Millennial Series Part 3: Are young people too connected?

During the 1980s and early 1990s, there wasn’t a more reliable pair of babysitters than the Super Mario Bros.

Millions of young people clocked countless hours in front of their televisions playing the Nintendo Entertainment System games that featured two plumbers on a mission to save a princess from a deranged turtle.

In many ways, Super Mario Bros. validated the home video game system and began the Millennial Generation down a course of being perpetually technologically connected.

“I’m on Facebook, I have the iPhone 4 and I love technology,” said 18-year-old David Cupps, a parishioner of Holy Trinity in Glen Burnie.

The Catholic Review has been chronicling the American Millennial Generation, born between 1981 and 2000, for the last three months. The series will conclude weeks before World Youth Day, Pope Benedict XVI’s gathering of more than a million youths and young adults in Madrid in mid-August. The Archdiocese of Baltimore will travel with a contingent of 26 people to Madrid.

There is a concern that perhaps Millennials are too connected.

According to a 2010 Pew Research Center study, 90 percent of them are on the Internet. More than 40 percent own a cellphone and eight in 10 of those who own one sleep with a cellphone by their bedside. They send or receive an average of 20 texts messages a day via their cell phone; one Florida teen was reported to have twice sent 35,000 texts in one month.

Twenty-eight percent played a video game the previous day, according to Pew.

At least 75 percent of them have social networking pages. Facebook, founded by Millennial Mark Zuckerburg, has more than 500 million accounts and is a one-stop communication tool that includes email, instant-message chat services, photo sharing and geolocation tagging.

Scott Miller, director for the archdiocese’s Division of Youth and Young Adult Ministry, said Millennials are linked to technology.

“It is fair to define this generation, in part, by the technological advances that they are experiencing in their young lifetimes,” Miller said. “If World War II defined the ‘Greatest Generation,’ (then) how Millennials harness technology for the common good may define them as the next ‘Greatest Generation.’”

A “disposable” world

Wyatt “Seth” Wheeler, a graduating senior computer science major at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, and a parishioner of St. John in Westminster, said young people live in the moment.

“We’re a generation of consumers,” Wheeler said. “With Facebook and smartphones, everything is all about making things as small and as consumable as possible.”

In some ways, he’s too young to recognize the giant leaps in personal technology that occurred during the last 30 years.

In 1981, cable television was just getting its foothold in some American households. Most people went to the theater if they wanted to see a movie. Now, they can just get on the Internet, their video game system or Netflix to watch a digital stream of near first-run films. Many stay home and view films on large high-definition screens with surround sound.

The death of record players, the Walkman and the demise of the compact disc have happened since the 1980s. Now, mp3 players rule the day.

Videotape players gave way to DVD and Blu-Ray machines, which are now on the decline thanks to digital downloads.

Once, there were three major television networks and the newspaper was an integral source of information. Thanks to cable and satellite services, hundreds of channels address nearly every conceivable niche.

The printed book is now receiving its stiffest challenge from e-readers such as the Kindle and tablets such as Apple’s iPad. Amazon is reporting that readers are now purchasing more Kindle versions of books than print editions.

The Internet allows people to view news and information instantaneously, share their thoughts, shop for anything and hold video conferencing via programs such as Skype.

“I remember when we were just first getting Internet in our house and the dial-up, and it was slow,” said Loyola University Maryland junior Lauren Janniello. “By high school, we had the wireless. Internet and technology has been evolving as I’ve been growing up. It’s been convenient.”

The world is at the fingertips of young people and they never have to leave home.

Timothy Snyder, Loyola University Maryland’s vice president for academic affairs, said Millennial communication is evolving.

“What’s missed,” Snyder said, “is that they are probably communicating with more people than at any other time in human history.”

In his message for World Communications Day 2009 on “New Technologies, New Relationships,” Pope Benedict XVI said a communication balance should be struck.

“If the desire for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive,” the pope said, “it may in fact function to isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development.”

Distracted living

People no longer just talk in person or make a phone call. They Skype, text and/or connect on Facebook or other social networks.

Brendan Stack, a graduating senior at Loyola, sends or receives about 30 texts a day. He not-so-convincingly thinks he can live without his phone

“The thing is, it’s more than just a phone now,” Stack admits. “I’ve got electronic books I’ve been reading on there. It’s more than just verbal communication.”

Early in the second semester this year, Stack thought of a question he wanted to ask a friend while in class. He was ready to text.

“I thought about pulling out my phone but I literally had to stop myself because the teacher doesn’t like that,” Stack said. “I respect that. (The phone) was right there on hand and I could have gotten an answer.”

The connection between technology and this generation is almost unbreakable.

In the Pew Research study, more than two-thirds of young people ages 18 to 29 admitted to texting while driving, while 75 percent talk on the phone behind the wheel. Several state governments, including Maryland, have moved to ban phone usage while driving.

Father Brian P. Nolan, chaplain for Mount St. Mary’s, sends or receives about 25 text messages a month. He won’t get into anything terribly deep, though.

“I find it useful,” he said. “I always check myself to say, ‘That’s a phone conversation, that’s not a text.’”

Today, many from all generations hold an in-person conversation while they text message a friend, play a game or surf the Internet on their cell phones.

The sounds of ringtones and text messages received can regularly be heard in churches, classrooms, libraries and movie theaters.

Father Nolan, a member of Generation X who ministers to Millennials, worries about young people being present in the moment.

“My big concern is that they can’t live undistracted living,” he said. “That is scarier than anything else. If you have people who can’t be focused on one another, how’s a marriage ever going to last beyond year two? Marriages and relationships are hard enough if you can’t give someone your full attention. This is almost an attention-less generation that’s coming up behind us.”

NEXT: Religion and Spirituality in the 21st Century

How does the church remain relevant with young people?

For parts 1 and 2 of the series, audio and video, visit us online at CatholicReview.org/Millennials.

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The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.