Out of the Box: The Techno-Flux Effect

April 3, 2006 at 3:33 am Leave a comment

By Gary Rudman

Edited by Becky Ebenkamp

In an environment of accelerated change, where the evolution of technology has become the primary force behind pop culture, teen life is shifting faster today than at any other time in history.

Modern technology is reprogramming today’s teenagers, who grew up playing with integrated circuits alongside their Legos. The pace at which new must-have technologies are being introduced into popular culture demands that teens upgrade their personal operating systems at a breakneck pace.

This constant state of flux has driven some major behavioral shifts and some curious contradictions between what teens think and what they actually do, and has created a suite of unique neuroses.

Life Caching

To say teens think differently than adults isn’t just an old adage; modern technology has literally changed the way teens’ brains are wired. Memory is a prime example, as the amount of free storage and simple organizational utilities offered by companies like Google, Hotmail, Rediff and Yahoo! permit teens to engage in digital Life Caching. There’s no need to commit anything to memory: They live as cybernetic organisms whose diaries, contact lists, social calendars and to-do lists are stored online or in their gadgets rather than in their head. This generation is exposed to more information than any other, yet they don’t have the time, need or capacity to remember it all.

The onslaught of data, both internal and external, causes the brain to trade off in-depth memory storage for memory indexing—that is, the memory is not of the experience or knowledge itself, but rather the image or location of it. When the brain is trained to sort, process and outsource data instead of retain it, you get a generation of people who don’t really know all that much; they just know where the answers can be found.

Brain Blur

The demand placed on the brain by modern technology is considerable. Teens might talk on the phone while instant messaging, watching TV, playing a videogame and doing homework. As a result, they are rarely able to commit their full attention to any one of these activities, and they have difficulty focusing on one task alone. We call this phenomenon Brain Blur.

Each new medium requires teens to manage another input, increasing the fragmentation of brain bandwidth. There’s already the computer, the push-to-talk cell phone, the Sidekick, the home phone, instant messaging, e-mails, pagers, online communities, blogs and message boards.

Managing so much media makes being up-to-the-minute extraordinarily difficult and stressful, because the communication never stops. Teens will often type away to all hours of the morning just to ensure they’re accumulating as much social currency as possible. This heightened, persistent state of multitasking is a defining element of the teenage consciousness.


Information has rivaled nicotine as teens’ drug of choice. In fact, they’ve become so dependent on the Internet as a source of stimulation they have trouble living without it. You might say they suffer from Dataddiction.

Yahoo! and OMD’s Internet Deprivation Study, which involved 12 U.S.-based families going without any kind of online access for two weeks (backed up by a survey among 1,000 online users), found that “regardless of age, household income or ethnic background, all participants in the ethnographic research study experienced withdrawal and feelings of loss, frustration, and disconnectedness when cut off from the online world.”

Furthermore, participants described their time offline as “having to resist temptation,” missing their “private escape time” during the day and “feeling left out of the loop.”


Given the persistent stream of stimulation and information available to them, most teens have grown up perpetually on the go. Few moments are reserved for just sitting and thinking: their time is always occupied by a stream of different activities. At home, they are often multitasking in a Brain Blur and, when out, they live as Technomads, playing games on their phones or PSPs, listening to their MP3s, talking on the phone or doing all at the same time. These teens are rarely disconnected from their gadgets, and when they are, they’re literally Chill-Challenged.

Even environments that have traditionally forced teens to “chill” have changed dramatically. In the car with their parents, for instance, teens are now often literally “plugged in” and “tuned out”—listening to their MP3 players and/or headrest DVD players.

Deprived of their usual accessories, these teens often look and feel lost, and tend to complain of being incredibly bored. As Judith Kidd, associate dean of student life and activities at Harvard told the Washington Post, “They don’t know what to do with downtime. They come to campus with day planners.”
Marketing Implications

Living a life of constant engagement means teens are also living a life of constant distraction. Any communication that intends to cut through the multiple inputs calling for a teen’s attention will have to be tighter, faster and delivered in a more compelling style. Marketers must also realize that teenagers—and the population at large—are looking for distraction and places to plug in. They cannot stand being idle, and marketers can capitalize on this.

As teens get older and deal with more technology and more responsibilities, Brain Blur will increase, so they will look for ways to distance themselves from the tornado of stresses in their life. Marketers can work to develop strategies to help teens out of this crushing stress, whether by developing appropriate messages, products or experiences, or a combination of all three.

Gary Rudman is founder and president of GTR Consulting, San Francisco, which specializes in market research targeting kids, teens and young adults. The passage above is an excerpt from GTR’s gTrend Report, a qualitative look at the relationship between teens, technology and society. Contact Rudman at (415) 713-7852 or gary@gtrconsulting.com, or visit the Web site, http://www.gtrconsulting.com.


Entry filed under: Press.

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