Gauging the cyber gap – Thailand Study

While the Internet has been lambasted as a force leading teens astray, some say adults in Thailand should see it as equipping youth for the future

Edited from the Bangkok Post – Sunday, April 29, 2007 – By Erika Fry

Gnarly Kitty, as the 21-year-old is known on her blog, is not the bashful type. She has 192 friends on Hi5, 190 friends on MySpace, and when she has something to rant about (the motto of her blog is that in Bangkok, “there is always something worth ranting about”), she turns to what would be the instinctual non-choice for many, and posts on the world wide web.

Gnarly Kitty‘s rants run on topics ranging from Thai pop music to the government’s censorship of YouTube and are posted on a self-designed web page that is done up in a sassy pink and black motif with a “We love our king” bracelet banded over the page’s top left hand corner.

If the above paragraphs have made little sense, it may be because you are over 30, and all of this business transpires in the realms of cyberspace that Dr Chulanee Thianthai, a sociologist and anthropologist at Chulalongkorn University who has studied the impacts of technology on the “net generation” (i.e. the generation that grew up with them), explains Thai adults are less apt to explore.

According to Chulanee’s research, Gnarly Kitty typifies a generation that, having grown up with net-related technologies and embraced them, has become distinctively more open, worldly and expressive than that came before.

Blame it on the current Camfrog-crushing mood of the kingdom, but according to a number public opinion polls (a February Suan Dusit being the latest) it seems the general public also finds this generation, with their tight clothes and technology dependencies, to be a lot less moral than ever before.

There have been far fewer reports that focus on the benefits of the Internet for young users. Again, while potential dangers of the web certainly cannot be ignored or discounted, neither can the positive impacts, or quite frankly, the necessity of its use today.

Chulanee states that this is especially true for the teens and young adults that are part of the “net generation” and whom, having grown up with communications technologies, have integrated them into their lifestyle and now depend on them as “survival skills.”

She points out that if a young person can’t type or lacks basic computer and internet skills, they will have a hard time in school and finding a job. “Adults in Thailand tend to see computers as providing mostly negative impacts. They see computers and think negative things.”

It was this disproportionately bad PR that inspired Chulanee in 2004 to launch a study on what impacts “new” technologies and the Internet were having on the generation that grew up with them. Using a sample of Bangkok public high school students, Chulanee conducted in-depth interviews with the teens, questioning them on their technology and lifestyle habits. This phase was followed by an intensive “participant observation” phase in which she shadowed select Bangkok teenagers in their normal daily activities, whether that be weekend afternoons in shopping malls or school nights logging hours in internet chatrooms, for days at a time. (Luckily Chulanee looks startlingly young for a college professor).

Over the course of her four-month study, she found that adults and those in the net generation view and use technology in completely different ways. While older generations tend to view computers as machines for work and use them for word processing and basic office applications, the net generation will use them for work, but also for convenience in everyday communications and entertainment.

She adds that parents will often incorrectly assume that using computers in these ways is unhealthy or without value.

“Adults tend to have a more limited view towards computers and the Internet. Unless their children are using it for school-related activities, adults assume it is worthless.”

Multiple benefits

Chulanee believes her research proves Internet pastimes are far from worthless, and that activities like instant messaging, web surfing, blogging, and participating in social networking sites offer value and skills that have fundamentally changed the characteristics of those in Thailand’s “net” generation from those previous.

Among the benefits Chulanee observed that Internet-related activities provide teens is that English language, typing, and interpersonal communications skills (through the teen web communications trifecta: emailing, chatting, and instant messaging) have vastly improved. She adds that because individuals in the net generation are more often communicating, they are also more often exploring their feelings and opinions and more apt to be open and articulate in expressing them.

Her study analysis says that adults sometimes misperceive this new generational “freedom in expressing and defending their minds” as rudeness. Empowered by search engines and the vastness of the Internet, Chulanee says the net generation tends to be more curious, investigative and innovative with information than previous ones.

Obviously these are generalisations, and not to be read that all teenagers are tech-savvy and all adults are not, but like Gnarly Kitty in search of web design skills, teens and young adults these days naturally turn to the Internet if they have questions or skills they want to learn. Information processing has also grown more sophisticated, says Chulanee, as Internet users will tend to absorb multiple sites and perspectives before synthesising answers and opinions.

Similarly, she found that those in the net generation tend to be better informed about local news and world events which they learn of through news sites and chats with friends and Internet users in other parts of the world.

Bask, Mew and Meen, all 18, and recent graduates of Sainampeung school in Bangkok, for example, instant message four or five times a week with penpals in England, Scotland, South Korea and Turkey that they met through Google’s penpal web.

The girls (Bask was one of the students in Chulanee’s studies) use computers 2-4 hours a day in a variety of activities that include emailing, instant messaging, searching for pictures of their favourite stars (Harry Potter star Daniel Ratcliffe and Manchester United footballers) and reading online Korean and Chinese novels. The girls all agree that Internet use has improved their English skills and developed their knowledge of and friendships with people in other parts of the world.

Chulanee says that computers and the Internet has also provided this generation an unprecedented sense of privacy. She says that while there has never been a tradition or value for privacy in the past in Thai culture, cyberspace has allowed young Thais the personal space to explore their own interests and identities.

Social networking

Nowhere is this new tendency of the net generation to establish independence and unique identity more visible than at social networking sites like Hi5 and MySpace.com.

310,000 Thais (mostly university students and young professionals) keep Hi5 accounts, where, like with other social networking sites, they receive a webpage which they customise (through their choice of colours, fonts, backgrounds, music, profile and photo) and use to manage their “friends,” which are other select members of the Hi5 community.

While the point of such networks is to express one’s unique self, it does not take long hours of browsing to realise that just as important to users, is conforming to the site’s hip code of non-conformity (writing one’s name in alternating lower and upper case letters; posting an artsy photo taken at a strange, but flattering angle of one’s self; selecting a background music track that one likes, but that more importantly, is not the same song playing on another user’s site) and toeing that fine line that is takes to look unique — but not wierd — to one’s peers.

The unique skill set that Chulanee asserts technologies have provided the net generation are not without drawbacks however. She says those in the net generation have grown accustomed to multi-taking and getting information quickly, and are often impatient. She doesn’t believe morals have been negatively impacted, but does mention the youth are oftentimes not mindful of the costs involved with technology and oftentimes spend money that is not their own.

While her research found that technologies have predominantly positive impacts on young people, she also believes it’s important to limit use to reasonable and appropriate levels.

While she believes video games breeding violent youth is largely myth (and a poor excuse for what is probably related to bad parenting) and that young people are aware of issues of Internet “stranger danger”, she thinks youth are less mindful of the harmful effects computer use has on eyesight and fitness levels.

Chulanee also believes that the rest of the nation could benefit from greater use of the web and with the development of more online services in Thailand. She notes that this type of development could also help to bridge the nation’s various digital divides, which are only bound to be come a bigger issue in the future.

Increasing computer and Internet-literacy would also likely go a long way in closing the generational gap that invariably leads to adults misunderstanding kids (and assuming they have no morals).

Such strategies (though perhaps with other motives) are already being tested in other parts of the world — perhaps nowhere with more gusto than in the US, where candidates in America’s 2008 presidential campaign have, a year and half in advance, launched their campaigns in what were formerly teen-only places in cyberspace.

This means you can befriend Hillary Clinton on MySpace, Facebook and Friendster (she has 19,000 friends on Facebook, at least a handful that have used this privilege to post “You go girl!” on her message board) or find out the particulars on even the blandest of candidates, for instance that Chris Dodd is a 62-year-old Gemini.

Yet while MySpace’s role in American politics may seem both a bit desperate and ridiculous, it also brings a concerted effort to interact with a young demographic that is oftentimes ignored.

While it’s hard to imagine the Old Ginger posting profiles on Hi5 anytime soon, an effort to reach a similar audience through a more middling Internet policy and the rethinking of short-circuiting websites might be what’s needed to keep the rants of young people like Gnarly Kitty at bay.

She says, “Honestly, I think the Internet is the only escape Thai kids have from this closed society. For us, it’s good because we get to grow and learn things that are not taught to us in this country. The government may see this as a threat as they like to keep things in a closed traditional box, but if they keep this up I doubt any Thai kids would keep appreciating things we call Thai.”

IMPLICATIONS: If we are to reach the young generation of Thai youth, we need to develop strategies using the internet.

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