The Digital Millennial: Will Hyperconnectivity Affect Teens and Young Adults Cognitively?


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Lee Rainie, co-author of Millenials survey: Image courtesy of Pew Research Center

The Future of Cognitive Functioning

For the new study, a randomly chosen group of 1,021 technology stakeholders and critics were asked to select one of two scenarios about the future of young people’s brains functioning in connection to the massive exposure to the digital world.  The first statement posed beneficial consequences:

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 more 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.

More than 55% of respondents agreed with this statement that in the future teens and young adults would be neurologically different in a positive sense; they would learn more and  have good search and find skills.

However 42% agreed with the second less than positive statement:

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.”

Those who agreed with this statement view online immersion negatively in that users are developing poor retention skills, lack social skills and are short of deep-thinking capabilities.

Interestingly, according to the report, although 55% responded positively to the effects of the internet on cogntion, many of the experts who chose this statement mentioned that they  hope this will be the outcome rather than they predict this will be the case.

The Future of the Cognitive State

From the comments made from the respondents, what do the experts  say about the future cognitive state of our youngsters?

  • They will have active brains and great multitasking abilities.
  • More obvious traits will be a lack of patience and need for instant gratification.
  • They will settle for quick choices and count on the Internet as their external brain.
  • Problem-solving will be approached differently.
  • Lack deep-thinking ability will be apparent due to “fast-twitch wiring.”
  • Their effective on-line searching strategies will be well developed.
  • They will be able to discern the quality and veracity of on-line information.
  • Their ability to communicate findings and digital literacy will be high.
  • Synthesizing data from many sources will be easy for them.
  • They will easily discern relevant information from masses of data.
  • Overall, they will be strategically future-minded.
With permission from Janna Quitney Anderson

Janna Quitney Anderson Image courtesy of Elon University

Millennials and Technology

Although a fast-twitching future seems harmful and alarming in some respects, one respondent, David Weinberger, senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and Harvard Library Innovation Lab noted that since humans  are adaptive, we will cope.

Or, as Janna Quitney Anderson, co-author of the study, told Decoded Science, “Many of the survey respondents pointed out human nature often tends to play out the same way as new ideas are introduced – the older generation and those with entrenched interests express fears about change; they see it as a challenge or a threat. Often their concerns are rooted in their desire to retain the status quo.”


Anderson, J., Rainie L. Millennials will Benefit and Suffer due to their Hyperconnected Lives. (2012). Pew Research Center. Accessed February 29, 2012.

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