Today I had the privilege (some would say) of hanging out with 84 seventh graders. I shared with them an article, “The Year We Stopped Talking,” published in the Dec. 30, 2010, edition of USA Today. I was absolutely blown away by the conversation that followed. Maybe it’s because I sit right on the blurred line between technology native and technology learner. Either way, when I talked to the ‘tweens, who are 15 or so years younger than I am, about their texting and Facebook habits, the generation gap kicked me right in the solar plexus.
When I was a senior in high school (c. 2001), I knew approximately two people with cell phones. Teachers didn’t need to worry about texting in class detracting from students’ learning because that technology wasn’t even there. I didn’t get my first cell phone until late 2002 or send my first text message until 2005. So I asked the 7th graders, “How many of you have your own cell phones?” Out of 84 students, 80 of them had their own cell phones. I was surprised and yet not.
I asked who had them in sixth grade. Most hands remained up in the air. Fifth grade? Lost a few. Fourth grade? Still the majority had their hands raised. Third grade? That’s when most of them dropped. There were two students who got their first cell phone in second grade.
And this absolutely blew my mind. Second and third graders with cell phones? Why? My immediate thought was to wonder, just because our children have access to that technology, does it mean they should have it? Even with the average student (based on my poll) receiving his or her own first phone in fourth grade, what use does a ten year old really have for a cell phone?
Socializing. Of course! They’re certainly not doing business. I was a ten year old girl once too, though, and I still can’t think of any pressing social matter that would have required constant and immediate access to my entire network of friends. Are ten year olds frequently left to roam the streets with instructions to call home and check in? I feel like I’m missing something. The only answer that makes sense is the social one.
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So I asked how many texts they sent a day, on average.
“Are you guys suffering eyestrain? Do you expect to?” (I got blank stares in return).
I like to be connected just as much as the next guy (or girl), but I still appreciate the benefits of unplugging; of reading an actual book, going outside, or spending good old in-person quality time with people. This concept seemed to be totally foreign to the seventh graders because they’ve never had to. They can’t remember a time when they didn’t have computers at home, much less at school. I got a lot of puzzled looks when I asked if they made actual phone calls with their phones. To them, a cell phone might as well just be called a mobile texting device. They can remember a time when they didn’t have cell phones, but it seems really far away.
They defined the expression “back in the day” for me as being “like, 1996.”
Finally, I asked how many of them thought the majority of their relationships were digital — meaning that they talk to people more via text message and Facebook comments than they do in person. The vast majority believed their relationships were mostly digital.
“If I didn’t come to school,” one girl told me, “I’d probably never actually talk to anyone. I’d just text them and chat with them on Facebook.”
“How would you meet people to talk to, then?” I asked.
“Well, that’s easy. I just find people with cool profile pictures on Facebook and ask them to be my friend.”
When I was done picking my jaw up off of the floor at all the things I deem to be wrong with that statement, I looked around and noticed that mostly everyone was agreeing with her.
Another girl added, “There’s a girl in my science class. I’ve never actually talked to her, but I feel like I know her because of Facebook.”
Oh my goodness, I realized. We’re growing baby stalkers.
Still, despite the qualms I might have with how the technology natives are using social media and other technologies now, I’m really excited to see where they’re going to take it in the future (as long as it’s not some kind of Orwellian society where our cell phones are implanted into our hands). They certainly think about the world in a completely different context. For all intents and purposes, their whole world is digital. It always has been.
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