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Millennials Will Benefit—and Suffer—from Connectedness

What are the long-term consequences of the networked world?
  • March 18 2012

What does the future hold for today’s hyperconnected millennials? Is all this information turning young people into nimble analysts and decision makers? Or are they facing a dystopian world akin to The Matrix or 1984?

A survey conducted by Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center and the Pew Internet Project sought to find out what young people believe will be the effects of their hyperconnectivity and the always-on lifestyles in the year 2020. Interestingly, the opinions of those under age 35 were quite divided.

Slightly more than half of respondents (55 percent) said they agreed with this positive-impact statement:

In 2020 the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are "wired" differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields helpful results. They do not suffer notable cognitive shortcomings as they multitask and cycle quickly through personal- and work-related tasks. Rather, they are learning more and they are more adept at finding answers to deep questions, in part because they can search effectively and access collective intelligence via the Internet. In sum, the changes in learning behavior and cognition among the young generally produce positive outcomes.

But at the same time, 42 percent chose to agree with a more negative statement:

In 2020, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are "wired" differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields baleful results. They do not retain information; they spend most of their energy sharing short social messages, being entertained, and being distracted away from deep engagement with people and knowledge. They lack deep-thinking capabilities; they lack face-to-face social skills; they depend in unhealthy ways on the Internet and mobile devices to function. In sum, the changes in behavior and cognition among the young are generally negative outcomes.

The sponsors indicated they wanted to push respondents to one extreme or the other. For instance, they didn’t provide an option that “young people’s brains would not be wired differently,” but some of the respondents made that argument in their elaborations. They often noted that people’s patterns of thinking will likely change, though the actual mechanisms of brain function will not change.

Survey participants did offer strong, consistent predictions about the most desired life skills for young people in 2020. Among those they listed are: public problem-solving through cooperative work (sometimes referred to as crowd-sourcing solutions); the ability to search effectively for information online and to be able to discern the quality and veracity of the information one finds and then communicate these findings well (referred to as digital literacy); synthesizing (being able to bring together details from many sources); being strategically future-minded; the ability to concentrate; and the ability to distinguish between the “noise” and the message in the ever-growing sea of information.


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