The digital generation is fast descending into a bottomless pit characterised by declining social skills, inert communication abilities, a lack of creativity, and worst of all, ignorance.
Because of the technological revolution that has been sweeping across the world in the last two decades, the digital natives – those born and brought up in the age of widespread adoption of digital technology – are finding themselves struggling to keep their wits about them in a world that is relentlessly bombarding them with free, limitless information. They are, in a sense, living in a world of an information overload.
Today’s average teenager is likely to be conversant with the Internet and, in all likelihood, also owns a smartphone that allows them to be active on most if not all the social platforms on offer: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, Flickr and the much beloved WhatsApp.
These Internet tools present obvious opportunities to the youth to connect and socialise with the rest of the world in a quick, seamless, boundless and borderless way. And apart from merely getting in touch with the rest of the world, one can use the platforms for research, hunt for job, market their products and ideas, find romance and adventure or even find news in real time.
Given such a rich and diverse list of uses, the smartphone has become a must-have tool for most young people right from secondary school through to college or university. It brings remarkable convenience that carries a ring of indispensability around it.
Yet, like in the famous aphorism, technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master. The addiction to social networks has reduced many users, especially the youth, to zombie-like creatures lost in their own individual universes with complete insouciance to the real world.
Because they are almost always glued to their phones, tapping away on WhatsApp, posting selfies on Facebook or Instagram or scrolling YouTube for the latest videos, youths have unwittingly dispensed with their ability to relate directly with real people around them. They would rather be preoccupied with their phones than strike a face-to-face conversation. You’re likely to see a group of youths in a restaurant or bar with their shoulders slouched, their hands holding their smartphones ever so gingerly and their eyes glued to the screen with the concentration of brain surgeons.
Apart from the health implications associated with sedentary lifestyle, the other obvious casualty is the loss of debating and negotiating skills and even the opportunity to have some memorable, humorous moment with a friend. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at the University College London says in The Guardian: “Millennials are hyper-connected, but they display little interest in others except as an audience. As the YouTube slogan suggests, their main ambition is to broadcast themselves, even if it requires collecting disposable friends and engaging in inappropriate self-disclosure with strangers.”
The obvious opportunity to self-broadcast has produced in the youth a strain of narcissism and attention-seeking disease that is not only highly contagious but potentially terminal.
Prof Premuzic says: “While narcissism has a bright side (eg confidence, assertiveness and charisma), it is still problematic: narcissists struggle to form intimate relationships.”
Together with the loss of the ability to mingle, fraternise and have real fun, has been the slow death of the reading culture. If the tradition of serious reading in Kenya died long before the advent of digital technology, the mobile phone has come to bury it eternally.
For the modern day youth, reading starts and ends with a Facebook post or the latest WhatsApp chat, which is most likely a junk forward. So the chance to expand the imagination or sharpen creativity through exposure to serious ideas whether in fiction or non-fiction works is lost.
During my youthful days, you felt locked out of the social grouping if you hadn’t read the latest novel by Jeffrey Archer, Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, Sydney Sheldon or classics in the mold of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen or Fyodor Dostoyevsky. As my literature lecturer Prof Austin Bukenya often says, reading not only boosts brain power, it also increases self-confidence and keeps one out of trouble. Beyond social media, millennials rarely engage their minds with in-depth reading that could expand their imagination, creativity and vocabulary. Dr Godwin Siundu, who teaches literature at the University of Nairobi says the Internet has engendered a kind of intellectual indolence in young learners.
“The youth have formed the opinion that the internet provides answers to all problems, which is not the case. So Google is usually their first and last port of call when they are tasked with anything. This means that they cannot go the long yet more productive route of personal imagination, or even the hard slogging of reading a novel from beginning to end.
“Generally, they cannot form enduring reading and writing habits that are more functional and necessary in the world of work. Mainly because of this, they also have a limited vocabulary with which to express themselves.”
Dr Sam Kamau of the Aga Khan University takes a different view, saying millennials are not lazy and that they are just impatient with the old way of doing things.
“Because of social media, young people do not appreciate the long process. They prefer summaries. With a swipe on their screens, they can get an idea of what’s happening in the lives of their friends by scanning their status updates and social media posts. They are not lazy, but they want things simplified, they don’t have to write it down because they can record or type it. They don’t want to wait because with technology they can get their answers pretty fast.”
Dr Kamau feels that the older generation has failed to understand the youth and has, therefore, taken the easier option of condemning them.
“The digital natives are willing to experiment, seek and embrace new ideas. They are creative and inquisitive and quite often frustrated when the world is too organised. They are misunderstood because they do not fit in the traditional conventions.”
Yet for some of the youths, especially those in colleges and universities, this impatience with detail and the long research process has driven them into serious trouble with lecturers and the university learning system.
Says Dr Siundu: “Some become accustomed to the casual way of writing that seems acceptable in social media. So they run into real problems when they have to write in academic terms, missing out on sentence construction, grammar and all. Generally, they cannot form enduring reading and writing habits that are more functional and necessary in the world of work. Mainly because of this, they also have a limited vocabulary with which to express themselves.”
But, he says, it is not all gloom since because of the Internet, students can carry their notes and timetables and assignments in their phones and therefore have much less paper work to deal with than in the pre-digital age.
In secondary schools, most teachers will admit they often find themselves at sea dealing with a generation living under a cloud of uncontrolled influences from the online community. The millennials tend to consider their teachers as outdated and unfashionable.
As the American writer and speaker on education Marc Prensky says in his essay "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants", teachers are digital immigrant instructors who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age) and are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely different language.
Although most secondary schools have outlawed mobile phones in the institutions, it is an open secret that some learners do sneak them in and use them discreetly. Some even use them as business tools, hiring them out to their colleagues to explore the Internet and jump into social media platforms for a much-sought-after connection with their friends locally and overseas.
At home, most parents with teenage children can give testimonies of how the mobile phone has transformed the way families live and communicate. The teens would rather dive into Facebook or WhatsApp, whether during dinner or breakfast or at lunchtime, than engage in conversation with their parents or siblings.
Since the online world is largely unregulated, the learners expose themselves to fraudsters, cyberbullying or even more pernicious influences such as the Blue Whale suicide challenge that goads teens into committing suicide.
Because the digital age is here to stay, it must fall on our education systems and all other relevant institutions to come up with ways of harnessing its benefits before it completely destroys millennials at the altar of progress.
Kariuki Waihenya is associate editor, 'Daily Nation'.