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What Will Teens and Young Adults Be Like in 2020?

Will digital natives be better off?

It's a provocative survey, even though it's not a random sample since it was "opt in" and isn't scientific in that sense. But still, I think it's worth paying attention to and thinking about, so that the discussion about the effects of technology remains open and ongoing. Both the questions raised by the survey and the responses seem particularly relevant to the parents of tweens and adolescents who need to be aware of how hyper-connectedness is shaping their children's development; the mothers and fathers of very young children who have to decide whether they're going to hand over that iPad and need to reflect on whether their own use of digital devices offers a healthy or unhealthy model; and the parents of the future who will need to make informed decisions of how best to raise their kids in a digital world. Will the family dinner table in 2020 consist of two adults and a child or two, each of whom is texting someone else?

Pew researchers surveyed what they call "technology stakeholders and critics" —a group comprised of scholars; critics; prominent researchers at places like Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Intel, and the like; people working in "the trenches" of building the Web; futurists; students; and others—and asked them to respond to, comment, and elaborate on two opposing statements about the overall effects of technology on young people and their functioning in 2020. They deliberately chose two black or white alternatives, with no middle ground. In addition, the underlying premise for both statements was that technology is indeed "rewiring" the brain. (It's worth saying that not all the respondents agreed with that premise, arguing that while technology would change how people think, the basic mechanisms of the brain would stay the same.)

One of the interesting things about how the statements are posed is that they assume what I have observed anecdotally: that older Millennials—those born in 1985 and before—use technology in different ways than their younger cohorts, are less dependent on social media in their relationships, and are more like their elders in how they communicate and think. In fact, for the Pew Center's predictive purposes, they've already aged out of the group. More to the point, the statements let us prognosticate about children and young teens who have had access to cell phones, computers, and video games from the very start. (Have you seen the YouTube video of the baby trying to make a magazine work like an iPad?)

So grab your crystal ball or whatever soothsayer apps you have available and see which camp you belong to.

Here's the first from Column A:

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 more adept at finding answers to deep questions, in part because they can search effectively and access cognitive intelligence via the Internet. In sum, the changes in learning behavior cognition among the young generally produce positive outcome.

Now the choice from Column B:

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 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 you're mulling over where you stand—as you've probably already guessed, I'm more inclined to think that the negatives will probably outweigh the positives with the triumph of "The Shallows"—I'll pull back the wizard's curtain and give you the results which turn out, according to the Pew Center's reckoning, to be pretty evenly divided as to which of the two prognostications will come to pass. While the authors report that 55 percent of the respondents in fact chose the optimistic vision posited by the first statement, with 42 percent choosing the decidedly worrisome second option, they also write that many of the 55 percent who chose the rosier view also noted that "it was more their hope than their best guess" and since others said that the outcome would most likely be a combination of the two scenarios, the result was actually closer to a 50-50 outcome than not.

It's my hope that all of you reading this post will weigh in with your own predictions in the comment section.

In the meantime, let me share some of the more provocative observations offered by people in both camps, some named and other anonymous:

  • On the political ramifications of a hyper-connected world: "It is simply not possible to discuss, let alone form major social consensus around problems without lengthy, messy conversations about those problems. A generation that expects to spend 140 or fewer characters on a topic and rejects nuance is incapable of tackling those problems." (Anonymous)
  • On the quality of the information young people will access: "We need to be more worried about how search engines and other tools are being increasingly controlled by corporations and filtering the information we all access." (Anonymous)
  • On whether young people are actually "digital wizards": "Our fondness for thinking positively about multitasking, especially among the youth, gets a lot of reinforcement from two other assumptions: that Millennials have a special aptitude for digital media because they've grown up digital; and that ubiquitous, seamless connectivity is a positive social force. The first assumption is baloney; the second is fraught with contextual problems. Of the hundreds of liberal arts students I've taught, not one in ten has come into my class with the slightest clue about how their digital devices actually work.... In other words, they're just like people who haven't grown up digital. And of course the immersive nature of 24/7 connectedness creates the illusion that Millennials can somehow tap into a form of collective intelligence just by being online, while looking impatiently for messages every three minutes. (David Ellis, director of communications studies, York University in Toronto.)
  • On a new social and economic divide: " Knowledge workers and those inclined to be deep thinkers will gain more cognitive speed and leverage but the easily distracted will not become more adept at anything. History suggests that on balance people will adapt to the new order. The greatest negative outcome will be that the split in adaptation will exacerbate existing trends toward social inequality." (Barry Parr, owner and analyst, MediaSavvy)
  • A need for a different kind of education: "Game Generation teens and adults will have lasting problems with focus and attention. They find distraction while working, distraction while driving, distraction while talking to neighbors. Parents and teachers will have to invest major time and efforts in solving this issue: silence zones, time-out zones, meditation classes without mobile, lessons in ignoring people. All in all, I think the negative side effects can be healed." (Marcel Bullinga, author of Welcome to the Future Cloud.)
  • How the big difference isn't technology at all: "I do not think that the highly interactive, interrupt-driven, always on, information-rich society that young people are growing up in is causing a decline in deep intellectual activity. I think it is the culture at large, driven by the generation before this youngest generation that devalues science, fact, intelligence, reasoning and intellectual achievement in favor of emoting, celebrity, athletic achievement, fighting and winning, and faith. Also, the culture of praise over criticism leads to a society where to tell someone they're incorrect is at best a social faux pas and at worst reasons for demotion, dismissal, and poor teaching evaluations." (Anonymous)

More anon. I hope to hear from you.…