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Digital Competency

Recently, I’ve been getting into various discussions about the article, Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? by Jean M Twenge. Below is an email that I wrote to some of my coworkers about this subject.

As some of you may know, I’ve been published in the Journal of Group Analytics, and spoken at the American Group Psychotherapy Association, the Association of Internet Researchers, and at NACHC conferences about social media. I also speak each year with the Psych Post Docs about social media.

I have a very different view of the effects of digital communications and find the Atlantic article highly flawed.

I would start off by referring people to the article Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants By Marc Prensky.

The article was written back in 2001 and has some significant flaws, particularly in too closely equating age with digital orientation, but it presents a key idea. We are at a unique time in human history where many of us, particularly older folks, have been brought up in a pre-digital or analog world. Many of us have learned to get by in a digital world, but we still keep many of our old analog ways. We are, in a sense digital immigrants. Others have been brought up in a digital world and are digital natives. Personally, I identify as a digital aborigine, but that’s a different topic.

It is worth noting this unique time is not without parallels. A good parallel was the years after the Guttenberg printing press. Back then, there was concern expressed about people who spent too much time reading. A famous novel from 1605 talks about a person who read too much, Don Quixote:

You must know, then, that the above-named gentleman whenever he was at leisure (which was mostly all the year round) gave himself up to reading books of chivalry with such ardour and avidity that he almost entirely neglected the pursuit of his field-sports, and even the management of his property; and to such a pitch did his eagerness and infatuation go that he sold many an acre of tillageland to buy books of chivalry to read, and brought home as many of them as he could get.

It was part of the writing of the era when people talked about those who spend too much time reading, much like how people talk about those who spend too much time online today.

In health care, we are called to be culturally competent. I would suggest that the Twenge article is an example of cultural incompetence by a digital immigrant talking negatively about a culture not her own and that her conclusions are based on her biases.

Is it a good thing, a bad thing, or a neutral thing that teens today tend to communicate more via computer mediated communications than face to face? Some of this may reflect our biases. Personally, for many reasons, I’m glad to see our culture become less of an automobile dominated culture and teens being less eager to learn to drive. I’m also not sure that delayed sexual activity is such a bad thing.

The concern about depression and loneliness is a much more important issue, but I would ask if the author is confusing causes and effects. Are the people that are online most often lonely because they are online, or are they online because they are lonely? If it is the later, then perhaps online interaction is actually beneficial. There is a lot of research on how online interaction can be a gateway to help isolated people become less isolated, to help people develop social skills online that they can then use in face to face interaction. As an aside, some of my favorite work on this has related to people on the autism spectrum manage their communications more effectively and as a result develop better face to face skills.

I do find it interesting to note that the previous article by Ms Twenge in Atlantic is
Young People Are Happier Than They Used to Be: But mature adults aren’t faring as well.
Perhaps Smartphones haven’t destroyed a generation, perhaps they are helping save it.

Perhaps related to this, recently, the New York Time re-ran an article from 2012 about loneliness:
Friends of a Certain Age: Why Is It Hard to Make Friends Over 30?

It seems as if there are some other more important issues to be addressed. Cyberbullying is an important issue that doesn’t really get proper consideration in the article. More importantly is the issue that teens today, as they are forming their identities, need to form identities in both the physical analog world and in the virtual digital world. It is much more difficult. At the same time, they do not have as many people to go to help them with their digital identities, because their elders are digital immigrants. We all need to become better at helping people whose lives are increasingly digital, without being judgmental about how much better things were when we were younger.

I hope you read the article in the Atlantic. I hope you read Prensky’s article, as well as the two articles about happiness and loneliness. Once you have read then, I hope you’ll go back and re-read Twenge’s article and ask yourself where the causes are, where the effects are, and how your biases about digital communications might be shaping you reactions.

I particularly encourage this for any behavioral health providers that are interested in what it might me to be digitally culturally competent.