Millennials suffer due to ‘always-on’ lives

WASHINGTON, D.C.
February 28, 2012 9:01pm
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•  But new survey shows some benefits as well

•  A thirst for instant gratification and lack of patience


Teens and young adults brought up from childhood with a continuous connection to each other and to information will be nimble, quick-acting multitaskers who count on the Internet as their external brain and who approach problems in a different way from their elders, according to a new survey of technology experts.

Many of the experts surveyed by Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center and the Pew Internet Project said the effects of “hyperconnectivity” and the always-on lifestyles of young people will be mostly positive between now and 2020.

But the experts also predict this generation will exhibit a thirst for instant gratification and quick fixes, a loss of patience, and a lack of deep-thinking ability due to what one referred to as “fast-twitch wiring.”

More than half (55 percent) of the surveyed technology stakeholders and critics agreed with the statement: “In 2020 the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are ‘wired’ differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields helpful results. They do not suffer notable cognitive shortcomings as they multitask and cycle quickly through personal- and work-related tasks. Rather, they are learning more and they are adept at finding answers to deep questions, in part because they can search effectively and access collective intelligence via the Internet. In sum, the changes in learning behavior and cognition among the young generally produce positive outcomes.”

Forty-two percent agreed with the opposite statement, which posited: “In 2020, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are "wired" differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields baleful results. They 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. They lack deep-thinking capabilities; they lack face-to-face social skills; they depend in unhealthy ways on the Internet and mobile devices to function. In sum, the changes in behavior and cognition among the young are generally negative outcomes.”

While 55 percent agreed with the statement that the future for the hyperconnected will generally be positive, many who chose that view noted that it is more their hope than their firm prediction, and a number of people said the true outcome will be a combination of both scenarios. The research result here is really probably closer to a 50-50 outcome, says Janna Anderson, co-author of a report on the findings.

Many noted that humans are experiencing a revolutionary era — with new communications tools changing the knowledge landscape all the time — and said young people are approaching life and its tasks and challenges in new ways, with good and bad results.

“While they said access to people and information is intensely improved in the mobile Internet age, they added that they are already witnessing deficiencies in younger people’s abilities to focus their attention, be patient and think deeply,” says Ms. Anderson, director of Elon’s Imagining the Internet Center. “Some expressed concerns that trends are leading to a future in which most people are shallow consumers of information, and several mentioned Orwell’s 1984.”

Survey participants did offer strong, consistent predictions about the most-desired life skills for young people in 2020. Among those they listed are:

• Public problem-solving through cooperative work (sometimes referred to as crowd-sourcing solutions);

• The ability to search effectively for information online and to be able to discern the quality and veracity of the information one finds and then communicate these findings well (referred to as digital literacy);

• Synthesizing (being able to bring together details from many sources);

• Being strategically future-minded;

• The ability to concentrate; and the ability to distinguish between the “noise” and the important messages in the ever-growing sea of information.

“There is a palpable concern among these experts that new social and economic divisions will emerge as those who are motivated and well-schooled reap rewards that are not matched by those who fail to master new media and tech literacies,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and a co-author of the study. “They called for reinvention of public education to teach those skills and help learners avoid some of the obvious pitfalls of a hyperconnected lifestyle.”

Methodology

The survey results are based on a non-random, opt-in, online sample of 1,021 Internet experts and other Internet users, recruited via email invitation, Twitter or Facebook from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University. Since the data are based on a non-random sample, a margin of error cannot be computed, and the results are not projectable to any population other than the experts in this sample.


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