Marketers are obsessed with reaching the youth market, since young people have a lot of buying power by themselves and also because they influence what older people buy in today’s youth-obsessed society. Which made my me sit up and take notice when I learned that the brains of teenagers born in 1982 and after—millennials, as they’re dubbed by economist/historian Neil Howe— are being “wired differently,” thanks to their 24/7 multitasking habits that rotate an array of gadgets such as cell phones, music players, computers and personal organizers. “People’s brains are different based on their experiences,” says Alan Fiske, director of UCLA’s Center for Culture, Brain and Development. In fact, teens’ love affair with technology has resulted in the astonishing statistic that 15-year-old girls are now the world’s top consumers of computer chips, according to Taiwan Semiconductor
Manufacturing. “Teenagers have adopted this technology very aggressively, in part because it’s inexpensive now, and it’s mobile—and everything a teenager does is about being mobile and untethered,” says University of Connecticut clinical psychiatry professor David Greenfield. Instant messaging plays a major role in teens’ social lives, facilitating communication among larger groups of peers than previously was possible.
“Think about a kid who may be online IM-ing 10 other kids, each of them IM-ing 10 other kids,” says the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Victoria Rideout. “You’ve potentially got 100 kids in a social group more or less in instant communication.” And that explains the brain change, says Fiske: “Humans presumably evolved in small face-to-face groups where people were together a lot and just talked to each other. At some level, any change in behavior indicates changes in the brain.”