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(James Braithwaite for The Globe and Mail)
(James Braithwaite for The Globe and Mail)

Clive Thompson

The dumbest generation? No, Twitter is making kids smarter Add to ...


Part of an occasional series about the way digital culture affects the way we think, learn and live.

Sara: Haha there was a weird comercial for computers that had flying sumo wrestlers

John: Hahaha saweeeeet I’m still tryin to picture how that works

Sarah: Haha yeah so am I this opening ceremony is so weird

John: It must be

Sarah K: Now there’s little kids doing karate

This is a typical teenage text exchange captured by an academic. Now, multiply that by 60, and you’ve got the median number of messages sent and received daily by kids using mobile phones.

Add five hours or so a day spent online, where the most common activity is yet more typing away on social networks. Check in on the millions of comments on Instagram and Kik, or tweets by Taylor Swift’s followers. Still, you’ll only see part of the vastness that is digital chatter among young people.

This outpouring often produces an anguished outcry, particularly in September as kids head back to school and screen time starts competing with homework: Technology, pundits warn, is zombifying our young and wrecking their ability to communicate clearly. LOL-speak has infected the grammar of “millennials,” who gormlessly deploy it – and cutesy emoticons – in essays. Short-form media such as Twitter have made them incapable of penning a sustained thought.

But is this actually “the dumbest generation”?

In fact, there’s powerful evidence that digital tools are helping young people write and think far better than in the past.

Literate? :)

Let’s start with some hard data. The only way to tell whether kids today are really less coherent or literate than their great-grandparents is to compare student writing across the past century. Tricky, but precisely what Andrea Lunsford, a scholar of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, managed to do by collecting 877 “freshman composition” papers from from 2006 and comparing their error rate to those in papers from 1986, 1930 and 1917. If the digital age had hurt students' prose, the error rate in spelling, grammar and word use should have increased.

It hadn’t. Indeed, the average rate of errors had barely budged in almost a century, from 2.11 errors per 100 words in 1917 to 2.26 words today. What’s more, there were “almost no instances” of the smileys or LOL-style short forms that have supposedly metastasized everywhere. (When students do deploy “textisms,” it’s not unintentional, University of Toronto linguist Sali Tagliamonte has found: They use short forms as flourishes of wit; and they do it more rarely than you would suspect.)

But Prof. Lunsford did find a big change in how students were writing – and it was a positive shift. Over the past century, the freshman composition papers had exploded in length and intellectual complexity. In 1917, a freshman paper was on average only 162 words long and the majority were simple “personal narratives.” By 1986, the length of papers more than doubled, averaging 422 words. By 2006, they were more than six times longer, clocking in at 1,038 words – and they were substantially more complex, with the majority consisting of a “researched argument or report,” with the student taking a point of view and marshalling evidence to support it.

“Student writers today are tackling the kinds of issues that require inquiry and investigation as well as reflection,” Prof. Lunsford concluded.

Why this astonishing uptick in quality and sophistication? It undoubtedly reflects rising educational standards, and the better availability of information in a digital age. But there has also been an explosion in composition.

It used to be that students did comparatively little writing out of school; even if you were in university, there was little call for it, and few vehicles to showcase your writing. But now, as Prof. Lunsford’s research has found, 40 per cent of all writing is done outside the classroom – it’s “life writing,” stuff students do socially, or just for fun. And it includes everything from penning TV recaps to long e-mail conversations to arguments on discussion boards.

“They’re writing more than any generation before,” she says. The members of “dumbest generation” aren’t just passively consuming media any more. They’re talking back to it.

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