You Can’t Trust Hyper-Connected Experts

Is technology hurting or helping Millennials and future generations?

Recently, Pew Research published the findings of its survey of over 1000 technology experts on the possible effect on the Millennial Generation of growing up in a media saturated, hyper-connected world. We were flattered to be included in their sample of experts, but would nevertheless urge caution in over-interpreting the results.

Pew was careful to point out that the results have no statistical validity since the survey was not a random or probability sample of the population. In survey research terms, Pew used a “Delphi survey” approach, where, just as the ancient Greeks did in seeking guidance from that oracle, questions were posed to the experts in the hope that they would divine the right answer. To allow for ease of tabulation, the questions asked tended to be in pairs with each respondent asked to agree with one of two contradictory choices. Even with those constraints, many experts, including us, responded with long explanations of why they either didn’t pick one of the two choices presented, or did so with caveats and disclaimers.  Fortunately, Pew reproduced all of these comments in an appendix to their report for those who wanted to explore the answers to each question in more depth.  As if that weren’t enough to mitigate the impact of the findings, on most items  the experts were about evenly split between the two alternatives from which they were asked to choose.
There have been a few, more statistically reliable studies of the impact on Millennial personalities or thinking patterns of specific elements of the digital technology revolution now occurring.  Those that have focused on video games have uncovered results that directly contradict the conventional wisdom about one of the Millennial Generation’s favorite forms of entertainment.

For instance, a study by cognitive neuroscientist, Daphne Bavelier, found that the type of violent games that most worry parents had the strongest beneficial effects on the brain. As psychologist C. Shawn Green points out, “videogames change your brain,” but so does learning to read or playing a musical instrument and the vast majority of the research doesn’t attempt to compare the impact of gaming to other forms of intense, mental activity.
One study at Michigan State University’s Children and Technology Project did find that the more middle school students played games the higher they scored on standardized tests of creativity.  By contrast, the same researchers found that using cell phones or getting on the internet using a PC had no effect on creativity, which would make playing games the preferred hyper-connectivity environment for Millennials’ parents to immerse their children in if they want them to become more creative.

Pew itself has done research on the impact of another aspect of hyper-connectivity, social media, on personality and behavior and reached different conclusions than some of the experts in this Delphi survey.
While 42 percent of the experts surveyed agreed with the proposition that Millennials will “lack deep-thinking capabilities; face-to-face social skills; and depend in unhealthy ways on the Internet and mobile devices to function by 2020,” the other 55 percent of the Delphi experts chose the opposite proposition. The answers of the optimistic majority seem to be more aligned with the findings of other Pew surveys on the nature of those who constantly check their Facebook page.
One Pew study, for example, found that someone who uses Facebook several times per day averages 9 percent more close, core ties in their overall social network compared with other Internet users. Pew also found that heavy users of Facebook get about half the emotional benefit that someone might get from being married. Internet users in general score three points higher in total support, six points higher in companionship, and four points higher in instrumental support than the average American on a scale of 100 for each social dimension.

But a Facebook user who uses the site multiple times per day tends to score an additional five points higher in total support, five points higher in emotional support, and five points higher in companionship, than Internet users of similar demographic characteristics, including age. While this data is not exclusively focused on Millennials or how their brains function, it does suggest that so far, at least, the pernicious effects of hyper-connectivity that so many older people fear may have more to do with their own reaction to the technology than any solid research-based findings.
One major impact of the rise of social media, however, is directly reflected in  the opinions of the experts interviewed by Pew. Unlike the broadcast media architecture of radio and television that  older generations have grown up and experienced for a lifetime, Internet based social networks do not depend on gatekeepers at the center of the communication process to determine what or when people should hear or know something. In the world in which Millennials were raised, anyone can share any information with anyone they choose, however they wish to do so and whenever they want to. This has caused Millennials to prefer the opinion of the group, even when it is made up mostly of strangers, to the opinions of experts, regardless of their credentials or position of authority.

For the youngest generation of Americans, the wisdom of crowds is something in which they believe and practice.  Perhaps, that is why so many of the experts Pew interviewed were so worried about the impact of all this new technology. What’s not clear is if they were more worried about Millennials’ future or their own as “experts.”