Are Millennials Addicted to the Internet and Will the Internet Hurt Them in Decades to Come?

ByAnnaLee Rice

Is the Internet generation doomed?  Experts polled outlooks in a new study on brain connectivity through the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.  I am highly skeptical.

The Facts:

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center recently released findings from a survey conducted from August 28 to October 31, 2011, which polled internet and technological experts’ opinions on whether the internet generation will be wired differently in 2020.

This survey offered two choices, with room for elaboration: assuming that the brains of teens and young adults with increasing internet exposure are wired differently, will the consequences internet use be positive or negative in 2020. Some 55% polled said that come 2020, the brains of teens and young adults will be positively affected and that they would be able to shift through data and multitask at a high and proficient rate.

Conversely, approximately 42% polled that in 2020 teens and young adults’ brains will be negatively influenced by the internet: they will become hard-wired for instant gratification and communication, crippling interpersonal communication skills and the ability to deeply reflect.

The Reality:

The glaring and obvious exclusion of the third outcome, that in 2020 there would not be any change in brain wiring, heightens the level of skepticism incurred by the survey. The survey attempts to make assumptions using a limited quantitative data and opinions from a very small sample set about an entirely different population. Nevertheless, this survey and the expert opinions afforded by its findings prompts some very serious reflection on the subject of internet use, both socially and academically.

The survey comes during a time in which educational programs are in a frenzy to integrate technology in the classroom, vehicle fatalities resulting from texting are way up, and the texting of others during one-on-one socializing is the norm. This is to say, with any new phenomenon comes fear and hope. As seen in daily life, the internet has tremendous power to affect us socially and academically.

Instead of trying to map out the future, the survey should serve as a thought-provoking study in which to reflect on personal relations to technology and to provide a closer look at whether it is being used in a purely positive way. The internet has revolutionized data-gathering and provides the framework for global communication. But does it lead to a quick twitch mentality that supports instant gratification and a decreased capacity for reflection? This is a serious consideration because the offshoot of this new behavioral complex poses a significant barrier to using the internet for all of its worth: if people devolve into basing every life choice off knee-jerk reactions it is likely that the web’s vast source of knowledge will not be used or appreciated.

Yet it is all too easy to be entangled in this dire outlook. The merits of the internet are all too obvious — connection to friends in faraway places and nearly all information ever collected and shared.  Additionally, it is entirely possible that this instant-gratification behavior pattern is not the result of the Internet but a tale as old as time — the “get rich quick” mentality has been long associated with that nasty, omnipresent human condition known as laziness.

Whether the alleged increase of Attention-Deficit Disorder is caused or correlated to the internet remains to be seen. To determine that, opinions espoused on surveys must be exchanged for hard medical statistics. And to the raised issue of whether the Internet decreases communication skills, naysayers can attempt to dismiss these claims by citing CEOs such as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs as examples of those steeped in the internet culture and whose communication skills cement them as bastions of their companies.

Perhaps the most important message to be gleaned from the Pew study is that the internet is an enable. Whether it enables us to be productive or wasteful is entirely decided by personal will.  

Photo Credit: Federico_Morando