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Electo-Isolation At Issue For Generation Online

Nov 16, 2007
When the computers at a school in Lake Oswego, Oregon, had to be turned off for four days because of a virus, students were bewildered about how to address a snail mail envelope. These tech-savvy students could email, text, web browse, MySpace, and Google with great skill, but when the system went down, both students and teachers realized that technology is no longer a luxury, but a necessity--perhaps a necessity that serves to separate us rather than bring us together.

Perhaps the best place to see this phenomenon first hand is on a high school campus, which is, conveniently, where I spend most of my day. Students are literally addicted to their technology, as evidenced by the fact that when our school instituted a policy this year to ban all iPods, cell phones and electronics except for during lunch, the outcry was far more passionate than for any other school rule in memory. Students nearly came to blows with teachers and supervisors who confiscated their electronics, acting like junkies who can't be separated from their "fix."

Students will text message friends rather than meet up with them. Cell phone cameras have taken the place of actually describing what you see to your friends. Face-to-face conversation is awkward, and even when students are together, they fall into "text speak", that is, using terms like "lol" or "idk" or "bff" instead of whole words. (For non-texters, that's "laugh out loud", "I don't know" and "best friends forever.") It even creeps into their schoolwork; I always receive essays that are rife with abbreviations like "2" instead of too, or "u" instead of "you." This generation has taken shortcuts where very form of communication is concerned, and it shows in their lack of connectedness to real life.

According to a survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 55 percent of online teens use social networks. 82 percent of those surveyed say they use online social networks to stay in touch with friends they don't see a lot, which means the only interaction they may have with those friends is via pixels and posts. Twenty-eight percent of those who have online sites check them once a day or more. Ninety three percent of teens use the internet. Sixty eight percent of online teens own cell phones and use them to text.

Kaiser Family Foundation in 2005 study found that kids 12-17 spend more than six hours per day using media, whether that's movies, video games, computer, music and TV (and that doesn't even take into account cell phones). If you multiply that out, it's about 30 hours per week. that's more than some part time jobs. So, what aren't they doing when they're plugged in six hours per day?

At home, my own teenaged son has the same issues. Armed with a laptop and a cell phone, he is in constant contact with every person he has ever met online, pretty much every minute we're not forcing him to do something else. When I pointed out to him that he's putting in the time equivalent to a 30-hour-per-week job on his electronic socializing, he responded that it was a good use of his time. It take precedence over homework, family time, hobbies, or just general thinking about the world. With that much time tied up, how can kids take the time to simply consider what they want to do in the world, or who they are in relation to everyone and everything else?

This electronic divide also keeps kids separated from the adults in their lives to a large degree. Although I have a MySpace and a website and a cell phone, I use these as tools, not as the prime focus of my everyday activity. Kids who spend hours per day on MySpace become enamored of the fact that they can post even the most mundane details of their lives for all to see. I argue with my son every time I ask him to sign off because he has to post a bulletin telling everyone he's signing off. When I point out that they'll probably figure it out when he doesn't reply, he just rolls his eyes. I couldn't possibly understand.

The web presence of young people has given them two things: a sense of anonymity that shields them, and a sense of importance that is overblown. They can (and do) broadcast every impulse, every thought, every feeling, via the internet. As a teenager, I might have felt like slapping someone, but I kept it to myself. Now, it becomes a post broadcast to hundreds of friends for all to see. Older teens who drink and do other dangerous behaviors post pictures of themselves chugging beer, smoking, throwing gang signs. It feels separate, not real; they figure no adult will ever see it, so it doesn't matter. What they don't realize is that, like a tattoo, making a mark in cyberspace is often forever. There have been many stories of young people applying for jobs or college only to find that their future employers or schools track them through the internet, discover their youthful indiscretions, and pass on them.
About the Author
Laura Preble is a journalist, singer, teacher, and writer from San Diego. Her first Queen Geek novel is The Queen Geek Social Club, followed up this fall with Queen Geeks in Love. Learn more at Queen Geek Social Club
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