Digital elite ditch talk for computer messages

December 18, 2003|By Imran Vittachi | Imran Vittachi,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - Sam and Joe Eichner, 11-year-old twins, shy away from talking to girls on the telephone, let alone in person.

But when the Highland Park, Ill., boys access the instant messenger on their computer, nothing stops them from communicating with their peers of the opposite sex.

"I'd rather talk to them through instant messaging," said Sam, noting that he uses the telephone only to invite friends to his house. "It's easier to talk to someone in words than face to face."

The brothers are part of a new generation of Americans, a digital elite that is shifting away from traditional tools of communication such as the telephone.

According to the results of a survey released Nov. 24 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a younger generation of well-off Americans relies on the Internet and other new technologies for their communication and information needs.

Yet this technology-savvy elite also includes the baby boomer parents of kids like the Eichner twins, the survey found.

"For many Americans, having the latest electronic gadget or experimenting with the newest tech fad is a habit that they develop at an early age and never break," the report says. "What is distinctive about them is that new electronic communications technologies come first. They would rather do without their wire-line telephone than their computer."

One benefit: Parents may no longer need to complain about their children tying up the telephone line for hours.

Take Highland Park resident Maryclaire Collins. Whenever she tells her 15-year-old daughter to get off the phone, Megan Collins Lieberman complies and switches to a dialogue with her friends via instant messaging.

Sometimes, when the teen-ager is free to use the phone, she carries on separate conversations by telephone and instant messaging, Collins said. Her daughter uses the Internet for research related to school projects, to download music and shop online - with her mother's credit card.

Those Internet activities correspond with another finding in the Pew report: The technology-savvy pay a premium for such communication flexibility.

Young techies, whose average age is 22, pay about $161 a month for information services, the survey of 1,677 people found. The slightly older members of Generation X pay a bit more, $169 a month, while baby boomers spend $175 a month for communication needs.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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