Millennials to benefit and suffer due to ‘always-on’ lives

Pew Internet/Elon University survey reveals experts’ hopes and fears about the hyperconnected generation, from their ability to juggle many tasks to their thirst for instant gratification and lack of patience

Teens and young adults brought up from childhood with a continuous connection to each other and to information will be nimble, quick-acting multitaskers who count on the Internet as their external brain and who approach problems in a different way from their elders, according to a new survey of technology experts.

Many of the experts surveyed by Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center and the Pew Internet Project said the effects of hyperconnectivity and the always-on lifestyles of young people will be mostly positive between now and 2020. But the experts in this survey also predicted this generation will exhibit a thirst for instant gratification and quick fixes, a loss of patience, and a lack of deep-thinking ability due to what one referred to as “fast-twitch wiring.”

These findings come from an opt-in, online survey of a diverse but non-random sample of 1,021 technology stakeholders and critics.  They were asked to choose one of two provided scenarios and explain their choice.  

55% agreed with the statement:

“In 2020 the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are ‘wired’ differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields helpful results. They do not suffer notable cognitive shortcomings as they multitask and cycle quickly through personal- and work-related tasks. Rather, they are learning more and they are adept at finding answers to deep questions, in part because they can search effectively and access collective intelligence via the Internet. In sum, the changes in learning behavior and cognition among the young generally produce positive outcomes .

42% agreed with the opposite statement, which posited:

“In 2020, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are “wired” differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields baleful results. They do not retain information; they spend most of their energy sharing short social messages, being entertained, and being distracted away from deep engagement with people and knowledge. They lack deep-thinking capabilities; they lack face-to-face social skills; they depend in unhealthy ways on the Internet and mobile devices to function. In sum, the changes in behavior and cognition among the young are generally negative outcomes .

While 55% agreed with the statement that the future for the hyperconnected will generally be positive, many who chose that view noted that it is more their hope than their firm prediction, and a number of people said the true outcome will be a combination of both scenarios. The research result here is really probably closer to a 50-50 outcome, noted Janna Anderson, co-author of a report on the findings.

Many noted that humans are experiencing a revolutionary era—with new communications tools changing the knowledge landscape all the time—and said young people are approaching life and its tasks and challenges in new ways, with good and bad results.

“While they said access to people and information is intensely improved in the mobile Internet age, they added that they are already witnessing deficiencies in younger people’s abilities to focus their attention, be patient and think deeply,” said Anderson, director of Elon’s Imagining the Internet Center. “Some expressed concerns that trends are leading to a future in which most people are shallow consumers of information, and several mentioned Orwell’s 1984.”

Survey participants did offer strong, consistent predictions about the most-desired life skills for young people in 2020. Among those they listed are: public problem-solving through cooperative work (sometimes referred to as crowd-sourcing solutions); the ability to search effectively for information online and to be able to discern the quality and veracity of the information one finds and then communicate these findings well (referred to as digital literacy); synthesizing (being able to bring together details from many sources); being strategically future-minded; the ability to concentrate; and the ability to distinguish between the “noise” and the important messages in the ever-growing sea of information.

“There is a palpable concern among these experts that new social and economic divisions will emerge as those who are motivated and well-schooled reap rewards that are not matched by those who fail to master new media and tech literacies,” noted Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and a co-author of the study. “They called for reinvention of public education to teach those skills and help learners avoid some of the obvious pitfalls of a hyperconnected lifestyle.”

This is first report generated out of the results of a Web-based survey that gathered opinions on eight Internet issues from a select group of experts and the highly engaged Internet public. (Details can be found here:

Following is a selection of respondents’ remarks:

“There is no doubt that brains are being rewired. The techniques and mechanisms to engage in rapid-fire attention shifting will be extremely useful for the creative class.” —danah boyd, senior researcher with Microsoft Research

“It’s still early, but I believe we will see significant, positive, and even astounding improvements in the cognitive abilities of young people within the next five years.” —Dave Rogers, Yahoo Kids

“Skills being honed on social networks today will be critical tomorrow, as work will be dominated by fast-moving, geographically diverse, free-agent teams of workers connected via socially mediating technologies.” —Fred Stutzman, creator of the software Freedom and Anti-Social

“The replacement of memorization by analysis will be the biggest boon to society since the coming of mass literacy in the late 19th to early 20th century.” —Paul Jones, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

“When these young people remake our educational institutions so that they reflect this Internet-based architecture, rather than the broadcast, ‘expert in the center’ framework of today’s K-doctorate educational systems, then their ability to process, if not actually absorb, a greater amount of information will be used to produce positive outcomes for society.” —Morley Winograd, co-author of Millennial Momentum

“Teens find distraction while working, distraction while driving, distraction while talking to the neighbours. Parents and teachers will have to invest major time and efforts into solving this issue—silence zones, time-out zones, meditation classes without mobile, lessons in ignoring people.” —Marcel Bullinga, futurist and author of Welcome to the Future Cloud—2025 in 100 Predictions

“Society is becoming conditioned into dependence on technology in ways that, if that technology suddenly disappears or breaks down, will render people functionally useless. What does that mean for individual and social resiliency?” —Richard Forno, cybersecurity expert

“Short attention spans resulting from quick interactions will be detrimental to focusing on the harder problems and we will probably see a stagnation in many areas: technology, even social venues such as literature. The people who will strive and lead the charge will be the ones able to disconnect themselves to focus.” —Alvaro Retana, distinguished technologist, HP

“When the emphasis of our social exchanges shifts from the now to the next, and the social currency of being able to say ‘I was there first’ rises, we will naturally devalue retrospective reflection and the wisdom it imparts.” —Stephen Masiclat, Syracuse University

“If we can stop fretting about what we’re losing, we can make room to get excited about what we’re gaining: the ability to multitask, to feel connected to ‘strangers’ as well as neighbours, to create media unselfconsciously, to live in a society of producers rather than consumers. The question we face as individuals, organizations, educators and perhaps especially as parents is how we can help today’s kids to prepare for that world—the world they will actually live in and help to create—instead of the world we are already nostalgic for.” —Alexandra Samuel, director, Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University

“Peer-evaluated, crowd-accelerated innovation will be recognized as a new dynamic for our global hologram of shared imagination. Digital reputations will be judged by the level of leveraged meaningful activities one leads, and is directly involved in advocacy for. Just-in-time, inquiry-based learning dynamics will evolve. —Frank Odasz, expert on 21st century workforce

“Just as with J.R.R. Tolkien’s ring of power, the Internet grants power to the individual according to that individual’s wisdom and moral stature. Idiots are free to do idiotic things with it; the wise are free to acquire more wisdom. It was ever thus. Each new advance in knowledge and technology represents an increase in power, and the corresponding moral choices that go with that power.” —Martin D. Owens Jr., attorney specializing in the law of Internet, interactive gaming, and related issues; co-author of Internet Gaming Law

“Creativity, demand for high stimulus, rapidly changing environments, and high agency (high touch) will be what makes the next revolution of workers for jobs they will invent themselves, changing our culture entirely at a pace that will leave many who choose not to evolve in the dust.” —Alan Bachers, director of the Neurofeedback Foundation

“High activity in online environments, particularly games, expends any political will or desire to effectively shape the environment so that there is none of that will left for engaging in our actual political environment.” —Sandra Braman, professor, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; chair, Law Section, International Association of Media and Communication Research; editor, Information Policy Book Series, MIT Press

“The underlying issue is that they will become dependent on the Internet in order to solve problems and conduct their personal, professional, and civic lives. Thus centralized powers that can control access to the Internet will be able to significantly control future generations. It will be much as in Orwell’s 1984, where control was achieved by using language to shape and limit thought, so future regimes may use control of access to the Internet to shape and limit thought.” —Paul Gardner-Stephen, rural, remote, and humanitarian telecommunications fellow at Flinders University; founder and director of the Serval Project

“It seems easy to decry the attention span of the young and to mourn the attendant loss of long form content. Who will watch Citizen Kane with rapt attention when your Android tells you Rosebud was a sled? On consideration, though, I think the Internet has brought forward not only education, but thinking. While we still want to cultivate in youth the intellectual rigor to solve problems both quantitatively and qualitatively, we have gotten them out of the business of memorizing facts and rules, and into the business of applying those facts and rules to complex problems. In particular, I have hope for improved collaboration from these new differently ‘wired’ brains, for these teens and young adults are learning in online environments where working together and developing team skills allows them to advance.” —Perry Hewitt, director of digital communications/communications services, Harvard University

“We will renorm to the new tools. We have always had mall rats and we’ve had explorers. Ideally, people will improve their critical thinking skills to use the available raw information. More likely, fads will continue.” —Bob Frankston, computing pioneer, co-founder of Software Arts and co-developer and marketer of VisiCalc, created Lotus Express, ACM Fellow

“We’ve got adaptive intellects, so if we need to develop new ways of understanding and coping because of a supposed ‘rewiring’ of the brain, we will do so. Whatever happens, we won’t be able to come up with an impartial value judgment because the change in intellect will bring about a change in values as well.” —David Weinberger, senior researcher, Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and Harvard Library Innovation Lab

Respondents were allowed to keep their remarks anonymous if they chose to do so. Following are predictive statements selected from the hundreds of anonymous comments from survey participants:

“I wonder if we will even be able to sustain attention on one thing for a few hours—going to a classical concert or film, for instance. Will concerts be reduced to 30 minutes? Will feature-length films become anachronistic?”

“With deregulation, consolidation of media ownership and control, and the acceptance of capitalism as natural and inevitable, learning styles and attention spans are headed toward the inability to think critically. Trends in education, social activities, and entertainment all make more likely a future of passive consumers of information.”

“Popular tools allow us to move at a pace that reinforces rapid cognition rather than more reflective and long-term analysis. I fear that market forces and draconian policies will drive the technology/media interface.”

“We have landed in an electronics age where communications technologies are evolving much more quickly than the minds that are producing them and the social structures that must support them. We are not taking the time to evaluate or understand these technologies, and we aren’t having serious conversations about what effects these new tools have on us.”

“Discussions based around Internet content will tend to be pithy, opinion-based, and often only shared using social media with those who will buttress—rather than challenge—political, ideological, or artistic beliefs.”

“Increasingly, teens and young adults rely on the first bit of information they find on a topic, assuming that they have found the ‘right’ answer, rather than using context and vetting/questioning the sources of information to gain a holistic view of a topic.”

“My friends are less interested in genuine human interaction than they are looking at things on Facebook. People will always use a crutch when they can, and the distraction will only grow in the future.”

“Parents and kids will spend less time developing meaningful and bonded relationships in deference to the pursuit and processing of more and more segmented information competing for space in their heads, slowly changing their connection to humanity.”

“How/why should we expect the next generation to be ‘different’ (implication = more evolved/better) when they’re raised in a culture increasingly focused on instant gratification with as little effort as possible?”

“It’s simply not possible to discuss, let alone form societal consensus around, major problems without lengthy, messy conversations about those problems. A generation that expects to spend 140 or fewer characters on a topic and rejects nuance is incapable of tackling these problems.”

“Why are we creating a multitasking world for ADD kids? The effects will be more telling than just the Twitterfication of that generation. There have been articles written about how they’re losing their sense of direction (who needs bearings when you have Google Maps or a GPS?). Who needs original research when you have Wikipedia?”

“Human society has always required communication. Innovation and value creation come from deeper interaction than tweets and social media postings. Deeper engagement has allowed creative men and women to solve problems. If Thomas Edison focused on short bursts of energy, I doubt he would have worked toward the creation of the light bulb.”

“Fast-twitch wiring among today’s youth generally leads to more harm than good. Much of the communication and media consumed in an ‘always-on’ environment is mind-numbing chatter. While we may see increases in productivity, I question the value of what is produced.”

“There is less time for problems to be worked out, whether they are of a personal, political, economic, or environmental nature. When you (individual or collective) screw up (pollute, start a war, act in a selfish way, or commit a sexual indiscretion as a public person) everyone either knows very quickly or your actions affect many people in ways that are irreversible.”

“Long-form cognition and offline contemplative time will start to be viewed as valuable and will be re-integrated into social and work life in interesting and surprising ways.”

The Imagining the Internet Center ( is an initiative of Elon University’s School of Communications. The center’s research holds a mirror to humanity’s use of communications technologies, informs policy development, exposes potential futures and provides a historic record.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project ( is a nonprofit, non-partisan “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It produces reports exploring the impact of the Internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care and civic and political life.