Experts Weigh in On The Hyper-Connected Lives of Young People; Say Digital Literacy Education is a Vital Need

March 20, 2012
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, Research & Studies, Students

Is the “always on” generation’s constant connection to people and information creating shallow skimmers who lack the knowhow to analyze and evaluate what they read online? Technology experts and stakeholders are split, according to a recent study by the PEW Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project in conjunction with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center.

According to predictions of 1,021 experts ranging from tech CEOs, professors, and principal researchers, hyper-connected young people will be nimble multitaskers by 2020; however, they will also likely thirst for instant gratification and may value the immediacy of their information over the credibility of their findings. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement, “In 2020, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults will be wired differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields helpful results,” while 42 percent agreed that the same difference in wiring will yield “baleful” results.

The researchers note that, while 55 percent agreed on a positive outcome, many in this group also mentioned that it is more their hope than their best guess, and that many said the “true outcome” will be a combination of both scenarios.

As Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian told the Los Angeles Times’  Deborah Netburn, “I made the optimistic choice, but in reality, I think both outcomes will happen. This has been the case for every communications advance: writing, photography, movies, radio, TV, etc. There’s no reason to believe that the internet is any different.” Adding further, “a larger fraction of the world’s population will now be able to access human knowledge,” he said. “This has got to be a good thing,”

Many of the 42 percent who expect negative results were teachers – people who deal with the “always-on” generation daily. According to the Los Angeles Times article, teachers almost universally lamented the loss of attention span and critical thinking in their students. “Technology is playing a big part in students not only not being able to perform as well in class, but also not having the desire to do so,” wrote one college professor. Others stated that a loss of individuality can be attributed to technology and that students’ may be adept at finding answers, but that they tend to be shallow and not well-researched.

This last sentiment mirrors findings of a 2010 study by Associate Professor in the Department of Communications Studies Eszter Hargittai and colleagues at Northwestern University. The findings showed that college students are not always turning to the most relevant clues to determine the veracity of online content. Indeed, students appear to lack “Web savvy” when it comes to determining credibility and using search engines. According to study results, students favor the rankings of search engines and the top result rather than other factors, such as the author’s credentials.

In an unprecedented era of hyper-connectivity, when 95 percent of teens ages 12-17 are online, 76 percent are using social networking sites, and 77 percent have cell phones, there is a vital need for digital literacy to be more widely taught. The skills that the Pew survey experts predicted would matter most going forward include the basics of digital literacy: crowd-sourced problem-solving; effective search, the ability to judge quality and authenticity of online sources (what digital media scholar Howard Rheingold calls “crap detection”), and the ability to synthesize information from a variety of sources, the ability to distinguish the noise from the message, and the ability to concentrate. Distraction, in other words, will be the norm. Educators must prepare students to handle that distraction and filter and synthesize the massive amounts of information at hand.

Without these skills, the Pew experts who were surveyed worried that a new “division of labor” could emerge “that rewards those who make swift, correct decisions as they exploit new information streams and rewards the specialists who retain the skills of focused, deep thinking.” Those left behind “will be mired in the shallow diversions offered by technology.”

To help educators and mentors encourage media awareness in teens and young adults, here at Common Sense Media we’ve created a free Digital Literacy and Citizenship Curriculum for students K-12. The curriculum features grade-specific lessons on a variety of topics, covering everything from gaming and online worlds, to social networking, and online relationships. [See for example this lesson for high school students on strategic searching, designed to help students think critically about their online searches so they are effective and produce relevant results]. Each lesson plan includes discussion guide materials for students and teachers, as well as a four-step teaching plan complete with vocabulary lists for each level. The curriculum also offers first-person videos from students of all ages talking about their personal experiences relating to each topic. Browse all of resources online here