September 21, 2014

Study Predicts Always-On Generation Will Excel at Multitasking; Lag in Patience and Focus

By Laura B. Weiss

girls in class looking at their phonesBy 2020, teens and young people will excel at creatively juggling multiple tasks, but they’re likely to lag in long-valued skills like staying focused and patiently working through a problem, according to a survey released today by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

Looking ahead to eight years from now, researchers asked more than 1,000 technology experts to predict how Generation AO, or “Generation Always-on,” will accumulate, process, and share information. Many predicted that young people would be adept at multitasking and see that as a hopeful trend.  Meanwhile, other survey participants expressed fear that in the future teens and 20-somethings will lack what are now viewed as essential skills, such as sticking with a task or deeply thinking through a problem.

Some 55 percent of those surveyed say that the brains of young people in 2020 will be wired differently from those of their parents. What’s more, they say, the ability of always-connected young people to nimbly get information from an array of online sources and then share it seamlessly among a broad network of people is a positive trend.

Young people born around the year 2000  “have grown up in a world that has come to offer them instant access to nearly the entirety of human knowledge, and incredible opportunities to connect, create, and collaborate,” says Janna Anderson, the report’s coauthor and director of Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center.

But this upbeat outlook was challenged by 42 percent of respondents who predicted that hyper-connected young people will favor a world where instant gratification and entertaining, but shallow, distractions rule—a development that many see as already unfolding among today’s teens.

Take the issue of short attention spans. If that development comes to pass, “[W]e will probably see a stagnation in many areas, technology,  even social venues such as literature,” says  Alvaro Retana, a technology expert at Hewlett Packard, who participated in the study .

But educators need to reevaluate traditional notions, like “attention span,” and what they mean to tech-connected young people, say some.

“If your interpretation of focus is a traditional one, where students are expected to sit and ingest info for long stretches without any opportunity for interaction, then yes,” teens are unfocused, says Michelle Luhtala, who heads the New Canaan (CT) High School Library, one of this year’s winners of ALA’s award honoring cutting-edge technologies in library services.

On the other hand, says Luhtala, “If you have a more modern interpretation of focus, [teens] are incredibly focused, because they can focus on many things all at once.  And that is an exceptional talent and really underappreciated by adults.”

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