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STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS — Who is more digitally switched on – high school students in Silicon Valley or Beijing?

A new study from Stanford University provides some clues. High schoolers in Palo Alto, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley, spend significantly more time using digital media every day than their peers at leading high schools in the Chinese capital. However, Chinese students sometimes outpace their American counterparts in embracing the latest internet technologies and building a network of online friends they have never met in person.

The Stanford Program on Regions of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SPRIE), part of the university’s Graduate School of Business, looked into the digital lives of teens in Silicon Valley and China’s capital. Seventy-one high schoolers, 44 from Palo Alto and 27 from Beijing, were surveyed online earlier this month. The students, between the ages of 16 and 18, were asked about their usage of different types of consumer electronics and communications, including how much time they spent daily on a range of online activities.

While the California teens spent significantly more time than their Beijing peers using social networking sites and blogging, Beijing students spent considerably more time watching films and videos over the internet, hardly watching television at all. The Beijing teens were much more likely to have online-only friends, and more of them (44% versus 16%) touted Apple’s iPad tablets than the Palo Alto respondents.

The study suggested the emergence of a “digital tribe” of teens transcending cultures and geographic borders, especially in tech hotspots such as Silicon Valley and Beijing. “In certain urban locations, today’s teens are native netizens,” said Marguerite Gong Hancock, associate director of SPRIE. “Most teens in our survey in both Palo Alto and Beijing have had mobile phones since the age of 12. They lead a large part of their daily lives online.”

The survey and other research into patterns of entrepreneurship and venture capital investment was discussed September 30 at a Stanford conference addressing the rise of the internet in China. The gathering, “China 2.0: Transforming Media and Commerce” (www.china2.org) sponsored by SPRI, included speakers from leading internet companies in China, entrepreneurs, and venture capital investors.

In advance of the conference, SPRIE polled the high school students with the assistance of Beijing-based Danwei.org, a Beijing research and information firm. Most of the American teens attend Palo Alto High School, while most of the Beijing students go to People’s University Annex High School. Forty-one females and 30 males participated.  

SPRIE researchers wanted to get a snapshot of the digital lifestyle of young urban Chinese expected to shape China’s technology future. “These are the influencers and early adopters,” said Hancock.

China’s internet population of about 485 million has already surpassed the approximately 250 million users in the United States. “Understanding the habits of the next generation of Chinese netizens is increasingly important to investors and new media companies. The ‘born after 1990’ generation in China will play a role in influencing global adoption of new technologies and business models,” said Duncan Clark, chairman of consulting firm BDA China, and senior advisor of the China 2.0 project at SPRIE.

There were major similarities between Palo Alto and Beijing students. On weekdays, the top online activity for both was doing schoolwork, followed by using social networking sites and downloading and listening to music. On weekends among the Beijing students, schoolwork remained the leading activity, followed by social networking and web surfing. On weekends in Silicon Valley, students spent the most time on social networking sites, followed by schoolwork and music. In both countries, the teens overwhelmingly favored texting to communicate with friends, although the Beijing teens were less likely to text their parents than the Palo Alto group.

Overall, the U.S. teens spent significantly more time than their Chinese counterparts on almost all types of internet activities. The Palo Alto students spent roughly twice as long (two hours a day) on social networking sites. By contrast, the Beijing teens were much more likely to watch videos and films online.

The study suggested that teens in China rely more heavily on the internet as an emotional and social outlet. In Beijing, more than 90% of respondents said they have friends they know only over the internet. That compared with 29% in Palo Alto. “China’s post-’90s single-child generation faces limited play time and heavy academic pressures. The internet enables teens to live out a whole other life online,” said Clark.

—     Maria Shao

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