My handwriting skills peaked sometime in my 12th year, shortly after I took a summer typing class. A few months later my parents bought a personal computer. Before long my writing life migrated to the keyboard, and my handwriting began its steady decline to the pained, barely legible scrawl that it is today.
A penmanship expert would look at that sorry trend and say, "What a disaster! The adoption of the personal computer has led to a marked deterioration of an important communication skill." But that assessment would be meaningless without factoring in all the benefits I've enjoyed from switching to the keyboard. Not only can I put words together at 10 times the speed of using pen and paper, but I can also transfer those words to the digital realm, where they can be edited, spell-checked, e-mailed, quoted, blogged and Googled.
In fact, the benefits so dramatically outweigh the costs that if I had to do away with either handwriting or typing for the rest of my life, I'd give up handwriting in a heartbeat. I suspect many others would do the same.
Any time a new technology comes along, an implicit cost-benefit analysis gets made. The trouble with the current debate about Generation M is that we have a phalanx of experts lined up to measure the costs but only a vague, intuitive sense of the benefits.
Start with the costs. Is all this screen time diminishing the kids' face-to-face social skills? Hardly. Remember, the total number of hours spent in front of a screen has not increased over the past 10 years. Teenagers are irrepressibly social animals; it's in their DNA. They're not using the technology to replace their real-world social life; they're using technology to augment it.
No doubt there is some truth to the belief that multitasking in front of a screen (or screens) can make it harder for us to focus on contemplative single-task projects like reading a book or solving quadratic equations. But are there benefits that might outweigh those costs? The crucial trend is not the number of hours teenagers spend in front of the screen but rather the dramatic increase in cognitive engagement that the screen demands of them.
Twenty or 30 years ago, we sat in submissive wonder soaking up the magic of Three's Company and Who's the Boss? Today's kids see the screen as an environment to be explored, inhabited, shared and shaped. They're blogging. They're building their MySpace pages. They're constructing elaborate fan sites for their favorite artists or TV shows. They're playing immensely complicated games, like Civilization IV--one of the most popular computer games in the U.S. last fall--in which players re-create the entire course of human economic and technological history.
I believe this dramatic spike in digital participation is, for the most part, sharpening the minds of Generation M, not dumbing them down. But it's hard to see that improvement without the right yardstick. The skills they're developing are not trivial. They're learning to analyze complex systems with many interacting variables, to master new interfaces, to find and validate information in vast databases, to build and maintain extensive social networks crossing both virtual and real-world environments, to adapt existing technology to new uses. And they're learning all this in their spare time--for fun!