There seems to be a trend at the moment among the freshman EAL classes that I tutor for. A couple of professors have assigned the students readings about internet addiction, and challenged them to go a day without digital media. The students then come to me when they are writing a reflective piece on their experience. The overall trend is definitely that a day without digital media is a Very Challenging Day. The students report feeling bored, going to bed early due to lack of anything else to do, feeling depressed, feeling cut off, unable to cope with daily life, and often caving in and giving up before the day is out. They then talk about their shameful ‘addiction’ to media, the internet, facebook, and text messaging. Several students have mentioned a desire to try to wean themselves off this constant media usage.
But I’m unconvinced. I’m a big fan of media, and I’m not sure it’s a bad thing. Yes, the internet can make you sit on your butt all day, never seeing the light of day, but so can a book. The internet can cause you to become so immersed in your own little world that you do not notice what’s going on around you, but so can a book. You can emerge from a movie theatre or video-gaming marathon squinting in the daylight and trying to remind your brain that this is reality, not that. But I have also emerged feeling similarly disconnected after reading an absorbing, other-worldly novel. Like traditional print media, reading and watching internet content can open your mind, take you to new places, and enable you to engage with different points of view. Just because something is difficult to give up, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. Imagine going a day without literacy. Imagine not reading or writing, even a tiny bit, for one entire day. I, for one, wouldn’t be able to function. But people wouldn’t say that I have ‘literacy addiction’, they’d call me ‘a literate person in the 21st century’. In fact, constant use of literacy is something that we usually teach kids to aspire to, not something we teach them to be ashamed of.
Instead of vilifying students’ ‘media addictions’, I think we need to recognize our realities. Times have changed, but that does not mean times have got worse. In fact, our students today probably spend more time reading, writing, and socially interacting with each other (through texts, facebook, twitter, tumblr, wordpress, etc) then I did when I was a freshman in the late 90’s. I lived a 20 minute walk from my nearest internet connection, and spent most of my free time watching TV or in my local pub. Since then, despite scaremongering that text messaging and other abbreviated forms of literacy will destroy our children’s spelling ability, research has not found a causal link between text messaging and poor literacy. In fact, several studies have found that text messaging can even improve literacy and spelling skills. Most of today’s freshman students have never lived in a world without text messaging or the internet, and they can barely remember the days before smartphones or facebook. They spend their free time communicating with each other, using forms of language that didn’t even exist ten years ago. Isn’t that a good thing? Tell us what you think in the comments!