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Study: Internet Changing Young People's Thinking, Behavior

HR professionals say they must be managed differently

​The brains of young people growing up “hyperconnected” to the Internet might be wired differently from those of their elders, suggests a recent survey of technology experts, who were split on whether the newfangled wiring is desirable.

Researchers from the Pew Research Center and Elon University recently conducted an opt-in, nonrandom, online survey of 1,021 technology stakeholders and critics. Participants were asked which of two predictions about teens and young adults seem more likely by 2020—a scenario in which they’re savvy and productive, or one in which they’re hampered by impatience and shallowness.

HR professionals might, as a result, have to change the ways in which they manage these younger workers.

Some 55 percent of survey participants agreed that the brains of multitasking young people will be wired differently from the brains of those older than 35, mostly for the better. They said young people won’t suffer notable cognitive shortcomings, and that “they are learning more and they are more adept at finding answers to deep questions,” in part because they’re good at going online and finding collective intelligence.

Some 42 percent of survey participants expected brain-wiring changes with negative results, including a thirst for instant gratification. They expect young people will “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; [and] they depend in unhealthy ways on the Internet and mobile devices to function.”

Even some who chose the positive prediction said it was more their hope than their best guess, “and a number of people said the true outcome will be a combination of both scenarios,” according to the Pew-Elon survey report, published Feb. 29, 2012.

While they were not offered a third option, some participants disagreed with the notion that the wiring of young people’s brains will be different from previous generations’ wiring but thought Millennials’ thinking patterns probably will be.

Game Change

Teens and adults who grew up playing video games “will have lasting problems with focus and attention,” futurist author Marcel Bullinga commented in the survey.

“They find distraction while working, distraction while driving [and] distraction while talking to the neighbors. Parents and teachers will have to invest major time and efforts into solving this issue,” he said, by helping young people learn to appreciate quiet contemplation without their mobile devices. “All in all, I think the negative side effects can be healed,” Bullinga added.

Some of those surveyed noted that they themselves, as older adults, have become highly connected to technology, with positive and negative results. Respondents included educators who noted a diminishment of critical thinking skills and attention spans among students.

David Ellis, communications studies director at Toronto’s York University, contends that multitasking hinders productivity, even for the very bright. Contrary to popular opinion, he doesn’t see Millennials as effective users of digital tools.

“The idea that Millennials have a cognitive advantage over their elders is based on myths about multitasking, the skill sets of digital natives and 24/7 connectedness,” he commented in the survey. “Far from having an edge in learning, I see Millennials as increasingly trapped by the imperatives of online socializing and the opportunities offered by their smart phones to communicate from any place, any time.”

HR experts already see refreshing and exasperating differences in Millennials in the workplace.

“Millennials are an interesting group of employees” and “very different” from other generations, said Susan Heathfield, a Michigan-based management consultant and business owner who writes the human resources section for

Attachment to technology “causes them to be on 24/7,” she told SHRM Online, adding that young workers wouldn’t imagine going on vacation without a phone and e-mail access. They’re likely to conduct most business on smart phones, she said. “It creates this mentality where work and what is not work is flowing together.” For example, she said, an employee might watch the NCAA basketball tournament on a computer at 11 a.m. and answer a colleague’s e-mail at 11 p.m.

“Millennial employees are looking for change and challenge. Boring is bad. They want their tasks changing all the time,” Heathfield said. They want autonomy and reassurance. “It just blows my mind watching how this batch of employees was raised,” she said. “They want lots of praise, lots of feedback—every day. … If you ignore their ideas, ‘What’s your problem? My ideas are great.’ ”

Their connectedness can lead to behavior that older colleagues consider rude, like texting during meetings.

While Heathfield didn’t want to generalize, she noted that Millennials grew up working in teams and “they don’t think twice about whether the opinion they express hurts someone else’s feelings. … A Millennial is more likely to say, ‘What a sucky idea,’ and they don’t mean it in an insulting way.”

Everyone must adjust in order to become comfortable with generational differences, she said.

“You appreciate these kids with their fresh ideas, their youthful thinking, their sort of ‘I can do anything’ approach to the workplace,” she said. “They’re like a breath of fresh air in many ways.”

Dinah Wisenberg Brin, a former wire service reporter, is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. She can be reached at

Related Article:

​​​Millennials Bathed in Bits, HR Magazine, July 2010


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