Retrograde whinging or New Wave fears?

IS THE internet and in particular, social networking, making the young people dumber than their predecessors?

The conventional wisdom holds that the internet is a place where all possible information is available all the time. Surely such a resource would be the great tool of enlightenment of our times, and any contact with it would lead to an intellectual renaissance. Despite this assumption, could it be that each LOLcat, each inane comment on Facebook and each kid falling over on youtube is leading to ignorance on a mass scale?

That’s what Mark Bauerlein thinks.  He’s the author of a 2009 book called “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies our Children and Jeopardizes our Future”, which discusses the issue at great length.

 "We're about to turn our country over to a generation that doesn't read much and doesn't think much either," he said to the Manhattan Institute in 2009. "We have abysmal rates of civic knowledge and historical knowledge."

He acknowledges that teenagers have always wanted interaction with other teenagers, but the parameters and capability for doing so has greatly increased with the introduction of social media. For example, back in the day (whatever day that was) teenagers would hang out, but then they’d come home and go to their rooms where they couldn’t particularly interact with each other at length. Now though, that transition isn’t there. Teenagers can go home, and continue that interaction.

A typical internet dummy?

What’s so bad about that? Well as it turns out, that time which could be used constructively is now being used to hone their inane comment skills. When teenagers are given freedom to choose what they do with their spare time, invariably they will choose to do exactly what doesn’t challenge them.

Bauerlein again, talking to reasonTV back in 2009. “They’re not going to the Smithsonian website, and a Nielsen poll indicated that out of ten teenagers, nine of them list social networking site as their most visited sites”

“One thing we can say is that the leisure reading young people do, the museum visits, the library visits that they do, those have gone down. It’s only natural because the menu of leisure activities for teenagers and young adults has gotten bigger. Reading takes up a smaller segment of that sector now.

“The internet, I think, has become a massive empowerment tool. It allows people to go where they’re already interested. Even if that [stumbling across enlightening material] does happen, I don’t think they’ll stick with it”

So social networking has allowed teenagers and young people more of what they want, namely, interaction with other teenagers and young people. While this has been happening, Bauerlein fears, all the material out there which could have a profound intellectual impact on the next generation is being completely ignored.

As he wryly puts it, “Young people have lost the ability to go to a quiet room and read a book”.

Is it as bad as that? Really? I use Facebook all the damned time and yet I’ve watched Fellini, read Dickens, Plato and managed to have a critical engagement with current affairs. I’m known for inane comments, and yet I have the intelligence to see the inherent irony in this paragraph.

As it turns out, while teenagers may not be critically engaging with texts of the past, they’re a lot more aware of social issues today.

One of the great things about Facebook and other social networking sites is that it allows users to rally around a social point more quickly than ever before. It’s impossible these days to surf the internet without being bombarded with spam for some cause or another, and this is leading to a renewed interest among teenagers with the world around them.

Of course, it’s hard not to venture onto Facebook without being invited to play Farmville, but that’s another story for another time.

Take the recent Haitian tragedy for example. Twitter knew about it before any mainstream media outlets did, and within a very short time of the earthquake registering, numerous causes to help in relief efforts had been set up. In the midst of this, young people became aware of the tragedy, and many of them volunteered to help.

It’s no accident that while causes being promoted on various social networking sites has increased, so has the number of young people volunteering. In fact, The US National Conference on Citizenship found in 2009 that young people led the way when it came to volunteering with 43 per cent of volunteers coming from the ages between 15 and 29.

This age group is being increasingly engaged via social networking sites, so what does this mean? Does it mean that teenagers and young people are trading traditional intelligence for increased social interaction and social awareness?

Quite clearly dangers to society

Well, that depends on how you look at it. Bauerline’s chief concern with social networking is that young people are not seeking out knowledge, but instead waiting for it to come to them. In much the same fashion, the increased social awareness of young people is only possible because it has come to them.

He’s concerned with the apathy toward both knowledge and social awareness that social networking has borne.

“I blame my colleagues, the humanities professors. Who have passed along irreverence toward historical knowledge, literary understanding and civic understanding” Bauerline says.

“They don’t have the conviction to say, ‘if you don’t read these books, you will not be a complete human being.

“They’re too afraid of being seen as irrelevant, and old fogie, fuddy-duddies and reactionaries and retrograde conservatives that they worry about being on the other side of their students’ world.

“Eighteen year-olds need to learn that their friends aren’t going to help them build their need to have someone come into your life and tell you ‘there’s a great big world out there, and you’ve got to pull yourself out of this tiny world and engage with it’”

Does this mean that you should stop inhabiting the social networking space and crack open a book of French philosophy? As with all things, social networking is good in moderation and can have a positive impact on young people, but when attitudes learned in cyberspace are applied to learning, then we’re in trouble.

For this generation and the next.

- James McGrath


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