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The dumbest generation? Not this crowd

The stereotype that tech socializing and game play is degrading teens didn't apply to the Silicon Valley teens at SD Forum's second annual Teens in Tech confab.

PALO ALTO, Calif.--Just yesterday I received a review copy of the book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.

In fairness, I've just started reading the book and am looking forward to it. But what I've gleaned so far from the cited research is that kids today are so busy texting friends, downloading content, playing video games, and socializing online that they're losing touch with reading (even online), civic engagement and a solid work ethic.

That profile--especially the last item--doesn't apply to the Silicon Valley teens here Tuesday at SD Forum's second annual Teens in Tech confab.

Take Anshal Samar, the 14-year-old inventor of chemistry card game Elementeo, who at last year's conference said he wanted to earn his first million dollars by the time he graduated middle school. Now on the verge of selling his fantasy-education game to the public, he could meet that goal out of 8th grade. (He already has 5,000 orders, but he hopes to raise as much as $1 million to distribute 50,000 sets by next fall.) Samar used the Web and photo-editing software to create his game.

Anshul Samar, the 14-year-old inventor of chemistry card game Elementeo Stefanie Olsen/CNET

Or Sejal Hathi, a 16-year-old at Notre Dame High School in San Jose, Calif., who founded the nonprofit Girls Helping Girls to inspire young women around the world to affect social change in their communities. The Internet is central to Hathi's push to get the word out about her organization.

Or Jonathan Wilde, a 15-year-old programmer who recently won Google's Highly Open Participation Contest for work on open-source document management software called Plone. He said during the conference that he's developing his own open-source software that he hopes to launch soon.

Sure, all of these teens loosely fit the mold of a wired generation. They spend multiple hours online every day on sites like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and YouTube. And they're no stranger to texting friends or creating content online. But they're behavior is more indicative of an uber-ambitious class of kids (likely raised by tech-savvy parents) that's bending technology to their will rather than staying beholden to it.

The teens were invited here Tuesday to Hewlett-Packard's campus as part of a day-long event focused on how the young generation is using technology to innovate, start new companies, or organize around causes. Marketers and investors were naturally in toe to talk about efforts to reach younger audiences online and scout for fresh ideas.

The panelists were arguably among the cream of the crop of their generation, so you could hardly consider them dumb. Their ideas and drive could turn them into the next Catherine Cook or Mark Zuckerburg. But that tech prowess and ambition could have as much to do with their genes as their geographic location.

"Being in Silicon Valley makes it impossible not to be an entrepreneur. I didn't want to wait 10 years," Samar said during an opening presentation of his company. Dressed in a power-blue shirt and blazer, you could hardly tell Samar from the executives in the crowd, except that he barely cleared the podium.

Most of the teens had behaviors unlike what you read in most research reports.

For example, during a panel at the conference (which I moderated), all of the kids said that they had abandoned MySpace in favor of Facebook. Among the reasons: Facebook lacked MySpace's gaudiness, offered superior privacy controls, and could better connect an upwardly mobile teen to professional contacts. Hathi, for example, uses Facebook "cause" groups to market her nonprofit.

Still, given the choice of another, simpler social network, most of the teens said that they would have no problem switching if their friends were there.

Most of the panelists said that they don't use instant chat, despite popularity of tools like AOL Instant Messenger among teens. Instead, most of them said that e-mail was the best way to blast out a message to friends; and then catch up with responses when they're not busy later. None of the teens seemingly had the time for the micro-blogging service Twitter.

In response to a question about whether e-mail's utility will stay relevant in the age of MySpace and Facebook, they all said that it would.

"E-mail will survive because it's far more professional than other forms of digital communication," said Hathi.

Another apparent anomaly among these teens was that they were all concerned with their privacy online. The group said that they try to avoid leaving any digital tracks and use high privacy settings in social networks.

Wilde, for example, attributed this behavior to his parents. Wilde said they made an impression on him while young to avoid sending e-mail or posting anything online that he wouldn't be comfortable with the world reading.

As for books, most of the teen panelists lamented that they didn't read as much as they would like, apart from school assignments. Yet they do get much of their news online. Hathi said she regularly reads The Economist and The New York Times online. Deanna Alexander, a 17-year-old from Mountain View, Calif., said she read about the recent earthquake in China online. Wilde, who writes his own blog on robotics, said he likes to keep up with industry sites like Engadget.

So what's missing in all this technology? Oddly enough, most of the teens said that personal connections are getting lost in the time spent with software built to connect people. When asked what they would do without MySpace and Facebook, for example, most of the panelists said with some regret that they would probably spend more face time with their friends and family.

"We might spend more time with people on a more personal level," said Alexander, who builds art-focused Web sites in her free time.

Wilde agreed. During his work on the Google contest, he said he met some of the event organizers. But ultimately he felt a lack of a real connection to them through email or a social network.

"You don't really establish a relationship until you actually talk to that person or shake their hand," he said.

Sounds smart to me.