The Internet and Generational Thinking: Synthesis

Over the past year, I have received considerable professional development on the effect of the Internet on the developing brain. I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Larry Rosen speak on the subject. His work is focused on the generational differences between Internet users. He chronicles the generations from Baby Boomers to babies in terms of their exposure to and understanding of the Internet. He insists that “net savvy” is a communally-acquired skill, but that the definition of net-savviness alters considerably as new technologies emerge. For example, the way a Baby Boomer understands what computers do is completely different from a child who lives on social media. I consider his ideas to be well-supported and researched, and in many ways, I agree with him.

The work of Bernadette Dwyer and Julie Coiro focuses on reading strategies on the Internet. Their interest in “new literacies” is very important. Dwyer cites Kuiper and Volman when she comments on the “consumerist nature of students” (Volman 2008, Dwyer 2012) and that is where my “aha” moment happened. The problems that Dwyer and Coiro address in their work are strikingly similar (not surprising) but more importantly are a strong commentary on the generational nature of Internet use. What does it mean to “consume” text versus “absorb” it? I am altering the meaning of “consumerist” somewhat by asking that question, but I hope you will bear with me for the sake of argument. The rest of the argument is beneath this paragraph, and I warn you it is a good ten minutes of your time to read it. It took me much longer to write it, just to put things into perspective.

I can say in a very general sense that the adults who use the Internet today were a) not raised on social media and b) instructed in more traditional reading strategies that involve deeper examination of text.  The internet is not so much an “information highway” as an “information dump”: it’s full of stuff, and that stuff needs to be sifted through in order to find what is enjoyable/informative/useful to the reader. Adults use the Internet like a giant library. They recognize “neutral” speech, informative texts, and I think are less likely to accept the veracity of personalized texts outside of particular information. Many adults are taken in by the look of websites too. The more professional (read: neutral and authoritative) it looks, or I would argue the more it looks like effort was put into it, the more likely they are to believe the text. This comes from book-based training too: think about how many of us took War and Peace as a more “serious” book than a comic.

Adults are often overwhelmed by the Internet. Because they view as a giant dump…imagine what it feels like to sift through all the trash to find the good bits. Many adults give up when searching online. My parents are a good example. They have to spend hours looking for information in part because they don’t skim the way social-media-raised children do. They also tend to see computers as a tool to be figured out rather than an easy extension of themselves. Adults encounter a new form of technology, and they do not assume it is used in the same way as other kinds of technology have worked in the past. “New-fangled” technologies do not flow out of older ones, according to many Internet-naïve adults. This limits the online experience as an information-gathering exercise, in my opinion.

Children raised on social media, on the other hand,  are accustomed to immediate gratification in their reading as well as their computer operation. They talk online in real time, read in snippets instead of bulk text, and skim naturally through mountains of extraneous text. The Internet is a genuine highway for them: they read in a drive-by manner, stopping for interest or occasional obligation if they are prompted to do so. If they don’t have a “map” or a goal of some kind, they just go. This is true in terms of their computer operation too: they assume that computers “work” in “natural” ways. Remember that children are accustomed to having access to technology at a very early age. They don’t encounter computers as “new tools” but extensions of their daily lives. They use computers more intuitively and reflexively, even though it is for a limited set of tasks. They don’t immediately look at a computer and say “I must learn how to use this.”

Some of the younger generation’s naïveté is related to age: children tend to believe what they read. The other factor that I consider more salient is that kids generally read the words of their friends and people they know, and thus are more likely to believe what they read. They are not reading the work of strangers — they are not reading text that is considered “neutral,” but instead from “trusted sources” whether such an assessment is valid or not. I think teachers are going to see more “naïveté” in older readers because text has become personal on a general level. Blogs are blurred between news and personal opinion; social media is all personalized text even if it is informative and can encourage discussion. When one goes to Amazon to buy a book, the website tries to be a “friend” by suggesting books you might want to read based on what you have ordered before or what your friends have enjoyed. Everything is personal, interactive, and as Dwyer puts it, “non-linear” (Dwyer, lecture, 2012.) Children are also accustomed to things that look good. Websites are easy to generate, and thus “what looks good” is becoming less of a factor. This isn’t always positive: some of the more academic online sources out there are pretty boring to use, in all honesty. Children might ignore what doesn’t look good or does not show personal relevance to them. They also have a very different perspective on what is “attractive.” Consider the War and Peace/comic analogy I used earlier, then reverse it. Children are “consumerist” readers: they do not have the skills or the wherewithal to take in text, and they do not have the ability to seek what they need. I have encountered 11th grade students who didn’t know how to use a library — how could I expect them to use the Internet as a library?

It was enlightening to think of these things. It is hard for me to imagine, as an Internet-savvy adult, how both of these groups have found themselves where they are. I am not an adult who is overwhelmed by the Internet, because I half-use it as a highway. I am not a child who gets lost on the road, because I have goal-seeking skills when I use the Internet. I am somewhere between the two paradigms I’ve speculated on.

So what do I do about it?

I don’t have a theory on that. I have a gut reaction though: critical thinking these days requires being critical. I think it’s time we treated the Internet as an enemy as much as we do a friend. I think that the more we “personalize” the Internet, the less we can trust it. It’s become a place for consumers, and a more deceptive one. Think of the Internet like we do Walmart. I have rules for doing this:

1) Trust nothing of what you read online unless it’s been confirmed by your research. Then follow what you trust and expand your knowledge through further research.

2) Do not assume everyone you know online is your “friend.” You are a consumer, and that is how the Internet sees you. It wants to convince you, not inform you. You decide what is informative. Act accordingly.

3) Do not assume your friends are experts (unless of course you have friends who are expert at something.)

4) Do not assume experts are your friends. Remember rules 1 and 2.

5) If something you read resonates really strongly with you, question it. Again, refer to Rules 1 and 2.

I think these basic ideas might be a platform for creating “new literacy” reading strategies. I know sounds fairly cynical to approach the Internet in this way, but I argue cynicism created the Internet we all now enjoy. My basic premise is that it’s time to get less nice when surfing the Web. It’s not nice to you…but it can be an extraordinary tool if you look it in the eye and tell it that what’s it’s going to do for you. It is not a place for trust-building, feel-good, and self-empowering activities. It is in many ways a battleground where users are solitary soldiers. Teachers must train to become Internet lieutenants and create battalions, aka “collaborative groups” in edu-speak. Teachers must also be Internet superhighway “driving instructors.” Don’t driving instructors encourage defensive driving…?

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