It is amazing that a website like Facebook, which enables social networking, has gripped the teenage spirit in such an unprecedented way. Indeed, Kurt Cobain would probably agree that nothing smells more like teen spirit nowadays than the lower case white ‘f’ imprinted upon the light blue background. Yet social networking does not encapsulate the spontaneity and energies of youth, or even the always fluctuating hormones which determine a teenager’s socialisation. Undeniably, the term ‘social networking’ is coined in such an awkward, contrived manner considering it describes what should be an entirely natural interaction for teenagers. However, we find that sometimes the technology and what is available for our advancement as individual beings is censured unfairly. It is in fact not the technology that is produced that should be castigated but instead how people, especially youths choose to abuse it. Technology is innovation and the application of scientific knowledge for industrial purposes and so what must be focused on when analysing such a broad issue is two- fold; non-internet technology and indeed internet-related technology. The statement that the lives of young people are being ‘irreparably damaged’ (never able to be repaired) is a bold one as it implies a sense of perpetuity and that once sucked into technology, one can never escape its realm. We can see that this is generally not the case and people fluidly use what they need and leave the rest.
The term ‘irreparable’ is a particularly forgiving term in my thesis. With the introduction of social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter, the initial negative impacts may be found staggering. One can clearly observe potential downfalls as children incorporate this new technology into their lives: a direct correlation between an increase in teenage obesity rates in America and the introduction of these sites can be made as well as a fall in average GPA across US public schools as pupils page through their endless Newsfeed living vicariously through their ‘friends’. But these by no means are irreparable issues. When change is introduced to a society, adaption is often slow. In 2007 for example, Microsoft introduced a radical change to their Microsoft Office software, causing anxiety and anger to many of their core clients. To offer support to their clients, they gave users the choice of staying with 2003 and transitioning to 2007 at their leisure, while also offering support classes and tutorials. Today, 6 years later, Word and the Microsoft Office Suite remains the leading software for basic office computations, and features the same user interface that Microsoft riskily introduced many years ago. While some users initially felt alienated, this change was by no means irreparable. Humans often need a learning curve when they are introduced to new digital and tech habits. This short-term disruption is arguably necessary for long-term human development.
The Internet has created for us a forum of collaboration, discussion and communication that the world never dreamed of hosting. The domain of education has been forever revolutionised and this is epitomised by a Connecticut-based organisation known as LEAP – Leadership, Education, and Athletics in Partnership. If you were to walk through the organisation’s brightly decorated Computer Learning Centre in New Haven, you might witness a scene like this one: A third-grader gleefully composing a letter on a Mac, later to be published on the LEAP website for any member of the public to view. Over the course of the ensuing weeks, she received emails from users elsewhere in the US but more impressively the world. The image of pride and self-esteem flowing into this underprivileged youth depicts the way in which communication through the Internet has allowed her to break through the isolation of her small neighbourhood and be introduced to people of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. Surely this would be the most exposing and beneficial experience of this girl’s life?
In other schools, like Dalton in New York, Internet communication through mediums like Skype and Oovoo (video-calling services) has enhanced learning in its own right. Barry Vann, a former geography teacher at Dalton relates his experience from a decade and a half ago: ‘With the Internet, my kids saw history in the making. They were learning about the end of apartheid as it was happening from the kids in South Africa via blogs. Just a few weeks ago, I witnessed a fellow colleague and his class talking over the Internet to students in China about their reactions to the death of Deng Xiaoping.’ This was fifteen years ago and technology in this field has advanced by leaps and bounds. Just think of the implications of experiencing the news directly, from those living the news as opposed to interpreting it for others.
My family itself has seen the profound difference that technologies like Skype and other forms of Internet communication have made in staying close to one another. While my father lives between India and America, my mother and sisters stay rooted in the States and with such a vast difference in time zones and indeed the costly nature of simply calling one another, video-calls have proven a stalwart alternative.
Now of course some may find loopholes in my argument and I would like to address these by discrediting each individually. One argument is that technology makes young people too sedentary. To that I would argue that while the television may have contributed to childhood obesity in some parts of the United States some years ago, much of communication technology today is mobile (cell phones, iPads). Furthermore, technology applies far beyond just communications and entertainment. Innovations in the field of sports and health, for example, encourage active lifestyles. Concepts like the Nike Fuelband inspire youths and adults alike to run and beat one another’s goals while the Jawbone tracks calories and movements in a way that allows the user to seamlessly share personal results with friends; this introduces friendly competition and catalyses a pattern of sustainable physical exercise routines. Improvements in the field of blenders such as the ever-so-trendy Vitamix have allowed us to chop a vast array of fruits and vegetables into a ‘smoothie’ in a fun and unbelievably simple way. The consumer is able to enjoy the benefits of the seeds and rinds, making it enjoyable and innovative for her or him to try different creative solutions to eating healthy in a convenient way.
Others may argue that people release ridiculous videos of atrocities like beheadings or illegal porn to the Internet because they know people will see it hence creating a forum for immoral activity. To respond to this a simple quote from Stan Lee’s fictional character, Spiderman, should suffice: ‘With great power, comes great responsibility’. History has taught us that as we get more intelligent and more powerful, we will always have the choice to do something productive and healthy or unproductive and detrimental to society. Today’s growth in technology is no different. Just as we have experience in setting up gun laws to combat the proliferation of gun technology, society will evolve to combat the most damaging uses of the Internet and other technology to society. YouTube, for example, in the true fashion of its democratic foundations, uses a user-generated rating system to remove content that some might find aggressive. They have a constantly evolving set of norms as to what is allowed on their site and what is not allowed. This encourages the giant video distribution platform and its users to leverage their moral compasses together to establish new norms and as a society fight what we deem unethical.
Those who argue in favour of this essay’s title may indeed say that the Internet has created a haven for ethically fraudulent ideas and has destroyed youth’s sense of a moral compass. But this is a very simplistic response. The Internet has created an enhanced transparency that allows people to discern and identify truthfulness more than ever. Just as fraudulent ideas are available, a plethora of other, potentially honest ideas are available, and the user is left with his or her good judgment to decide for themselves what to believe. When there was a hegemony of channels of distribution (a couple of nationwide newspapers, TV channels and record labels), people only had access to whatever it was that these giants chose to put out. Now, the massive amount of uncensored information allows users to search for truth on their own, without having to necessarily believe fraudulent, random, or unproven facts that are disseminated on the world wide web.
In short, my answer to this question, is simply no. Quite to the contrary, developments in technology have democratised the consumption of information and expedited the timeline along which individuals have the opportunity to pursue truth. The Internet has reduced the barrier of entry to information consumption in such a way that facilitates information sharing, idea flow and diversity of participation. In the past, individuals who had access to top level institutions tended to come from wealthy families, and in turn had access to the most lucrative jobs in society. These were the individuals making decisions at the most top levels of powerful companies, thus heavily influencing how people think and understand their own worlds. The availability of information has prompted a response to this self-fulfilling prophecy by providing those without these elite backgrounds to also share their thoughts, truths, ideas and concerns with those who might be interested. Websites such as innocentive.com, in which individuals crowd-source solutions to their company’s toughest problems, have allowed unassuming free- thinkers to serve as some of the wealthiest companies’ saving grace, in a way that is safe and attractive to them. While there is bad information on the web, there is so much good. Human communication has been revolutionized. App culture that was started by Apple has provided platforms for young people to feel inspired to solve some of the world’s most simple problems, and innovate with ease. To conclude, technological developments have not irreparably damaged the lives of young people.