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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation



Several months ago, we hosted a focus group of students (ages 16-24) and asked them: What are your preferred methods of communication?  We thought it was a good question. After all, we’re all about trying to connect with Generation iY—so we thought we’d ask just how they wanted to receive our messages. Their response shouldn’t have surprised us.

Their top eight methods of communication are:

1.     Text messaging

2.     Internet  (i.e.

3.     IPods and Podcasts

4.     Instant messaging

5.     Cell phone

6.     DVD / CD

7.     Books

8.     Email

I want you to notice a few things about this list. First, note that email is last on the list. One student described email as “a way to communicate with older people.”  Second, with one exception, this list moves from more personal to less personal in nature. They want something customized not generic if they’re gong to pay attention. Third, and most importantly, these students prefer a “screen” for six out of their top eight favorite methods of communication.

The Screen Age

Every generation shares common characteristics. However, each generation is defined by some shared elements in their developmental years. The primary elements that define a generation are:

  1. Shared music                                    4. Shared television programs
  2. Shared experiences                        5. Shared celebrities (people of influence)
  3. Shared crises                                    6. Shared age and era

Today, the delivery of almost every one these elements share one thing in common—they are driven by a screen. Call me the master of the obvious, but students want to interact with a screen. In fact, we’ve begun to call students “screenagers” because they are more at home in front of a screen than watching a talking head on a stage. They want a personal message, but want to control how intimate and vulnerable they become. They like the option of signing off when they wish.

The fact that text messaging landed at number one on the list tells us a lot about students today. Bear with me as I venture some observations about why text messages are the preferred method of communication:

1. Text messages represent very current communication.
More so than voicemails, a text means I need to interact now about something relevant to you.

2. Text messages are generally sent from someone you know.
Unlike phones, you generally don’t get a “wrong number” or generic call on a text message.

3. Text messages are brief and to the point.
The person texting doesn’t waste words; in fact, they usually abbreviate the message.

4. Text messaging is in your control. The receiver can stop when they want to.
This kind of control is attractive to students today. They want communication on their terms.

Students today are inundated with messages, from every side. I believe they’re most likely to respond to a text message because it allows them fast, current, relevant communication with friends—but at a safe distance. They like intimacy without a lot of vulnerability. It sounds like a paradox—and perhaps it is. I believe this is but one of several paradoxes that exist among Generation iY. Consider this: they are the first generation who does not need authorities to access information. Why? They have screens. However—they do need authorities, like you and I, to help them process that information. We can interpret it for them. This is our challenge. For more on this topic, see this post from a few weeks ago.


If you’re interested in learning more about the paradoxes of Generation iY and what we can do to help them meet those challenges, join us for the National Leadership Forum, June 23-24 in Atlanta, GA. Click here for more info.


  1. Eva Glahn Atkinson on May 3, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    Should I be surprised that “”Eye-to-eye Talking” was not on the list of preferred means of communication among students, ages 16-24? Talking is on the list if you consider “Cell Phone” usage as real “interpersonal communication.” Wow…am I old school!

    • Tim Elmore on May 3, 2011 at 8:08 pm

      It is surprising how many alternatives we now have to real face-to-face communication! It’s no wonder students don’t want to do the hard work that real interpersonal communication requires. That’s our challenge as parents and educators to show them how important it really is.

  2. Andrew Lim on May 7, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    “Text messages are brief and to the point.” Yes! Amen.

    • Tim Elmore on May 9, 2011 at 8:22 am

      They definitely serve a purpose. Our challenge is to help students make the distinction between when different types of communication are better.

  3. Clay Morgan on May 30, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    I’ve been back to this post a few times and will be using these thoughts during presentations this summer at academic conferences. Thanks for all the great work you do. Happy to tell other professors about your work and book!

    • Tim Elmore on June 10, 2011 at 8:23 am

      Thanks so much, Clay. It’s always encouraging to hear others are finding these posts helpful. I really appreciate you sharing them with others! Have a great summer!

  4. Kim Wilson on August 31, 2011 at 12:26 am

    I work in collegiate ministry and helped out with dorm move-in last week. I asked students that I helped for their contact information so that I could contact them this week. Five out of six of them gave me their phone numbers. I planned to call them because that’s what I was taught about how to follow up with students. Because of this information about Screenagers (which I read a few weeks back), I did something different. I decided that today would be my own personal experiment and texted them. It felt completely weird to text people I had only met once, probably because I’m a GenXer. You know what happened? Within 45 minutes all five of them had replied back to me. And I continued conversations via text with two of them. Wow, this is revolutionary. Thanks for sharing this information. I thought you should know it’s quite useful for me.

    • Tim Elmore on August 31, 2011 at 7:56 am

      Thanks for sharing that real-life example! Glad to hear that stepping out of your normal approach and trying a new way to communicate had such an immediate benefit.

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