by John Fraser, PhD
Dr. Fraser is the President & CEO of New Knowledge Organization Ltd, and a Fellow of the Media Impact Project at USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center. His series of guest blogs on social media use among millennials will appear each Monday for the next three weeks.
Op-ed pieces about the cost of social media to civil society tend to be reinforced by an age-old trope that young people (no matter what generation) are enamored with their new technologies but have increasingly lower attention spans never before seen in human history. Rock and roll was supposed to lead to the demise of society in the 1950s, almost the same way that fast cars and sexualized clothing of the 1920’s were assumed to be evidence of the end of western European civilization. It seems that social media is the new rock and roll.
As new social media emerged, academics perhaps not raised with these technologies invested in a rapid-fire process of pathologizing digital behaviors. They often characterized failure as an inability of users to succeed in traditional learning modalities. It was those modalities – single-task execution or concentration in a classroom – where academics were rewarded in their own careers. They studied game addiction, comparative loss of single-task attention skills, and how social media negatively impacts academic performance.
While some studies were hopeful about the value of digital tools in society, the negative public reports far outweighed the positive. In the face of that work, our national study of teen gamers, It’s not who I am, it’s what I do broke new ground. We found that most so-called high school-age “gamers” were not all-consumed by their media tools. In general, youth had set aside a reasonable amount of time and energy for digital experience as part of their identity development process. What was more revelatory in that study was that teens were choosing their digital gaming to reinforce their ability to achieve success. Those who were more successful in science-based academic pursuits were more likely to use their digital gaming in isolation to advance their mastery, while those youth who were less academically successful with science were more likely to collaborate as a way to be successful. It is only in the past few years that we’ve seen an abundance of affirmative studies that consider how social media is changing the way we think – not better, not worse, just different.
We’ve labored too long on the assumption contemporary youth have low attention spans, when it’s now becoming apparent that most youth are simply exercising good judgment on how to use their time effectively.
Electronic Media Use, Reading, and Academic Distractibility in College Youth, Laura E. Levine, Bradley M. Waite, and Laura L. Bowman. CyberPsychology & Behavior. August 2007, 10(4): 560-566.https://doi.org/10.1089/cpb.2007.9990
The Associations Between Social-Media Use and Academic Performance Among Undergraduate Students in Biology. Jonna M. Leyrer-Jackson, Ashley K. Wilson, Journal of Biological Education. Mar 2017, Vol. 25: 1-10
Smartphones and Cognition: A Review of Research Exploring the Links between Mobile Technology Habits and Cognitive Functioning Henry H. Wilmer, Lauren E. Sherman, Jason M. Chein Frontiers in Psychology. Apr 2017, Vol. 8Crossref
Sleeping with Technology: Cognitive, affective, and technology usage predictors of sleep problems among college students, Larry Rosen, Louis M. Carrier, Aimee Miller, Jeffrey Rokkum, Abraham Ruiz, Sleep Health. Mar 2016, Vol. 2, No. 1: 49-56
“All Over the Place”: A case study of classroom multitasking and attentional performance. Dan Hassoun, New Media & Society. Nov 2015, Vol. 17, No. 10: 1680-1695
It’s Not Who I Am, it’s What I Do: Youth gamer identity and science understanding Asbell-Clarke, J., Fraser, J., Gupta, R. & Rowe, E. (2013), Transactions of the Digital Games Research Association, 1