Long, long ago, in a land far away, I used to be a teacher. Daily I would stand in front of groups of teenagers and read novels, answer math problems, and extol the benefits of having a good, thick cell wall. Sure there were challenges in keeping their attention and getting them to listen, but on the whole it wasn’t so bad. Generally, if the content was interesting, the students were interested. But that was about 5-6 years ago, and I wonder what it’s like now.
I recently read an article from the Pew Research Center describing mobile phone adoption and use in the US. The article’s highlights are staggering (at least to me): the ‘average’ American teenager sends and receives 50 text messages a day – that’s 1,500 a month; while 31% send and receive over 100 a day – that’s 3,000 a month!
After mentioning this to a woman I work with, she just knowingly nodded her head. Her daughter averaged 4,000 texts a month. That’s right *four thousand*.
I’ve long wondered what kind of impact this has on a person. What effects that volume of stimulus has on someone day after day after day. Of course there’s a loud chorus of arguments telling us that these kids are better multi-taskers, that they’re better connected to their social groups, that texting isn’t essentially different than email or it’s analog predecessor – the telephone. And although these arguments are plausible, they don’t sit well with me.
Participating in 4,000 interactions in a single month (133 per day) has to have real consequences somewhere else down the line. How can you really concentrate on your work when you’re waiting for the phone in your pocket to buzz? How can you watch the news? How can you concentrate for long enough to even send or read an email? My theory is that you can’t.
The primary consequence as I currently see it is widespread and irreversible – it’s a fundamental shift in the nature human language. Just as the printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, and indeed the internet have marked turning points in the nature of our language, the text revolution is doing the same thing. In the coming years, whole generations of young people will grow up without having to (or being able to) read and write more than 50-100 words at a time. If we think that printed media is dying now, just wait for another generation or two to turn over.
I can’t imagine what it must be like in a classroom today. Staring out at a sea of 25 teenagers, all waiting for the pocket in their skinny jeans to start to buzz; all waiting impatiently for text 87 of 133.