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NewsNote: The Hypersocialized Generation

Jeffery Zaslow of The Wall Street Journal opens his article with the story of a 17-year-old boy sent to the vice principal’s office after being caught sending text messages in class.  The vice principal, Steve Gallagher, told the boy to pay attention to the teacher, not to his cellphone.  Even as the boy nodded politely, Gallagher noticed something amiss — the boy was texting about his discipline for being caught texting.

“It was a subconscious act,” said Gallagher. “Young people today are connected socially from the moment they open their eyes in the morning until they close their eyes at night. It’s compulsive.”

Zaslow calls the lifestyle of these young people “hypersocializing.”  As he observes:

Because so many people in their teens and early 20s are in this constant whir of socializing—accessible to each other every minute of the day via cellphone, instant messaging and social-networking Web sites—there are a host of new questions that need to be addressed in schools, in the workplace and at home. Chief among them: How much work can “hyper-socializing” students or employees really accomplish if they are holding multiple conversations with friends via text-messaging, or are obsessively checking Facebook?

There is an argument to be noticed here.  Some assert that this generation of teens and twenty-somethings has developed an invaluable ability to multitask, to frame arguments with few words, and to stay constantly connected. Some, like Ben Bajarin of Creative Strategies, go so far as to argue that these young people are so skilled at “multimedia socializing” that their social skills are superior to previous generations, rightly understood.

Others, noting the time spent obsessively checking digital devices, see a loss of community, a fog of constant chatter, and, for both employers and educators, a massive volume of lost time. As P. M. Forni at Johns Hopkins University observes, “There is a lot of communication going on that is futile and trivial.”

Consider what this means for educators:

Educators are also being asked by parents, students and educational strategists to reconsider their rules. In past generations, students got in trouble for passing notes in class. Now students are adept at texting with their phones still in their pockets, says 40-year-old Mr. Gallagher, the vice principal, “and they’re able to communicate with someone one floor down and three rows over. Students are just fundamentally different today. They will take suspensions rather than give up their phones.

As Gallagher concludes, asking students to separate themselves from social media for the school day seems futile. “It’s like talking to kids about why they don’t need air.”

Jeffery Zaslow’s article, published in the invaluable “Personal Journal” section of The Wall Street Journal, is directed mainly to the business community, where executives are hard pressed to know how much they should (or even can) restrict social networking among younger employees. But the issues he addresses go far beyond the business context. His article should be read by parents, pastors, teachers, and anyone who cares about the minds and souls of young people.

One thing is clear — Zaslow is not exaggerating. Almost every parent of a teenager or twenty-something will recognize the truth of his diagnosis of “hypersocializing” among the young. If anything, the issues range beyond the concerns he identifies.  Business executives are concerned about the financial costs and economic impact. Educators are rightly concerned about distractions from the learning process. But what does this hypersocializing do to the souls of young people?

As prophets of technological pessimism from Jacques Ellul to Neil Postman have reminded us, every technology comes with an effect on the soul. How does this digital revolution effect the souls of young people who quite literally sleep with cellphones on the pillow, lest they miss a text message in the night? What space is left for the development of flesh-and-blood friendships? How are they related to people who do not have access to text messages? Is their communicative ability now limited to 140 characters in a burst?

Among young Christians, what space is left for the development of a devotional life? Do their lives contain any space for extended quiet and reflection, for prayer, or for reading anything longer than a text message?

This is precisely where evangelical Christians need to invest serious thought and reflection. We should all be concerned when Steve Gallagher laments that these young people think they need constant access to social media the way they need oxygen for breathing.

Then again, maybe the real problem is much worse than Zaslow and Gallagher acknowledge. Is this phenomenon limited to the “hypersocialized” young?  In the spirit of personal confession I must admit that I turn on my iPhone the moment the plane hits the tarmac on landing. I feel irresponsible if I do not post regular Twitter updates and check email and messages constantly. Colleagues, friends, and constituents expect “hypersocializing,” and they now range across the age spectrum.

There is no going back — at least not in terms of retreat. The social universe is a fact of life, and a missiological challenge for the Christian church. We are all Facebookers now.

The hypersocialized generation of teenagers and young adults needs to learn limits. Parents must provide those limits for their children and encourage them in older offspring. Educators and executives cannot ignore the challenge, but there is as yet no mechanism for determining proper balance in a world growing more hypersocialized by the day.

We are all looking for someone to figure this out and find the responsible boundaries. When this happens, let’s hope they send a text message to the rest of us.