Parents despairing loudly about the amount of time their teenage kids spend using social networks such as MSN and Facebook are more the norm than the exception but it’s rare to hear a 22 year-old, tech-savvy, hip-hop performer slamming his own generation’s anti-social use of technology. In a recent SMH article Nick Bryant-Smith, a Sydney hip-hop artist describes his generation as being:

“addicted to being connected” so much that “technology kills imagination”

and goes on to give a pretty damning evaluation of generation Y:

“Excuse my cynicism/but a world where every kid’s best friend is a computer/is a system failure headed for an apathetic future.”

Bryant-Smith recognizes the practical value of technology and the new digital media platforms but also sees a darker side to it:

“Even the way Adit and I create our music, the way we can trade files back and forth online, the way we can promote tours on Facebook, that has taken so much power and put it back in the hands of the ordinary person. But I think there’s a real cost of that and that cost is our humanity to some extent.”

So, are social networks making us all, but especially the new breed of generation Y users, more anti-social rather than adding a new layer to our social spectrum? It is a serious question and not one that should be asked just by what could be taken for a Luddite group of reactionary parents. I’ve watched my own teenage daughters spend hours and hours using Facebook and MSN and it didn’t take long before the lack of interaction with their immediate, ‘real world’, social network – their family – made me question whether social networking didn’t come at too high a price when it became the dominant mode for socialising.
If people like Bryant-Smith become the rule rather than the exception in terms of expressing an ambivalence toward social networking then we could have another sea change in terms of how young people use digital media. Certainly, there are a lot of people out there at the moment questioning the impact of social media and technology on our communicative processes. In a recent article tackling this issue head on, Owen James, writes:

We have to be grateful for the upside — the ability of someone to be connected with much of the world’s information and a legion of its citizens — but also be wary of something darker: the user’s disconnection from the real world..

James also sees that something else is being lost, something that is arguably at the heart of creativity and the creative process – the ability to operate in solitude:

But what have we lost with our information and communication gains?
Solitude: There’s a fair amount of historical evidence that many great ideas spring into being when the mind is wandering. When we’re alone with our thoughts, when the only input is the human mind mulling over what it already has taken in, there’s a chance for new thinking to gestate.
Quiet: The companion of solitude, a relief from a noisy world. This is not to say that one can’t study with Mozart in the background or be inspired by Coltrane, but there gives us the chance to rest and recharge.
Contact: When emoticons substitute for emotions, then avatars stand in for human connections, and distance and anonymity replace the need to understand body English (or French or Japanese) and to learn the etiquette of accommodation.

If we, across the generational divides, are becoming more aware of the darker and less constructive side of social networking what is it that we can do to redress the balance (suggesting that the technology should be ditched would be throwing the baby out with the bath water)?  The educationalist, Michael Osit, has suggested that :

the Internet and social-networking sites have changed the nature of privacy… parents and teachers have to reassert leadership and become an essential part of the world kids live in today…

That would make sense. Change is about leadership and education. It isn’t going to go away so how do we engage with it and with our children or students to optimise the considerable advantages of social networking whilst minimising the risks?

Debate around this issue will get more and more heated as the uptake of social networking increases to grow. The outcomes will not only have an impact on what social networking becomes in the future but also on how we drive the way we communicate with our peers, children and students.

As James remarks,  we can’t put the genie back in the bottle but we can teach him some manners.

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