Monday, April 14, 2008

Brave New World, Part I

(This is the first of three blog entries about possible cultural ramifications of growing up in the age of instant communications)

Stories abound in the news and among parents of teenagers and young adults about revealing risqué or possibly self-incriminating information through new technologies: On websites, in emails and instant messages, in text messages. Teens and young adults may put online or in other communications descriptions or photos of themselves involving sex, alcohol, or drug use (even if feigned). Although older adults try to caution them that, like plutonium, these communications are around forever, many young people don't seem to understand that even if they remove the a photo from their website, it's still exists in someone's—or some company's—hard drive. Even when admonished about possible college admissions or job offers rescinded, troubles with their schools or their parents, or even the fact that it may come back to haunt them years later, many teenagers and young adults continue to parade their inappropriate behavior in public or incautiously write about matters that shouldn't be public. Why do they persist?

I think there are at least three factors at work:

1. Young people tend to underestimate the risks that their own actions will lead to negative events. Research on perceived risks and health-related behaviors reveal that young people particularly tend to underestimate the risks of untoward events happening to them. For instance, they tend to underestimate their risk of developing a sexually transmitted disease from unprotected sex. The good news is that when they do think they are at risk, they are more likely to take action to prevent the untoward event. (Neil Weinstein, now at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, has done extensive research on the subject of risk perception and preventative health behavior, such as smoking, vaccination, and screening for medical problems.)

I'd venture a guess that a similar process occurs with the new technologies for communication: Young people (under)estimate their risk of negative consequences from their edgy electronic communications. Such communications include posting risqué profiles or photos about themselves online, and sending emails or text messages that could be make trouble if forwarded to the wrong hands.

2. They are used to immediate gratification. The current generation of young adults and those that follow after that have received levels of immediate gratification previously unknown. There are very few things the youngsters of this generation have had to wait for, except perhaps to grow up. Consider that during the childhoods of most Americans currently alive, people had to wait until summer to be able to eat "summer" fruits and vegetables. Similarly, most markets and stores were closed on Sundays (so you or your parents had to plan ahead for necessities or do without that day). If the stores near you didn't have the item you wanted, you probably couldn't get it unless you special ordered it, and that could takes weeks. And when people were out and about their business, away from a land-line phone, there was no other way to reach them short of physically going out and looking for them. Waiting was a part of life.

Not so for the current generation of young adults. These children have had little training in waiting—in delaying gratification or developing a tolerance for frustrated desire. Technology provides the possibility of instant knowledge, instant communication, and instant purchases (with overnight delivery!). You can answer most any questions by a Google search (although the answer isn't necessarily correct). You can reach out and electronically "touch someone" in seconds: cell phones, text messaging, emails, instant messaging, and GPS locators. And you can purchase your heart's desire over the Internet; even the basest longings can find a quick outlet via the Internet. No need to wait--at least not for very long.

Moreover, this generation may well have grown up with family interaction patterns that amplify the experience of immediate gratification: Parents who inadvertently promoted their child's reliance on immediate gratification. Many boomer parents avoid setting limits with their children to minimize conflict, for a variety of reasons. They may want to be "friends" with their children, sometimes forgetting that children need clear limits and that it's important for children to learn that their actions can have negative consequences for them. Or parents may simply be too emotionally drained to set limits that they don't feel able to enforce: A tired, harried parent has a harder time saying "no" than does one is isn't emotionally spent at the end of the day or week. (Why so tired? More families now have both parents working outside the home, and the jobs are more demanding and may require longer hours; more parents are also likely to be separated or divorced. All these factors make parents more emotionally spent.)

When I was a kid and expressed my impatience about something, my father would say, "patience is a virtue." As a child, I had no idea what he was talking about it—why would it be a virtue? It's not only patience that he was advocating; he was trying to help me develop a tolerance for waiting—for wrestling with the urge to get something I wanted "now." It seems to me there's a lot less wrestling going on these days.

So if next generations are being gratified with less delay, it makes sense that they'll send their electronic communications right away—they don't even have to wait until they get home. They can post the photos they took with their cell phones directly to their blogs via a web-enabled phone. Think it would be a blast to post these drunken photos online? Do it now. Even if they "understand" that the Internet is forever, they don't want to be deprived of the satisfaction of seeing themselves or their words sent out into the world for others to see. They don’t want to be deprived of the pleasure of sharing the photo, the joke, the edgy communication with friends. They want to be noticed, and don't want to wait.

3. They have immature frontal lobes. Research from psychologists and brain scientists found evidence that adolescents, and even young adults, may not have brains that are as mature as their bodies. Teenagers' frontal lobes—the area of the brain involved in planning, foresight, inhibition and judgment—aren't as adult-like as we may have previously thought. (For an overview on teenagers and brain development, see the PBS show on the subject: Inside the Teenage Brain) So young adults may have a harder time figuring out what the most prudent course of behavior is in a given situation; even when they know, they may have a hard time inhibiting themselves from the pursuing the most immediately gratifying path.

Back to why a teenager might post information (or send an email or text-message) that could later come back to haunt them. In sum, I think it's because it's hard to exercise good judgment and inhibit yourself from doing something you want to do when: (1) you think that bad consequences are unlikely to happen to you; (2) you really want to do it and you're used to instant gratification; (3) your brain's development is such that it is harder to gauge the possible consequences of an action.

I'm not saying we should do away with the Internet or cell phones (as if we could!). But I think there are unforeseen and unintended consequences of the cultural changes wrought by the new technologies. I'm suggesting we try to glimpse ahead to some of those changes and consequences so we can be better prepared for them. I'm reminded of China's one child policy: an unintended consequence was that it created a generation of significantly more males than females, creating a dating and mating problem for men, which in turn can lead to angry young men "competing" for women—a potentially unstable political situation. (How'd this happen? In a culture that valued males, female infants (first borns) were sometimes killed or abandoned, and some of those abandoned girls were adopted by foreigners. China's changed their adoption policy, creating very stringent criteria for foreign adoptions, ostensibly to protect the orphans, but more likely to prevent a continued shortage of females.)

Let's try to glimpse the future downstream so we're better prepared for the repercussions that will inevitably arise from the changes in communication.

Coming up in Brave New World, Part II: Is the Internet raising a generation of people viewing themselves as objects rather than subjects? (Click on "Subscribe" at the bottom of the page to get an RSS feed so you'll know when the next entry is posted.)

1 comment:

  1. Robin,

    This is so on target! Today when compromising photos of a celebrity are discovered, it still causes a major scandal. I fear that in 20 years, there will be so many of these revelations the effect will be mitigated. Which of course will lead to ever more careless behavior. In the meantime, however, I agree that it is important to teach our kids to resist the temptation to broadcast themselves (or behave!) in compromising ways. Claire knows at least two girls who have landed in trouble that way already (with their schools), so kids may be beginning to pick up on these lessons even now.