A ‘long digital mooring line' for teenFor teens, the internet, mobile phones and social networks are equivalent to popular meeting places in big towns, the means of exploring their environment.
is the essence of one of the theories developed by sociologist Hélène Pétry, who has studied the digital socialising habits of secondary school children in the Paris area and in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Young people separated by an ocean, but in practice not all that different from each other.
Between the two cities, and despite the obvious urban differences – the gravitational force exerted by the centre of Paris on its region and the working class neighbourhoods that form part of the urban fabric of Rio – and the cultural differences – the influence of relationships within more or less extended families in Brazil (grandparents, uncles, aunts…), with whom young people cohabit for most of the day and the importance of peer groups for school children in the Paris area – there is nevertheless a certain globalisation of the life style of teenagers in major urban centres, whereby school children share the same enthusiasm for new technologies.
Whether in Paris or Rio, teens from less privileged backgrounds living in urban areas have more hardware than the average. Mobile telephones, smart phones, MP3s, laptops and games consoles: they have everything, or almost. But what do they do with it?
Autonomy and solidarityIn Paris, high schoolers use these new technologies to facilitate going out together, a means of maintaining relationships and organising meetings: going to Châtelet, the swimming pool, the cinema, taking the bus together…before telling their parents and reassuring them with a simple SMS. Using a mobile phone to ask for permission, inform parents about their movements and remain reachable thus helps teens in the Paris area to be more mobile. Hélène Pétry sees this as “a source of parental authority or responsibility” and adds, “far from replacing physical meetings, this sort of communication encourages them by making contacts easier and facilitating the organisation of travel”.
Through the use of MMSs, SMSs and the social networks, NICTs also help teens to transform “lost time” – including that spent on transport – into time shared with friends. This is one of the benefits of NICTs, as demonstrated by the sociologists Dominique Cardon, Zbigniew Smoreda and Valérie Beaudouin, as they help to put sociability back into areas where it had previously been lacking.
Practices differ in Brazil, where SMSs and mobile telephones are seldom used to ask parents for permission or to reassure them, because freedom of movement is granted relatively early on. This is what Hélène Pétry describes as “a source of family solidarity” through small services rendered during time spent moving around in the favela. Here, NICTs are mainly used by young people to help them fulfil their role within the family.
Exploring spaceCommunications between peers and with family confirm, as in the work of Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, that telecommunications take place first and foremost with the people we see the most.
Whether it is a source of authority or family solidarity, digital socialising is all part of maintaining existing relationships. “It also transforms them” points out Hélène Pétry. She says, “in this way, the tight groups of Parisian teenagers gain greater autonomy in their movements, whereas the family solidarity of the Cariocas is made more compatible with teenagers’ leisure pursuits” before concluding that in both Rio and Paris, “digital ties seem to encourage the exploration of space by teenagers by acting like a long mooring line attaching them to their parents”.