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Millennials and Social Media: It May Not Be What You Think

Does too much technology really undermine social skills?

Paul Martin Lester/Wikimedia
Source: Paul Martin Lester/Wikimedia

It has always been fashionable to vilify the current generation of American youth as it crosses the threshold into adulthood. The naively idealistic Baby Boomers, the lazy Gen-Xers, and now the narcissistic Millennials have each in turn been portrayed as the disappointing end result of pampered parenting and a dysfunctional educational system.

Strangely, only the “Greatest Generation” appears to have had no flaws, although I suspect this is only because the generations who fretted about them have been long dead and can no longer complain.

I am a psychologist who studies (among other things) social life in cyberspace.

The virtual world of the Internet creates unprecedented opportunities and pitfalls for human social relationships, and I enjoy trying to figure out how it all works. When people find out what I do, they frequently ask me about the effects of being constantly “plugged in” on the social skills and attention spans of young people.

Curiously, none of these at least somewhat older people seem to be too worried about what this does to members of their own generation.

Does Technology Undermine Social Skills?

Usually, the individuals who approach me do not really have “questions” about this at all.

They often have strong opinions about the detrimental effect of all of this technology on our youth, and they want to have their opinions confirmed by a so-called “expert.” The gist of the argument goes something like this: “Kids today (you know you are getting old when you start a sentence with this expression) are losing the ability to interact with real people in real physical space. They do not develop good social skills, they have short attention spans, they do not know how to be with others, etc.

Lately, I have been doing a good deal of thinking about this, and in some respects, I have reached the exact opposite conclusion.

The problem is not so much that young people are bad at being with other people. In fact, the problem is that they are bad at being without other people.

As someone who spends every day on a college campus, I can vouch for the fact that today’s teens and young adults spend a great deal of time with their peers doing the same things that previous generations did at that age (except, of course, for the “Greatest Generation”).

The interesting side effect of the new technology is that one never has to spend time disconnected from others, completely alone with one’s own thoughts for significant stretches of time.

During the past year, I have had several enlightening conversations with college students that reveal the unthinkability to them of lacking instant access to whomever they desire via texting, email, twitter, skype, or even by old-fashioned telephone.

College Kids Today . . .

Shutterstock.com/Shutterstock - used by permission
Source: Shutterstock.com/Shutterstock - used by permission

Let me provide two examples.

In my spare time, I help coach the wrestling team at my college. As we were packing up the van to head for home after a tournament, I was counting heads to make sure that everyone was present and accounted for. This provided a segue for me to reminisce to them about an incident during my own college wrestling career in the 1970s in which we inadvertently left one of our teammates behind in the middle of the night, three and one-half hours from home, in the dead of winter. The unfortunate lad had to hitch-hike home in the darkness, and it was not until he showed up at practice the next afternoon with a chip on his shoulder that we found out what had happened.

The plight of my teammate was greeted with a bit of derision by my 21st century wrestlers.

They understood that he did not have a phone, but “why didn’t he just go and find a phone and call the team as it was traveling home?

I patiently explained (or so I thought) that the dilemma was that the people who had left him behind were traveling in cars and did not have phones. But surely, they argued, he could have called someone else who could have then contacted the people in the cars! The conversation went on for some time before the light went on and they began to comprehend that people traveling in cars in the 1970s were unreachable by anyone.

I found the whole discussion to be quite entertaining.

In a similar situation, I was traveling with a group of students as we returned from a conference, and we stopped for a bite to eat at a restaurant. During our meal, there was a lot of texting with friends and sending photos of their adventure via their phones, and the conversation turned to the old days when one had to travel without phones. I casually mentioned the modern convenience of having a cellphone available when one breaks down on the highway.

This was followed at first by quizzical looks that soon turned to dismay. “What did you do?” they wondered. “Surely, you couldn’t just sit there and wait for help with no one even knowing where you were!?

They clearly had never thought about this in their life, ever.

I got into the details about how one dealt with such a situation and talked about accommodations such as the emergency phones located along a highway at intervals of a mile or two. For some reason, they thought that this was hilarious, and to this day, I believe that they think I was making it all up.

So, my current thinking on this topic is that the perpetual connection through social technology is not taking away from face-to-face social interaction as much as it is taking away from alone time when one is neither interacting with others, nor at least looking at their pictures on Facebook.

This has created new hazards for the modern college professor. When I am walking down a corridor against traffic after a large class has just been let out, I now find that I must have the moves of an NFL running back to avoid being trampled by the mob of students who are looking at their phones instead of where they are walking - the viral YouTube video of the woman who sued a shopping mall after she fell into a fountain while walking and texting perfectly illustrates the phenomenon.

We also live in a world where students in class now have the choice of listening to a boring lecture or interacting with friends by way of their laptops while pretending to take notes, and I think we all know how this will end.

In summary, fret not about the social lives of Millennials—they are doing fine. However, I think that both the Millennials and their elders had better prepare for that problematic generation that is now in preschool . . . .

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