By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Daniel Watts, teaching a computer graphic arts class for at-risk youth at Elinor Lincoln Hickey Junior and Senior High School in Sacramento.
Generation Z members are pioneers inventing new forms of communication based on technology — and some of it borders on a new language, says John Jabagchourian, assistant professor of child and adolescent development at San Jose State University.
“They are creating the nuances of texting. Is it polite to text? What does it mean if someone doesn’t text me back? Can you use IM-ing (instant messaging) for ‘poking’ (saying hello) to people on Facebook? There’s a whole new etiquette being created. They have their own rules about what’s acceptable and what’s not. Through technology, they can express themselves in ways previous generations did face to face.”
According to surveys by Pew Internet Research, 38 percent of youths age 12 to 14 have online profiles, and 81 percent of those 12 to 17 use social networking sites to send messages to friends. Of these, 42 percent said they do so every day.
Hooked on communication
“This generation is so hooked on communication that they are connected 24-7 and sleep with their cell phones on,” says Larry Rosen, an author, professor at CSU Dominguez Hills, and member of the California Faculty Association. “They don’t want to miss one text or Facebook posting. Because of this activity, they get less sleep than any other generation before them.”
Students today have an ever-expanding array of ways to communicate, but the most popular form of communicating is texting. According to Nielsen, the media and marketing information company, the average number of texts by U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 has reached 2,900 a month.
Some teachers believe texting is making today’s students less verbal than previous generations and that abbreviated language results in a communication style that’s somewhat curt.
“They have a much more abbreviated way of communicating when compared to the way other generations communicate with their peers,” says Heidi Shimamoto, a teacher at Dartmouth Middle School in San Jose. “Sometimes it’s snippy and blunt, and it can lead to misunderstandings. You don’t think about trying to say something in a nice way; you just text. Gossip becomes more harmful because they don’t have face-to-face contact — it’s easier to be mean.”
This has led to emotional blowups between students on her campus and seems to be a trend at schools throughout the state, according to several CTA members surveyed.
“Rather than whispering behind someone’s back, kids are being mean on Facebook and lots of people at the same school will see it instantaneously,” says Alec Mackenzie, a teacher at Crocker High School in Hillsborough. “Negative information moves quickly and the whole school knows about something that happened at school before students even get home because they have texted about it when the bell rings.”
“With communication like texting and instant messaging, they can be meaner,” agrees Jabagchourian. “There’s lots of bullying going on. There has always been bullying, but it’s taken a new form. Online bullying can be anonymous, so there’s an ability to be mean and not have repercussions.”
The phenomenon has put teachers in the position of having to calm down hysterical groups of students and also educate parents about improper use of the Internet.
It’s easy for signals to get mixed when students are texting, says Ellen Schouest, a speech pathologist and member of the Redlands Teachers Association. “Spoken language holds such a variety of hidden messages with vocal inflections and body language and facial expressions. Text messages, in my opinion, cannot possibly offer the same kind of richness in communication, and make it difficult to determine subtle nuances of communication, including humor. I am concerned about the shortcuts in communication texting creates.”
The speech pathologist is also concerned about the growing trend for online relationships to take the place of real ones in the lives of young students. “They get so emotionally involved in what they are seeing online, even if they haven’t met the person,” says Schouest. “They think a lot about people they have never met because they’ve talked online or texted that person. I ask, ‘Have you ever met this person?’ and they say, ‘No, but he’s my friend on Facebook.’”
“I do believe that texting has affected oral communication in this generation,” she adds. “As a speech pathologist, I focus on verbal communication. And it’s difficult trying to talk to somebody who’s not listening to me because they are trying to solve another problem and texting at the same time and there’s no eye contact.”
“It’s frightening, because a lot of today’s kids don’t make eye contact,” says Peggy Cameron, a paraprofessional at Alice C. Stelle Middle School in Calabasas. “They aren’t supposed to use cell phones at school, but they are so used to texting they don’t have listening skills, comprehend lectures or comprehend when someone is talking to them the way that students used to. They are somewhere else at times. As soon as the bell rings at the end of the day they are texting each other. They are even texting other kids 20 feet away. I ask them, ‘Can’t you walk over and talk to your friend?’ They say no, that’s the way kids communicate, and why should they walk 20 feet when they can stay put, get an instant answer and not interrupt their friend from doing something else.”
Abbreviated words and texting lingo are creeping into schoolwork because students are thinking in text language and having a difficult time remembering real words, say teachers.
“Text writing, shortened words and acronyms are happening in their writing at school,” says Duane Mendoza, a teacher at E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard. “The word ‘you’ becomes ‘u’ and ‘people’ becomes ‘ppl’ in their writing. We are trying to correct them on it and discuss appropriate writing styles for school situations. We remind them that what is okay for texting or e-mailing is not the same protocol for writing a term paper. Sometimes they’re being lazy, sometimes they are trying to get a point across, and sometimes they just forget.”
Rosen believes that they are not poor communicators; they just engage in it differently. “How can people say they are not communicators when they communicate more than any other generation by constantly texting, Facebooking, and communicating in other ways with each other?” he asks. “They may be sitting behind a screen, but they are socializing more than if they went outside to play. Behind a screen they can be more anonymous, but they can also open up and be more honest and less shy.”
Rosen, author of Me, MySpace, and I: Parenting the Net Generation, argues that texting and social networking have not ruined this generation as writers and, in fact, have enhanced their writing style somewhat.
“They write worse formal letters, but studies show their essays are more expressive,” he says. “That’s because they are used to communicating about their feelings. A lot of what they do online is communicate about feelings.”
Whether or not there are long-term effects from social networking as the predominant form of communication remains to be seen. Scientists say that it’s hard to know for sure, because they have lost the “control group” to use as a comparison. In this day and age it’s nearly impossible to find kids who are not texting.
Is Generation Z growing up too fast?