Participatory Marketing Network has unearthed some surprising data on Gen Y behavior. Apparently, the members of this young demographic (ages 18-24) would rather give up their social networking accounts before they would abandon their email. Given that this generation is typically viewed as "plugged in" digital natives who don't have any use for email, the study raises many questions. Have the previous reports about Generation Y's disdain for email simply been wrong? Or has Gen Y grown up a bit now and has learned the necessity of the medium?A recent study by industry group the
Gen Y Chooses to Keep Email, Text Messaging over Social Networks
PMN asked 203 panel members about their day-to-day behavior including the time they spent visiting social networks, reading and writing email, texting, talking on the phone, watching TV, reading magazines and surfing the web (visiting non-social networking sites).
When asked what activity they would be least willing to give up for an entire week, only 9% responded with "social networks." However, 26% responded "email." Another 26% said they wouldn't give up texting, although that finding is less surprising and fits in with other known behavioral traits of this particular demographic.
The report also notes that the time spent on social networks is now nearly the same as the time spent emailing. Panelists reported spending 33 hours per month on social networks and 31 hours per month on email. The difference of 2 hours per month is somewhat negligible. What's unexpected is how close those two numbers are to each other.
According to Michael Della Penna, PMN co-founder and Executive Chairman, Gen Y finds email more critical because it remains the central hub for "social networking updates, including alerts around new followers, discussion updates and friend requests." While that may be true to a point, if the only reason Gen Y desired email access was for the social networking updates, it seems they would just go to the source instead: the social networks themselves. Given a choice between the two, it would be likely that they would have chosen to give up email and not their Facebook accounts. Something else must be going on here.
These findings also somewhat contradict a wider study done by Pew Internet and American Life earlier this year which more deeply examined how the different generations use the Internet. At that time, the study showed that email was still "for old people," so to speak, and email usage among teens had dropped from 89% in 2004 to 73% in 2009. Meanwhile, Pew also found that out of all the demographic groups surveyed, Gen Y was the most likely to use social networks.
Then last month, the Online Publishers Association revealed that web surfers' use of social networking sites like Facebook had become so rampant that it was actually causing a decline in email use.
While neither study specifically compares Gen Y's use of email against that of social networking sites, both seem to imply that email use is trending down thanks to the impact of social networking. That's why it's odd to find that one of the more "connected" generations would be quicker to abandon those social sites in favor of the more antiquated medium.
So Why Would Gen Y Give Up Facebook, but Not Email?
The answer to that question could be something as simple as how the survey question was worded. After all, the survey asked which activity they would give up for a week. Ask them again which one they could give up permanently and you may get a different answer.
Another theory is that all the hype about how Generation Y doesn't care for email is just an overblown stereotype about a demographic that, in reality, isn't all that different from the rest of us...at least when it comes to our inbox addiction.
Or perhaps Gen Y is starting to grow up a bit. Now that a large majority of them have exited their "teen" years and have entered the job market, they have begun to learn the importance of email communications. And no, they aren't just for receiving Facebook updates and friend requests. Email may now involve business-critical messages which jobs depend upon.
Finally, it could be that Gen Y has just a touch of Facebook ennui. The network, which used to be an exclusive hang out, has now been overrun by Baby Boomers and other "old folks" including bosses, parents, and sometimes even grandparents. Meanwhile, many have "aged out" of MySpace, finding themselves no longer as interested in the glittery profiles and loud music that seemed much more attractive in their high school days.
In addition, although we don't have any hard data yet, there are reports that Gen Y users are finding solace in alternative, niche social media sites like FML, Failblog, TextsFromLastNight, and Sporcle. Though not typical "social networks," these timewaster sites skew heavily towards young, college-aged adults says Carol Phillips, president of Brand Amplitude, a marketing firm that focuses heavily on the millennial demographic.
In any event, there's no need to take the PMN's study as gospel, especially given its relatively small sample set. Still, it raises the question whether this purported change in behavior deserves further study. Has Gen Y succumbed to email addiction like the rest of us? Or have they always felt this way? We hope some more in-depth research will reveal those answers in the future.
Image credit: Mac guy via Apple