I’ve just stumbled across an article on WSJ.com from last year about how young people’s heavy use of digital media and lack of face-to-face interaction means they don’t ‘get’ non-verbal communication. The author is Mark Bauerlein, who also wrote a book called ‘The dumbest generation: How the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future’, which gives you an idea of his viewpoint on all this.
My hackles tend to rise when people complain about the youth of today and paint a rose-tinted picture of how polite and industrious and sensible they were when they were young, so I read Bauerlein’s piece with suspicion.
“Nobody knows the extent of the problem,” he writes. But we can “reasonably pose questions about silent-language acquisition in a digital environment.”
The problem is, Bauerlein doesn’t just pose questions, he leaps merrily to conclusions. Earlier in the piece he talks about how young people may not realise that it’s rude to check a text message during a conversation, because it’s so normal to them. “It has, they assume, no non-verbal meaning to anyone else,” he writes.
Woah there Mr Bauerlein, step away from that conclusion. Just because young people look at their phones when you’re talking to them doesn’t mean they believe it has “no non-verbal meaning to anyone else”. Yes, they engage in a lot of written communication. Yes, some of them probably spend too much time by themselves. But it doesn’t follow that they are non-verbal illiterates.
Bauerlein doesn’t seem to have considered that he may be the outsider here, observing a culture that he just doesn’t get. A culture where, perhaps, it isn’t rude to check your texts during a conversation. That may indeed be a change for the worse, but it’s only one example of how youth culture is evolving. What about the empowerment that social media brings young people to make their voices heard? What about the ability of young people to find their niche online rather than feeling like they don’t belong? What about blogging culture, which has given people a way to express themselves and build communities of interest? Bauerlein doesn’t seem to know or care about those things, so I can’t take his views very seriously.
I can’t help but notice that, when I was growing up, I used to hear grown-ups whinging about how young people never write anymore and how dreadful it was. Now we have more written communication in the form of email and text and blogs and so on, than ever. The reaction? Young people write too much, isn’t it dreadful. Plus ça change.