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Millennials and those belonging to Generation Z (born after 2000) are no different from the rest of us who are older. They have the same potentials for a virtuous life as well as for evil as all descendants of Adam and Eve. They are not inherently selfish, disrespectful to elders, unfit for productive work, sexually permissive, seekers of instant gratification and unable to make long-term commitments. In fact, when I read studies which attach some of these labels to the youth of today, I have the same feeling that I had when economists of my generation described the typical “homo economicus” or economic man as the consummate selfish creature whose only goal in life is to maximize profit or personal pleasure. These were oversimplifications of human behavior that economists of the liberal tendencies (Milton Friedman et al) made in order to apply mathematical tools to economic analysis. The free enterprise economists ignored the very important fact that human beings have a wide range of motivations when they act, i.e. psychological, cultural, moral, spiritual, etc. other than the maximization of profit or physical pleasure. Because of this oversimplification in assuming that the business man is motivated by purely selfish reasons, the capitalist started behaving according to the theoretical model. The theory of the purely competitive economy became self-fulfilling and we ended up with the excesses of rugged capitalism that produced the Great Recession of the last ten years.
We have to refrain from giving unflattering labels to the millennials if we want to avoid the same self-fulfilling phenomenon. We have to be convinced that the women and men of the so-called digital age are capable of being humble, temperate, generous, caring, prudent, just and truthful as those of preceding generations. They can overcome the threats posed by the new technologies that the digital age is bringing with it if their parents and grandparents are able to draw out from them these virtues of which they are capable as human beings through the right child rearing and educational practices. In this very important educational task (the etymology of education, “educare”, means drawing out) we must make a realistic assessment of the technological, economic and cultural environment being faced by the youth today in order to come out with the right approaches. In this article, I summarize the suggestions made by educational experts found in three articles that appeared in www.opusdei.org. The three articles are entitled “Educating the New Technologies,” “Interior Quiet in the Digital Age,” and “The New Technologies and Christian Coherence.”
First, what differentiates the so-called digital age from what preceded it, the analog era? There are usually three trends that are associated with the coming of the digital age: a) the disappearance of some forms of work (both physical and mental) as a result of automation and artificial intelligence (AI); b) the challenge of maintaining privacy in the digital age in the face of such intrusive innovations as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the internet in general; and c) The prevalence of social media. These three “mega” trends have important impacts on the behavior of everyone, not only the millennials. As I mentioned in a separate article, in facing the challenges posed by these trends, “We can all be millennials.” That is why, the most important way we can educate the youth in the digital age is by personal example. Baby boomers and those of Generation X have to be the first ones to practise the virtues and values needed so that we do not succumb to the harmful effects of the new technologies. Only then are we going to have the moral authority to help people from Generations Y and Z to avoid the harmful effects of digitalization.
In a book authored by American scholar and educator, John Howard II entitled “Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society,” there is a succinct description of the downside of the new technologies: “As part of the quickening of the pace of life, we might especially mention how information technology, social networking, and the Internet are affecting our thought processes with a mania for all that is superficial and shallow. We are bombarded with the external stimuli of gadgetry whereby we remain instantly connected with the virtual world by means of ever shorter bursts of information. Scholars point out that such distractions tax our ability to concentrate and come to know things profoundly. The mind cannot relax and ponder meaning and nuance, thereby reducing us to a shallowness of thought that inhibits our ability to communicate face-to-face with others…’The more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions,’ warn journalist Nicholas Carr. This assault on our minds’ processes leads to an erosion of our humanness that ‘diminishes our capacity for contemplation’ and is altering the depth of our emotions as wells our thoughts.”
There are human virtues which are most relevant to overcoming the misuse and abuse of the new technologies. The most obvious one is temperance or moderation. This virtue cannot be lived in isolation. For example, helping children not to give in to caprices and whims regarding food, drinks or games will also help them not to be excessive in their use of their smart phones or social media. Teaching virtues requires that parents should know how to make demand on themselves, setting examples of moderation. If children see the struggle of their parents, they will be motivated to make a greater effort themselves at self-control. For example, by paying attention when speaking with them: putting the newspaper aside, turning down the television, making eye contact with the person speaking, not checking messages on the phone, etc. When the conversation is important, any devices should be turned off so that it is not interrupted. These are only a few examples of how virtues, more than being taught are “caught.”
When children are very young, it is better for them not to have advanced electronic devices (e.g. tablets, smartphones, consoles). In order to foster temperance and detachment, it is advisable that these devices belong to the family as a whole and are used in shared places. There should be a plan to help children live moderation in the use of these devices, with family schedules and rules that protect other critical times for study, rest and family life and that facilitate the good use of time. There should be opportunities of checking the internet together, “wasting time” playing on a console or fixing the settings on a smart phone. At an early age (say below 10 years), it is best for children not to have devices that are constantly connected to the Internet. As regards adolescents, it is crucial to use a fundamental resource: dialogue. It is important to explain the reasons for certain ways of behaving, for following certain rules. “It is more effective to show how attractive virtue is right from the start, appealing to the magnanimous ideals that fill young people’s hearts, the great loves that move them: loyalty to friends, respect for others, the need to live temperance and modesty, etc.” (To be continued.)