Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, and the author of many books. In his next book, called The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, Bauerlein looks at how misplaced faith in the “knowledge economy” and its diversions are eroding the intellectual life of young people.
YouthWorker Journal: Just about everybody except you says technology will usher in a glorious brave new world. Why do you think technology may actually be leading us into a new dark age?
Mark Bauerlein: The problem is that often people look at only the front end of what technology has to offer instead of the back end, or the outcome. An elementary principal told me that his fifth- and sixth-grade teachers are having problems when assigning research projects. The students view it as a procedure where they cut and paste information off a Web site, add some sentences of their own and turn it in. The information passes too quickly from the screen to the homework papers and isn’t processed through the mind. The speed and ease of the digital resources actually conspires against producing long-term understanding.
YWJ: If you’re right, what is the concrete impact on kids? How does technology make them dumber than previous generations?
Bauerlein: The ease of the computer has made skills resolve more in the computer than in the minds of the people using them.
Kids have access to more information than before but they aren’t on educational Web sites, they are on MySpace.com or espn.com. They go to social networking sites, which causes them to indulge where they are—adolescence—and not move forward. More than 50 percent of kids who have blogs are 13- to 19-yearolds. They come home from school, sit down at their computer, and type for five hours about their teachers and other students, getting comments and responding. You improve your writing when you are pulled upward and challenged. The blogs keep them networking only with their peers and that holds them at the same level.
We have young adults who have more money than ever before, more education than ever before, more access to cultural institutions and yet on all the tests of knowledge and skills in math, science, history, and arts we see a flat line or shift downward.
YWJ: What are some of the potential spiritual consequences of the changes you are describing, and how can youth workers address them?
Bauerlein: The Internet allows people to create their own little universe. They only make contact with things that interest them. They enclose themselves in the music they like, the politics they like—and what we see is an isolation of young people who really get into this world. This is spiritually withering.
These places are an instrument that enables you to feed your one desire so strongly and quickly. It is bound to appeal to the most corrupt and sinful elements. About 30 percent of Internet activity is porn. There is no constraint. It’s you and the universe and you can do anything you want, go anywhere you want, and shut out what you don’t want.
What the pastors who are working with these kids need to understand is that the things often marketed to kids as wondrous are going to damage them spiritually because they appeal to vanity, desire, fantasy, hate—you can express things on-line that you would never express in public. You have to recognize the extent of the problem and know it will only get worse.
You have to create a space in young people’s lives where they are disconnected from all of this stuff and doing something else. Maybe have youth pastors organize a book club or reading club for kids. This sounds like a very pedestrian response to technology but the important thing is it has to be regular and scheduled and supported in a group fashion. Reading used to be a ritual in everyday life. It was simply part of your day to sit down and read. It’s the ritualized aspect of it that we need to restore.
YWJ: How can youth workers and teachers and parents cut through the noise to have quality educational interactions with kids?
Bauerlein: Communicate with them the belief that computers, the Internet, et cetera, can damage their development. And tell them that the hype is just that— hype. Challenge them to try new things, like writing a paper with pen and paper and not on the computer.
I think they know the media is unhealthy for them, but very few authority figures are willing to say so. They appreciate hearing someone saying that there is no substitute for sitting and reading a novel uninterrupted. And reading online is different from reading pages. Youth readers read in an F pattern when they read online. They are trying to get snippets of information they can use, not actually acquiring knowledge.
YWJ: What is truly different or worrisome about the ways new entertainment technology impacts kids?
Bauerlein: The content of their favorite materials. It’s vulgar, unintelligent, adolescent, and often violent. I will say these materials prevent young people from having contact with other materials that introduce them to the adult realities of modern life and the intellectual tools and skills to enter the modern workplace.
Lara M. Van Hulzen is a freelance writer and mother of three from Northern California.