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Whither the Digital Generation?

March 5, 2012 | Harry Kimball

Last week Gawker pointed us to a Pew study with a reliably snarky headline, "The Internet Either Is or Is Not Ruining Teens' Brains, Say Experts." The thing is, that's an accurate statement, to a point. The more than a thousand technologists, futurists, academics, and critics queried are fairly reliably split about whether they agree with one of two statements, which begin:

In 2020 the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are "wired" differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields helpful results.

Or:

In 2020, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are "wired" differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields baleful results.

Baleful! Yeesh. About 55% of respondents agreed with the more optimistic statement, which prophesies no "notable cognitive shortcomings" associated with a greater facility at multitasking and online information gathering, and "changes in learning and cognition among the young" that produce generally "positive outcomes."

Another 42% weren't so bullish on the future, and agreed instead with the second statement. In 2020, it continues, young people "do not retain information; they spend most of their energy sharing short social messages, being entertained, and being distracted away from deep engagement with people and knowledge."

But the survey wasn't really about these two extremes. Those questions were a "tension pair" that was "designed to provoke detailed elaborations," the authors note in polling jargon, and that is exactly what they did, eliciting much less black-and-white ruminations from the experts. The most insightful suggest that the advance of technology is inevitable but the effects are not, and that the real measure of the future is how we educate our children about new media.

"The question we face as individuals, organizations, educators and perhaps especially as parents," writes Alexandra Samuel of the Social + Media Centre, "is how we can help today's kids to prepare for that world—the world they will actually live in and help to create—instead of the world we are already nostalgic for." We just have trouble accepting the future and leaving the past behind. "The tendency to moralize and fret over new media seems to be wired into us," notes Christopher J. Ferguson of Texas A&M. But the new media landscape is where our children will live, and to make the most of it they will need tools to thrive there.

The term of art for this sort of education is "internet literacy," and it seems more critically important every day as computers and mobile devices become ubiquitous, everywhere from the bedroom to the classroom. We've seen how easy it is for technology to be bent to malicious or simply unhelpful ends, but turning Luddite is not a valid solution for most people. These changes in the media landscape will change how our children learn and interactbut it's up to parents and educators working with young people to ensure that the change is one for the better.

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