The shaping of the Internet generation — minute by minute

Saturday, April 21, 2012 | 5:05 p.m. CDT; updated 9:06 a.m. CDT, Monday, May 7, 2012

COLUMBIA – "You look at these pictures, you see the best of everybody's worlds, but you don't see the worst of it. (Our children are) striving for the best, but they don't know the hard stuff. So there's an authenticity piece we're missing when it comes to social media."

The unforeseen and unpredictable impact technology is having on younger generations has come up in quite a few interviews I've done within and outside the age range we set for this project.

Lynne Byler, 28, introduced the idea above while she spoke about her American Dream: a life of contentment and joy.

Social media has forever changed the way we interact with each other and the way we view the world — I know I’m always plugged into something, be it my phone, laptop, iPad or some other device.

I interviewed Byler with three other women who work in classrooms with young children at Mother's Morning Out preschool at Fairview United Methodist Church in Columbia. They're all in their late 40s and used to be stay-at-home moms before they decided to return to work after their children — now ranging in age from 11 to 21 — grew up. They said they, too, saw the influence of social media and reality TV shows on their own children. All three agreed with Byler that technology is going to play a much bigger role in the way their children define their goals and standards for success.

Students I talked with during a day at St. Charles West High School, in a suburb west of St. Louis and where I grew up, also saw technology as a cause of the unwillingness people in their generation have toward the hard-work, pay-your-dues mentality. When I asked one class about criticisms from older generations about younger generations' laziness or sense of entitlement, to my surprise, the class of juniors and seniors wholeheartedly agreed. Technology makes everything they do easier, they said, which cuts down their propensity to go the extra mile.

"Technology definitely plays into that," said Ciara, a senior. "Writing a thank you note for letting you shadow someone (on the job) is a lost art because you could just email them. I just think that's lazy, personally."

Ryan Stahlschmidt, also a senior, echoed that sentiment: "If I wanted to go and see what’s happening in Europe or Asia, I can just go online instead of having to go to those countries."

As we talked more, Stahlschmidt also pointed out something that surprised me: what he sees as a fairly stark difference between upperclassmen in high school and their barely younger classmates.

"I think the difference between the juniors and seniors in this class compared to the sophomores and freshmen at this school is huge," he said. "I think really the only thing that can account for that is the rapid change of technology. We see technology grow rapidly, and we see the change in students’ responsibilities grow rapidly."

Like Ryan, I, too, saw differences between the upperclassmen and underclassmen at St. Charles West when I asked this question. Older students were quick to tell me they felt their generation had lost the drive to buckle down and work. But sophomores and freshman were generally quick to argue the point, noting that they have more work in school than their parents did and that they are expected to do more to get into college.

The younger students also voiced exasperation when asked about what they see on Facebook and Twitter. All they come across are complaints and compliment fishing, they said. While many older students said they see a more positive image of their peers' lives on social media sites, younger students complained about how few upbeat updates they see from friends.

I was intrigued by the polar differences I heard about technology and its influence on work ethic in just one day in one high school among people just one or two years apart in age. The differences in responses weren’t just among individuals — each grade level seemed to form a consensus on technology all their own. Is this a larger trend? As younger high schoolers get older, do their perceptions about their generation change? Or do the differences of opinion among grade levels mean there’s a broader shift in thinking?

Or is technology moving so quickly that even a year in age means a lifetime of difference in experience?

This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.

Editor's note: Because I was given access by the principal and teachers at St. Charles West High School to interview these students in their classrooms, I'm still in the process of getting permission to publish their last names. Once I conduct further interviews and get that permission, we'll add them to the stories.

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