When my son Alex was in his senior year, I visited him at Amherst College. He was sitting with four friends, each with a laptop, in the common room. They were watching three television sets, all closed-captioned—one airing a sports show, another the news, and another a sitcom. Needless to say, they weren’t just watching, but each of them was talking and playing a game together that they’d just dreamed up. When someone on one of the TV shows said something like, “The Mafia is the number one employer in Italy!,” the boys would shout “No way” and check it out online. Or maybe Jerry Seinfeld would offer some obscure Shakespearean reference. “No way!,” they’d say, and then tap, tap, tap. From time to time, they’d call or text a friend via mobile phone.
I was amazed they could manage all these media at once. They weren’t even stressed out by it. It looked like fun—if you had grown up digital.
Neither Alex nor his friends are unusual within their generation. Young Americans under 30 are the first to grow up at a time when cell phones, the Internet, texting and Facebook are as normal as the refrigerator. They’ve grown up digital, and it’s changed the way their minds work.
The technology they grew up with is significantly different than what we, as boomers, knew at their age. When my generation watched TV as teenagers, we just watched; we didn’t talk back (or if we did, no one responded). But when Net Geners watch TV, they treat it like background Muzak as they hunt for information and chat with friends via Facebook, Skype, Google Talk, or plain old text messaging. Multitasking is what this generation does, in the same way talking back—and expecting an answer—is a natural part of their interactive experience.
The article, “Action Video Games Modify Visual Selective Attention,” by C. Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier, appeared in Nature in 2003 (Vol. 423).
As I describe in my book, “Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World,” we can already see the early signs of how this interactive, multitasking digital world is affecting young minds. Playing a lot of action video games, for example, can result in them noticing more in their field of vision and speeding up their processing of visual information, according to a widely quoted study reported in Nature. This study built on other research showing that video-game playing can also improve spatial skills, the ability to mentally manipulate a 3-D object (helpful for architects, sculptors and engineers), and might be associated with improved results in some fields of mathematics. Other studies suggest that video game playing enhances abilities for dividing one’s attention and encourages players to discover rules through observation, trial and error, and hypothesis testing.
The study, “The Impact of Linear Versus Nonlinear Listening to Radio News on Recall and Comprehension,” by Hesham M. Mesbah, was published in the Journal of Radio & Audio Media in December 2006 (Vol. 13, No. 2). The interactive nature of the digital world influences how Net Geners absorb information, too. They want a two-way conversation, not a lecture—from a teacher, a politician, or a journalist. They like to contribute to the conversation. Most young people visit blogs, and 40 percent of them have their own; even more contribute some form of content to the Internet. They have a limited tolerance for long lectures or 700-page tomes (especially when they can find information far more quickly on Wikipedia). The result of this was highlighted in a 2006 study that compared what Net Geners remember from radio newscasts vs. interactive newscasts. Is it any surprise that they remember less from the traditional newscasts—told from beginning to end—than from interactive versions that allow them to click to hear the news or learn more details?
Consider how Alex and his friends were consuming media in the common room at college with their own interactive multimedia experience rather than watching TV. Our research shows that the Net Generation likes to customize everything from their iPods to news feeds. So when I asked Rahaf Harfoush, a Net Gen collaborator, why she doesn’t read newspapers, she told me: “Why would I? They come out once a day, they don’t have hot links, and they’re not multimedia. Besides, who needs that black gunk all over your fingers?” Instead, Rahaf creates her own digital newspaper using a sophisticated, personalized set of information-gathering tools, which provide her with real-time, on-demand access to dozens of information sources.
“The news is no longer a one-stop trip,” she told me. “I think the changing nature of the story, and the constant updating of the Internet, make it possible to sample a wide variety of opinions and perspectives. I rely on all these different pieces to triangulate the issues I care about and kind of get to the heart of things.”
Growing up digital has encouraged this generation to be active and demanding inquirers—not passive consumers of media created for a mass audience. Rather than waiting for a trusted anchor to tell them what’s going on, they find out on their own—often via Google or Wikipedia. Some writers, of course, think that Google makes you stupid; it’s so hard to concentrate and think deeply amid the overwhelming amounts of bits of information online, they contend. Yet I think that growing up digital has helped Net Geners to handle this information overload.
Several research studies suggest that young people are no better than older people at multitasking, but I see a different story when I observe hundreds of young people in their natural habitat. Young people are better and faster at handling the amazing amount of information online than are older people, who have not grown up digital. It helps to be a good scanner. We’ve found that Net Geners often won’t read a whole Web page from left to right and top to bottom, as older people tend to do. Having grown up digital, they are more sensitive to visual symbols and use those to guide their scanning.
The Internet has shaped Net Geners’ mental habits, but does it make them stupid? I don’t think so. Last year I met Joe O’Shea, then the 22-year-old student body president of Florida State University. He and I were participating in a panel discussion with the deans about the future of education. When it was O’Shea’s turn to speak, what he said shocked some in his audience: “I don’t read books per se,” he told them. “I go to Google, where I can absorb relevant information quickly.” The deans were flabbergasted. “It’s not a good use of my time, as I can get all the information I need faster through the Web,” he continued. “You need to know how to do it—to be a skilled hunter.”
O’Shea, it turns out, has used his hunting acumen to make a real difference. He founded the Lower 9th Ward Health Clinic in post-Katrina New Orleans, which provides preventive and primary care to about 10,000 patients annually, and cofounded the Global Peace Exchange, an international service-based exchange program for students modeled after the U.S. Peace Corps. His style of Google learning might have shocked academics at Florida State, but it hasn’t slowed down his academic career. This year, O’Shea is at Oxford, studying philosophy as a Rhodes scholar.
Though he might not read books cover-to-cover, O’Shea finds knowledge contained in books in various ways. Using Google Book Search, he can read a chapter in any one of millions of books stored in its online archive. And he’s gotten proficient at figuring out the right chapter to choose. (In part, because of his online searching, he’s also an effective browser of actual books.) But he—and others in his generation—know that much contemporary knowledge is not contained in documents but exists in people’s minds, and his digital skills—and collaborative mindset—help him learn from experts online.
As O’Shea’s example shows, digital immersion can be good for the brain. To Google effectively, a person has to ask a good question, construct a search, and weed out stuff that’s irrelevant. The next step is to evaluate what’s been found, synthesize it, and form a view. All of this entails constructing one’s own story rather than following the line of thought drawn by someone else. This doesn’t replace conventional book reading, nor should it. But neither should Googling be dismissed as an intellectual slacker’s answer to real thinking. Some literacy scholars believe that finding information in this way can be just as intellectually challenging as reading a book.
Growing up digital might make this the smartest generation ever. And given what we know about the way they think, they’re not likely to be a new audience for old-style journalism.
Don Tapscott, author of “Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World,” is founder and chairman of nGenera Insight. He has authored or coauthored 13 books, including “Wikinomics,” “Paradigm Shift: The New Promise of Information Technology,” “The Digital Economy,” and “Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation.”