Feb. 29, 2012 at 12:40 AM ET
Millennials — the always-connected generation, those born between 1981 and 2000 — have such a "thirst for instant gratification and quick fixes" that they're at risk of making poor life decisions based on findings from a fast Google search or a text message response from a friend.
That's the worst-case scenario, according to 42 percent of the 1,021 Internet "experts" from think tanks, research groups, corporations and universities queried by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University in a new study, "Millennials will benefit and suffer due to their hyperconnected lives."
A somewhat brighter future is hoped for by 55 percent, who say that Millennials "are learning more and they are adept at finding answers to deep questions, in part because they can search effectively and access collective intelligence via the Internet." Changes in learning behavior "and cognition among the young generally produce positive outcomes."
Note the word "generally."
"While 55 percent agreed with the statement that the future for the hyperconnected will generally be positive, many who chose that view noted that it is more their hope than their firm prediction, and a number of people said the true outcome will be a combination of both scenarios," Pew said in a statement. The "research result ... is really probably closer to a 50-50 outcome."
Pew and Elon University have been studying Millennials since 2006, and in the new report say the need for quick information fixes — which has certainly spread to many of us, no matter what age — may portend among the young "a lack of deep-thinking ability due to what one (expert) referred to as 'fast-twitch wiring.'"
Those who are growing up in "today’s networked world and counting on the Internet as their external brain will be nimble analysts and decision-makers who will do well," some experts told Pew. But others "expect that constantly connected teens and young adults will thirst for instant gratification and often make quick, shallow choices."
Eugene Spafford, a Purdue University professor of computer science and engineering, and among those queried by Pew, said in the report he sees the consequences daily of the always-on generation.
“The ability to express opinion and emotion is replaced with flaming and emoticons, which are much less nuanced," he said. "The level of knowledge of the world around many young adults — cultural, political, historical, scientific — seems reduced in favor of greater knowledge of pop culture. There is also a blurring in their minds between facts and opinions because both are presented in quantity with similar polish and forcefulness, and verification and reasoning have been replaced by search engine results. The resulting acceptance of bombast for fact is damaging in nearly all fields of formal inquiry.”
Perry Hewitt, Harvard University director of digital communications and communications services, also interviewed by Pew, has a different take: “It seems easy to decry the attention span of the young and to mourn the attendant loss of long-form content — who will watch 'Citizen Kane' with rapt attention when your Android tells you Rosebud was a sled?
"On consideration, though, the Internet has brought forward not only education, but thinking. While we still want to cultivate in youth the intellectual rigor to solve problems both quantitatively and qualitatively, we have gotten them out of the business of memorizing facts and rules, and into the business of applying those facts and rules to complex problems. In particular, I have hope for improved collaboration from these new differently ‘wired’ brains, for these teens and young adults are learning in online environments where working together and developing team skills allows them to advance.”
Some who felt strongly about technology's negative impact on Millennials were blunt (and asked Pew to share their comments anonymously):
Pew noted that "AOADD" — Always-On Attention Deficit Disorder — is "age-defying." But some argue that the fuzzy-mindedness that we all will inevitably succumb to may not be Internet-caused at all. Said one expert, who asked to be anonymous:
"We’re all going to end up being more distracted, shallow, fuzzy thinking, disconnected humans who cannot think or act critically. But this won't be because of the Internet. It'll be because of the loss of values and resourcing of things like education and civics and the ridiculous degree to which popular media, etc., are influencing our culture, values, etc."