parents who grew up without computers and digital gadgets in their schools or homes.

That translates, said Lee, into potent teen influence over other decisions, such as expensive family purchases. It's the teens who become the consumer watchdogs, either because they understand the products better or are sharper at checking them out.

"It's kind of only fair," said Andrew Phan, a San Jose, Calif., eighth-grader and his family's tech expert. "Your parents have taught you so much, and now you can give information back to them that they can use."

The tech-savior role that children play at home also is expanding deep into U.S. education, stretching well beyond Silicon Valley and other high-tech centers.

A new study indicates that teens are providing technical support - ranging from setting up equipment to network management - in more than 50 percent of U.S. public school districts.

Grunwald Associates of Burlingame, Calif., who did the research for the National School Boards Foundation, says students are doing far more than helping - they're demonstrating, fixing and sometimes even leading.

One of Andrew's teachers is Cheryl Markham, the technology coordinator at Bret Harte Middle School, and she noted that her students frequently help the faculty with tasks such as installing software and troubleshooting.

"When it comes to computers," Markham wrote in an e-mail, "sometimes the roles are reversed."

Lee, whose company gathers information from a database of 10,000 people ages 14 to 30, says even relatively well-informed parents can be caught off guard by how technology influences their children's lifestyles.

Today's teens are driven heavily by social interaction that makes them all the more tech-clever. Group interest in music and video games, for instance, increasingly involves online activities. And friends can become a bigger reservoir of information and instruction - particularly regarding mischievous or illicit aspects of computer and Internet use - than any school or authority figure.

Teen-agers also want to be mobile while remaining connected to their peers.

Karamjit Sahota was taken aback when his teen-age daughter, Lovedeep, told him she wanted a laptop computer. "I was astonished," he recalled. "I said, `What are you going to do with a laptop? That's for business people.'"

Lovedeep, 16, is a 10th-grader at San Jose's Gunderson High, where some students routinely use skills that amaze people outside their classes.

When Lovedeep and two fellow students created a slide show to recruit middle school pupils to Gunderson, it was a straightforward task with a digital camera and PowerPoint presentation.

They were mildly amused to discover that someone dubbed them "the technology crew."

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