Society and the Web: Is Social Media Killing our Kids?

In only the second ever guest post on Niff, Naff n Triv, and the first ever as part of the inaugural #BeMyGuest month of mutual blogging we proudly present Paul Sutton and his thoughts on Social Media’s impact on society.

Paul Sutton is a Social & Digital Media Consultant with over 14 years’ experience in PR and marketing communications. Fascinated by the psychological and cultural impact of digital media and the web, he has a passion for online communications, social media, inbound marketing and the ongoing convergence between PR and the web.

Social media, mobile internet and the pervasion of the web in general is getting a bad name in some quarters. There’s a sense of unease among some parties that web 3.0, or the semantic web, far from being the progressive enabler of future generations, could actually lead to a society that is wholly dependent on internet technology not only for economic and sociological reasons, but also for its psychological health.

As technology converges ever-increasingly on the web and we spend more and more time online, some social commentators have voiced very real fears that the web will make our children, our grandchildren and every generation that follows both less intelligent and incapable of forming lasting social bonds. The issue was addressed recently in the excellent BBC mini-series, The Virtual Revolution, with presenter Dr Aleks Krotoski presenting the case of South Korea, the most wired nation on Earth, where there are big concerns over so-called ‘internet addiction’.

Generation Y, generation web, whatever you want to call it, is under threat. At least, if you listen to Generation X it is. Gen Xers fear that as we become more used to tools like RSS and 140 character status updates, we will lose the power of concentration, swapping in-depth reading, knowledge and conversation for skim-reading, surface-level understanding and brief interactions. The outcome will be a society that knows little about lots, but lots about little. It will be a culture where individual intelligence is sacrificed for the all-powerful global brain. And this will only be reinforced as the real-time web becomes reality.

So where has this web aversion come from? Perhaps from the fact that our children “don’t go out and play anymore”, instead choosing to spend their free time plugged into the internet, whether that be gaming, surfing or chatting to friends. It’s estimated that the current generation of digital natives will have spent around 10,000 hours online by the time they reach adulthood, with a large part of that taken up by social media – Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter and multiple other networking channels. And so it stands to reason that social media gets the blame.

But can society truly be altered by social media and the web, and even if it can, is this necessarily a bad thing? The answer to the first of those questions, would seem (to me at least) to be yes. Taking South Korea, where 62% of 3-5 year olds regularly use the web, as an example, the country’s children regularly top the world’s education league tables and are reported to display a great willingness to work together to solve problems and help each other out. Whether their individual IQ is effected is unclear, but importantly they demonstrate a community intelligence where they are more informed and make better choices as a result. The way they communicate and interact as human beings is evolving, facilitated by the social web.

So is this social media-influenced evolution a bad thing? I’d argue not. There’s little doubt that my daughter will grow up very differently to the way I did, but unlike many other Gen Xers, this doesn’t scare me whatsoever. If anything, I’m going to try and embrace it as she gets older. The way I see it, she could have greater problem solving abilities than I ever had due to the way children now are willing to share information and ideas, and the way in which they find information via the web in the first instance. Whether her grasp of the English language will suffer as a result of the txt generation and the limitations of communicating via status updates is an unknown, but maybe it’s my responsibility as a Gen X parent to ensure that she reads books and not just skims web articles?

Stephen Fry made the point in The Virtual Revolution that when the motor car was first introduced people thought it was evil due to deaths on the roads. Did that stop us? Of course not. We adapted the technology to make it safer and, as a culture, we adapted to embrace it. And should this not be the case with web 3.0 and social media? It’s technologically-facilitated evolution and is such a great enabler that, rather than fearing what changes its impact might have on society, shouldn’t we be addressing our concerns, understanding what’s happening and channeling it?

For more on Paul, visit his blog at www.tribalboogie.blogspot.com or contact him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/thepaulsutton

2 thoughts on “Society and the Web: Is Social Media Killing our Kids?

  1. Paul this is well argued. I’ve had similar conversations with people about the perils of only knowing a little about a lot. As a trivia nerd, I could have said the same about myself at any time in the past 30 years though.

    For me the point is that while the information titbits of the social web are a big benefit, kids must also take the time to read in-depth and understand topics in context. Or those little bits about a lot will lead to a dull world with duller conversation, and a business world with no differentiation, inspiration or innovation.

    While they’re learning to read bigger things, they could do with learning to spell and write decent English too.

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