Julia Schwartz, left, and sister Robyn share an iPod while Robyn text-messages a friend using her cellphone in 2006.(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
Teenagers today are growing up in an unprecedented environment of hyper-inter-connectivity. According to recent data collected by the Pew Internet Project, 95% of teens 12 to 17 are online, 76% use social networking sites and 77% have cellphones.
But whether the tweeting, Google searching, texting, Facebook chatting lifestyle of the "Always On" (AO) generation is creating a savvy group of information gatherers who skillfully harness the power of collective thinking, or if a crippling reliance on the Internet will create a generation of shallow and easily manipulated drones with no attention span -- well, that's up for debate.
On Wednesday, the Pew Research Center, in conjunction with Elon University's Imagining the Internet project, released the results of a survey of 1,021 Internet "experts" asked to weigh in on whether growing up in a hyper-connected world will have a net positive effect, or a net negative effect, on today's youth.
The results were split, with 55% of respondents saying thanks to the Internet kids today are learning to crowd source information and quickly locate answers to deep questions, and 43% saying it's not looking too good for the future of deep thought.
Three percent couldn't make up their minds one way or the other.
Then everybody was asked to explain their choice.
Almost all agreed that in the future there will be a distinct set of skills that young people will need to be successful, including knowing how to solve problems through cooperative work and knowing how to quickly and efficiently find information on the Internet and just as quickly determine if that information has any value.
The most depressing comments in the report came from teachers -- those dealing with the AO generation day in and day out -- who almost universally bemoan the loss of attention span and ability to think critically 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 teacher who has been teaching at the college level for 12 years.
Another professor wrote: “Every day I see young people becoming more and more just members of a collective (like the Borg in Star Trek) rather than a collection of individuals and I firmly believe that technology is the cause.”
Yet another wrote: "The answers that students produce -- while the students may be adept at finding them on Google -- tend to be shallow and not thought through very well."
But there was some optimism in the report, like this balanced but ultimately positive quote provided by Hal Varian, chief economist at Google.
"I made the optimistic choice, but in reality, I think both outcomes will happen," he wrote. "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."
"It will provide ways to save time, and ways to waste time, and people will take advantage of both opportunities. In balance, however, I lean toward the more optimistic view since a larger fraction of the world's population will now be able to access human knowledge. This has got to be a good thing.”