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Turn On, Tune In, and Text Message
Today’s college students are connected 24/7. How has that impacted them, and what does it mean for higher education?
by Paul Ketzle
U senior Dani Kauerz doesn’t remember a world without the Internet.
Her parents paid for her first cell phone, for emergencies only, when she was in ninth grade. She bought her own phone once she started driving, which is when she says her obsession with text messaging began. She uses e-mail, instant messaging, Bluetooth, and the Internet daily—often hourly. She owns two computers (one laptop, one desktop), a BlackBerry (to keep her schedule organized), and an iPod.
“If I had AT&T,” Kauerz says, “the iPhone would be mine.”
All this “wiredness” is not particularly unique among Kauerz’s peers in what was once tagged Generation Y or Generation Next, now more commonly called Millennials—the first generation to have lived exclusively within this new technological age. How that upbringing has shaped their perspectives—and even how they learn—is becoming increasingly relevant as Millennials reach college and start becoming more active contributors to society as a whole.
Millennials have grown up in a world that is perpetually broadcast to them, and in which they perpetually broadcast to the world, every hour of every day. Iraq and 9/11 are the pivotal moments of their youth, but unlike the touchstone moments that defined previous generations—the moon landing, Vietnam, the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Challenger shuttle disaster—these modern earthquakes are in competition with a constant barrage of images and moments from halfway around the globe and halfway down the block.
This could explain why it seems perfectly natural for them to never break that thread of communication, with either each other or the world.
U sophomore Dana Green believes she’s addicted to both her phone and e-mail. Not only does she check her e-mail numerous times a day, she also spends an exorbitant amount of time calling friends and family. “Yesterday I called my sister 15 times. Every little thing I thought to tell her, I’d call her.”
“I’m always connected,” Kauerz says. “My phone is never off. I don’t know anyone who turns their phone off. If I didn’t answer my phone, someone would know something’s wrong. People will think you’re dead, mad, or just ignoring them.”
In many ways, it is as difficult to try to generalize about Millennials as it is about Baby Boomers or Generation X, but in terms of technology, interesting trends appear to be developing. A study released in 2005 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that nearly half of American teenagers owned a cell phone and 84 percent reported owning a computer, cell phone, or BlackBerry—or some combination of all three. More than half of them at that time had also created some Internet content, though the nature of the content they interacted with the most broke along gender lines: boys were found more likely to be engaged in the downloading of Internet files, while older girls more often produced “self-authored content” like artwork or journaling.
Along with the rise of online journaling, or “blogging” (a shortened form of “Web logging”), the growth of Internet socializing and networking hotspots like MySpace, Friendster, and Facebook has exploded. On these sites, users post photos, conduct conversations, and write about themselves, including the everyday minutiae of their lives. As a result, many Millennials feel they are achieving a new kind of density in their relationships.
“It makes us closer, because all day we’re talking to each other,” Kauerz argues. “We text message all day. We write comments to each other online all day. When we are together, we don’t have to ask ‘What did you do today?’ We’ve already told each other. So, when we’re together, we can really talk. My friends know everything about my life.”
The openness and exhibitionism of Millennials often strikes even Generation Xers as excessive.
This kind of openness and exhibitionism often strikes even Generation Xers as excessive. Not so, though, for author, teacher, and Gen Xer Mary Anne Mohanraj PhD’04, who 12 years ago started one of the Internet’s first online journals, much to the bewilderment of her friends and acquaintances at the time. “They’d ask me, ‘Why would you want to put your life out there for strangers?’ ” She laughs: “Only a few years later, everyone and their mother had a journal …. Now, my students can multitask on all kinds of channels that I can barely access.”
The rapid growth and abundance of these socially interactive technologies (SITs)—including personal Web pages, text messaging, e-mails, and online classrooms—often provoke anxiety among older generations. In a 2001 article in the Journal of Research in Reading, Guy Merchant asserts that these concerns are not especially different from worries about other radical new “technologies” that have appeared throughout history—even writing itself. Merchant argues that by utilizing informal skills in SITs, teenagers (today’s college students) are actually developing skill sets that will prove advantageous in the business world, which is becoming increasingly high-tech and places a premium on those who can utilize these resources deftly.
Mohanraj also points out a significant benefit of the Web: making it easier to connect with those who share your hobbies, interests, and fantasies, giving Millennials an opportunity that previous generations wouldn’t have found growing up in towns and cities kept more isolated by limitations both physical and technological. “You have the whole online world. That makes for communities that didn’t exist before.”
Still, a recent study in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication found that the various SITs generally were not creating more exclusively virtual communities, as SITs largely were used by teens to continue off-line relationships. And those relationships that did begin exclusively online did not generally branch out into off-line ones.
But technology-mediated social engagement does also provide a space for individuals to interact virtually with others in ways they might not feel comfortable engaging in face to face—such as with high levels of personal disclosure, not to mention intense personal attacks.
“One difference with the Internet is that people feel like they can be anonymous online in a way they can’t in real life,” Mohanraj says. While acknowledging that this belief is largely illusory, she does suggest that it “can allow for certain types of communication people wouldn’t allow themselves before. A lot of stuff is put out there in a way that wouldn’t have happened without the Web.”
But while some see the potential for virtual engagement to help socially awkward individuals interact more comfortably with others, the Computer-Mediated Communication study found that teens who were socially isolated in the real world—those who might most benefit from the seeming ability to reinvent oneself in a virtual world—were actually far less likely to use these technologies at all. And, of course, financial limitations make it difficult for many young people to engage with these technologies to the same degree as others who are more affluent.
Other assessments find that the virtual world has in other ways fallen short of the egalitarian ideals some have hoped for it. One ethnographer’s recent analysis (published online—naturally—at www.danah.org/papers/essays/ClassDivisions.html) comparing MySpace and Facebook usage demonstrates a perpetuation of the social and economic divisions that exist for users in the actual world. Minorities and “outsiders” are more likely to frequent MySpace, while Facebook is home to more of the upper- and middle-class college-going and college-bound. At least part of this division lies in the origins and rules initially established by the respective online social networks. Facebook, originally founded by and for Harvard students, remained, until fall 2006, open exclusively to college students. MySpace was open to the general public from its inception in 2003, quickly becoming a gathering point for bands and artists. These origins continue to be reflected in the subcultures and aesthetics of those who variously flock to the networks.
As for why Millennials feel a desire to engage in this way online, Mohanraj sees little that’s new. “It’s a general human desire to be known, to communicate and connect with people. People have always done that. Hundreds of years ago it was gossiping in the village. Today, that village is online—and much larger.”
“Hundreds of years ago it was gossiping in the village. Today, that village is online—
and much larger.”
—Mary Anne Mohanraj
Along with that increase in village size comes the potential for danger—like cyberstalking. Nightly news reports and specials sometimes seem overflowing with nightmarish tales about individuals posing online as teens to lure unsuspecting adolescents into improper face-to-face encounters. These kinds of dangers with virtual relationships have led Kauerz and her friends to be more careful. “I’m just ‘friends’ [online] with people I’m friends with in real life,” she notes.
Kauerz prefers Facebook to MySpace (though she has a page on both), using the online network largely as just another way to stay in contact with those friends and utilizing the functions that allow her to keep her profile available only to those she classifies as online “friends” and hidden from everyone else.
“The boundaries of privacy are blurring and, frankly, disappearing,” says Mohanraj. “The next generation will almost certainly take for granted having less privacy than we did.” She adds, “I do censor myself more than I used to. I don’t put anything out there that I’m not willing to be judged on.”
Kauerz also realizes that anything she puts on the Internet could be read by anyone, but says that doesn’t lead her to censor herself, even after learning that someone once came away from reading her public blog with bruised feelings. “I don’t want to do anything hurtful,” she says earnestly, “but these are the things I feel. So if you’re going to read my blog, you’d better be prepared for that.”
Her attitude—that responsibility lies with the reader, not the writer—appears common among Millennials, whose lives are far more public and open as a whole than previous generations. But Kauerz and her friends are not unaware of the negative aspects, in particular the increased distraction, caused by the very technologies they depend upon and couldn’t imagine living without.
“Face-to-face interactions are hurting. You’re never just with that person,” explains Kauerz. When she and her friends go out together, she says, everyone’s always looking at their cell phones, getting text messages. “You never have their full attention, because they’re communicating with someone else. I just think we’re so obsessed with communication with those we aren’t with that we ignore those who we are with.”
Living without constant communication is something
most Millennials have never known.
That kind of disruptive multitasking is slipping into the classroom, as well. Dana Green observes, “You see a lot of people who bring the laptop to class: They’re surfing the Internet; they’re missing out on everything. If you bring laptops to take notes, you gain from it. But there’s a fine line between distraction and usefulness.”
Some instructors have responded by banning cell phones and texting in class in an attempt to keep control of their students’ attention. But given how integral the Internet, e-mail, and other technologies are to these students’ lives, there is a growing need for instructors to familiarize themselves with how their students communicate and learn.
“We are at an interesting point in higher education,” says Maureen Mathison, director of the University Writing Program. “The students are now more tech-adept than those teaching. The challenge for instructors is to learn to harness [new technologies] in productive ways, learning to use tools like e-mail and the Internet wisely and strategically—not just in response to a demand.”
How all this experience with technology more broadly affects the way Millennials learn is a more difficult question. A recent Educational Testing Service (ETS) study found that while Millennials are functionally adept at accessing technology, they are often lacking in other areas related to their use of technology, in particular with their ability to find specific information and to understand the sources of information they do find. Using an information and communication technology literacy test, ETS found that “only 52 percent correctly judged the objectivity of a Web site,” and only 40 percent demonstrated the skill of limiting online searches for information by using multiple search terms.
Therefore, critical thinking skills—so vital to success in college—do not appear to be heightened by these technological advances. Mathison sees evidence of this in the classroom. “[Incoming students] for the most part don’t know how to utilize sources. They don’t know how to read for information.”
Both Green and Kauerz say they are avid readers, but Kauerz reveals that among her friends, she’s an exception. “I still read books, but most of my friends don’t. People will sit on MySpace a long time, and reading takes up a lot of time.”
“Technology has made me impatient,” Green asserts. She also says that the constant availability and bombardment of information has had a negative impact on her memory, and consequently on whether she bothers to try to learn certain things. “I don’t memorize anything I can look up in five minutes,” she says.
Mathison hypothesizes that it may also be the linear nature of books that many Millennials find less compelling than Web sites and cell phones.
“Books are not clipped, immediate, like instant messaging. They aren’t sound bites, and that’s what they are used to. Text messaging is something they are comfortable doing. That’s rapid information in real time. They’re used to thinking a certain way. But to have a sustained linearity that’s not in real time is less natural to them. The space-time continuum has changed for them,” she says.
As the first generation to live their whole lives with these technologies, Millennials are largely having to develop social rules for their behavior as they go along.
“Our etiquette is behind our technology,” Kauerz opines, and Mohanraj agrees: “Etiquette is evolving. We’re still figuring out protocols. But people have adapted. We’re adapting. “
For Kauerz, who has been using all these technologies since childhood, the idea of a life without a cell phone sounds liberating. “It would be nice for people to not be in constant contact. We never really get to be alone. People can still text us and know where we are.”
Mohanraj argues that, even for a generation reared in a world of constant communication, there’s no reason for people to become slaves to their own technology. For Millennials who feel constrained, she has a simple solution: “It’s a matter of learning to live with the phone off.”
But living without the constant threads of communication is certainly a life most Millennials have never known—and it’s not the world they are building for their future.
—Paul Ketzle PhD’04 is an English instructor in the University
of Utah’s LEAP and Honors programs and an occasional contributor to
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