What do we lose and what do we gain, by the online constant?

I had the great pleasure yesterday of giving a talk to the (high school) students of Beaver Country Day School; the general theme (and the impetus for my invitation) was this piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago for Al Jazeera, in which I argued:

It is imperative that we teach young people not just about personal safety online, but also about digital literacy in every sense of the term, from the ability to discern good research resources to the responsibilities of digital citizens to their fellow netizens.

This also means recognizing that good citizenship begins offline. Just like the Internet can be a tool for positive change, so can it be a tool that enables cyberbullying and harassment. There is no denying the role the Internet played in the suicides of Clementi and Prince. It is also likely that, in the absence of the Internet, their harassers would still have found a way to cause them harm.

In the end, education is the key, and the responsibility is on all of us – not just teachers, not just parents, but all of us – to instill a strong sense of citizenship in the next generation.

I went in with the idea of discussing privacy and cyberbullying, and what ensued was an interactive conversation with some 250 or so students, impressively squeezed into a 30-minute time slot.

We touched on a variety of topics; I asked the students how many of them were on Facebook, and when it appeared to be everyone, I asked the reverse question: Four students and on teacher raised their hands.  I asked whose parents could see their online activity: it was about 50/50.  I asked them if they were aware of their privacy settings and who could see their activity on the social networking site: again, around 50/50 (sort of what I would expect based on regular readings of danah boyd‘s work).

My favorite juncture in the conversation happened, however, when a student seated somewhat near the back unassumingly asked if I thought excessive use of social media and the Internet were hindering our in-person interactions.  Somewhat dumbstruck by the question, I turned it back to the audience, and a young man near the front eloquently stated that yes, the more we interact online, the less we’re able to engage in intellectual conversation in person; we lose our public speaking abilities, our abilities to connect with others.  I was impressed by his answer, but also a bit amused by that last part: after all, the public speaker standing at the front of his auditorium spends more time online than he does, I’m sure.

Nevertheless, the first student’s question, and the second student’s answer both spurred me thinking.  We know that there are drawbacks to our constant connectivity, and we know that there are benefits, or we wouldn’t engage.  But do the benefits extend beyond the obvious–productivity, convenience, connection–to actually influence our friendships, our worldview, our very being?  When I think about my life as a digital native, I am aware of hundreds of connections that I never would have made were it not for the Internet.  Some of the biggest influencers on my life from age sixteen to now have been people I knew first online.  And so, while my speaking skills may be stunted by my constant practice of writing (and believe me, they are; even if it’s not noticeable, I’m a ball of nerves on the inside), I wouldn’t trade that for a return to a simpler social circle.

There’s something rumbling in my head that I’ve been wanting to write for awhile now, and which I will probably start on soon.  I know that if I start, it will likely end up book-length, and so I’m waiting until at least the new year, when all term papers have been submitted and I’ve cleared my head in California, to do so.  And that clearing of my head?  I will be taking my first digital hiatus (of 7 days) in years.

2 replies on “What do we lose and what do we gain, by the online constant?”

Sounds like you had a blast! Good for you.

If there was no internet, I’d probably be diving in books and corresponding (in snail-mail) with others. I don’t think we (and I mean by that, us Humans) lose anything by the “online constant”.

I think people belonging to pre-Internet generations can be more aware of the dangers of too much exposure online. I think it may be harder for a nowadays teenager to tell the difference. I see it on my 16 year-old nephew, who knows that the digital media might be dangerous, but he goes on on posting information online.

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