In research that Beata Staszyńska-Hansen and I undertook over the last six years in the European Union we found that the current generation of youngsters (8 – 18 years) displays remarkable behaviour in the classroom, at an ever younger age. To start with, most youngsters are incapable of concentrating on one thing for a prolonged time. Then, extreme student opinions that are emotionally phrased and defended dominate current classroom discussions. Finally, for many youngsters abstract thinking is a challenge. They experience problems when applying abstract rules to concrete situations. Also, understanding that knowledge might be context-sensitive is a problem for them. The outcomes of our research do not point at a radicalization of youngsters, neither do they show that youngsters are dumber. The underlying cause is that youngsters are fragmented.
The process of fragmentation that holds many youngsters in its grip starts partially in the world of adults. They have created a society in which developments and events race each other in a dizzying pace. We run from attack to disaster and from threat to revelation. Boko Haram, Islamic State, Syrian refugees, the Ukraine, Turkey, the Panama Papers, the US elections – the incidents never seem to stop. By the time we finally understand the newest version of Windows or how the newest iPhone works, we are already confronted by a newer version.
According to sociologist Zygmunt Bauman[ii] our society has turned “liquid”: everything changes too fast for us to develop new routines or to come up with our own reflections. Media that could explain the incidents to us are focused on clickbait in a desperate attempt to survive. Politicians use emotions to convince us rather than arguments and use soundbites and populist and polarizing rhetoric. On social media short messages are the norm while memes and trolling are common communication instruments. And the use of technology in itself inspires us to be more short-term oriented.
School and family
The processes of fragmentation also occur at school and in the family. As a reaction to the current liquid times everything is planned to the maximum, to avoid the uncertain. Teachers are being overburdened with the organization of extracurricular activities while parents drag their children from piano class to football practice. Adults on the other hand rarely engage in simple conversations with youngsters that could provide them with a frame to understand reality. Many have no time and no appetite to admit that they also understand little of what goes on around them and that they too are scared.
Youngsters’ circle of fragmentation
Youngsters themselves also deepen their own fragmentation. On top of the processes that adults put in motion, youngsters maintain their own “circle of fragmentation”. This circle starts with the multitasking that many of them employ. They chat, do their homework, watch a YouTube video and explain to their parents that tomorrow’s exams are under control, all at the same time.
Unfortunately, our human brain, and especially the young human brain, is not good at multitasking. The more activities it undertakes in parallel, the less information reaches the brain. And the higher the chances that the information that does reach the brain lands in a place in the brain from where it cannot be retrieved. In addition, our brain needs fifteen minutes after the completion of a task to be able to focus again on a new task. During multitasking these fifteen minutes are absent.
Multitasking within a fragmented society leads to a situation in which youngsters only take little bites out of the stream of information. Their short concentration spans function as a film camera that records only short intervals and then returns to pause-mode. The resulting recordings that end up in short-term memory therefore have not much in common.
During our research in Dutch classes an incident occurred that illustrates this. We asked students in various Middle School classes to draw a selfie that should never be published. Taking the students’ age (12 – 14 year) into account we expected selfies with bad hair or acne. These selfies were drawn, but only a few of them. Half of the students drew themselves before a background of Islamic State beheadings or in front of the remains of the MH-17 plane that then was recently downed over the Ukraine.
To tell the truth, we did not really know how to react to this. We therefore told the students they could hang their drawings on the wall. To our surprise all students who had drawn a violent background to their selfie came up to us, one-by-one, as if it was previously agreed upon. All respectfully asked for permission to destroy their drawings. When we gave the permission they shredded the selfies one-by-one into the wastebin near to us.
For a long time we pondered what it was that we had experienced. After a while we realized that our question had triggered a short film about something bad in these students’ heads. When they retrieved the film from their memory – or rather actively reconstructed it, because that is how memory works – it turned out that they had no frame to deal with these images they themselves had in their head. Thus they wanted to get rid of the images as soon as possible.
The incident shows that youngsters do not just absorb positive or neutral information but also negative information.
The information that is stored in the short-term memory is one of the two sources used by the long-term memory to shape our personality. This one source contains fragmented impressions. The other source is formed by the dreams that we cherish for the future. For most youngsters these dreams are very pragmatic and short-term oriented. Howard Gardner and Katie Davis[ii] therefore dub the current generation the App generation, because youngsters have an app for every problem. Should there be no app available for a problem at hand then that problem is not worthy of their attention, according to Gardner and Davis. The current generation as a result is realistic and rather boring.
This does not mean that the current generation takes practical responsibility for their lives. Their parents pamper them and solve problems for them so that many youngsters have no idea of finance and are not very well prepared for an autonomous life.
The fragmented memories and the fragmented personalities prohibit the coming into existence of a functioning coherent interpretation frame of the world within many youngsters – an interpretation frame that would be in permanent interaction with their surroundings. Therefore, it is not surprising that many youngsters experience difficulties formulating critical opinions.
Often youngsters in reaction opt in to adapt a ready-made ideology that seems to offer them a coherent view on the world, such as nationalism or political Islam. These frames help out to react to the ongoing external and internal chaos.
This does not mean that youngsters actually believe in these ideologies. These ideologies are there to relieve feelings of anxiety, loneliness and purposelessness. Therefore, they are defended emotionally because they are important to preserve a feeling of coherence. At the same time the defence is irrational because the ideologies are almost randomly chosen.
The adopted ideologies are vulnerable vis-à-vis deviant information or conflicting opinions because they have no deep rooting in these youngsters. As a result, youngsters withdraw in so-called echo chambers: places where all present express very similar opinions, on topics like Justin Bieber or Turkey. Should a sceptic outsider appear and this space and ask questions, youngsters would be confronted with the fact that they are incapable to defend their beliefs rationally and withstand critical appraisals. Thus negative emotions and aggression in the form of threats are employed instead of arguments to deter outsiders and restore the peace of the echos.
Difficulties with abstract thinking
The lack of coherent internal interpretation frames also causes many youngsters to experience difficulties with abstract thinking. Many teachers in our research complained that when they explain a theory to their classes and provide an example of how to apply this theory practically, many youngsters mentally check out. When asked to apply this theory to a new situation, many declare that this is an entirely new situation and that they are lost what to do next. It is also hard for them to understand that something that is true in one situation does not mean that it is true in another.
A math teacher during our research came up with a striking example of this. In class she had told her students that two times three equals three times two. In reaction a student raised his hand to voice his disagreement. According to him two times three tablets daily is different from three times two tablets daily. Although true in medicine, he would not accept the fact that in mathematics this is different.
The result of this fragmentation is that many youngsters do not have an experience of learning. They see situations as unrelated – as separate, unconnected events. They see themselves as a constant within a stream of random events to still keep up the semblance of coherence. This means that many claim they do not adapt themselves to situations, let alone learn in situations. They are always themselves within any occurring situation.
Lack of control
The lack control resulting from liquid life, pampering parents and auto-fragmentation does not just lead to emotional acceptance of ready-made ideologies and the assumption that they are always themselves. It also leads for many youngsters to the will to control situations in which they are present as much as this is possible. For education this means that they want to explore and create themselves. For communication this means that they rather chat than call or meet in real life because in asynchronous communication they themselves can decide when and how to react, whereas in a dialogue they need to be spontaneous. For leisure time this means that they rather game and snapchat.
Fortunately, there are also advantages to being fragmented. Fragmented youngsters can more easily lose themselves in activities like gaming and achieve a state of “flow”. And they have far less routines that could hinder them when encountering new situations. This can best be seen with regard to technology. Where adults approach technology by means of tested success strategies and therefore often suffer defeat, fragmented youngsters as a rule operate far less confined. They happily try out the weirdest things to get something working. This is an important reason why they feel more at ease than adults when using technology and are seen as digital natives. It also is an important reason why they assume that they are good at multitasking. Thus, the circle of fragmentation closes.
When I present the above at gatherings most adults frantically take notes. Most youngsters on the other hand display signs of boredom. When asked most youngster tell me that I tell them nothing new. At the same time they declare to be baffled by the majority of adults present because they seem to know little about them even though they work and interact with youngsters on a daily basis.
This generation, so more aware of its shortcomings – and strengths – is miles ahead of most adults. It therefore deserves its own provocative label. Generation F seems to fit very well: Generation Fragmentation. Nice to meet you!
[i] Zygmunt Bauman – Identity (2004); Liquid life (2005); Liquid times (2007)
[ii] Howard Gardner/ Katie Davis – The app generation (2013)