Here It Is: Another Article About Millennials

If you've heard one story about those weird, wacky millennials, you've heard them all, right? Well, this one is a little different—it points out the growing distraction of college students by digital devices—a matter meeting professionals in particular should be ready to tackle.

Last May, a hilarious phenomenon hit the internet that nailed the general frustrations with the ways “old folks” talk about the younger generation.

Programmer Eric Bailey created a web browser extension to parody the heavy use of certain buzzwords like “millennials.” Essentially, anytime it came about in a webpage or news story on the topic—which was often—the plugin changed the term to the much-weirder “snake people.”

“I saw one crazy-titled headline too many,” Bailey told the Wall Street Journal of his bizarre creation last year. “A lot of these articles speak of [millennials] in terms of this weird, dehumanized, alien phenomenon.”

Bailey has a pretty good point. Journalists often write about a wide group of people in the most nonspecific way possible, as if it’s a monolithic body with a single brain—say, like the old-school videogame Lemmings. But we do it, generally, out of an effort to make clear the challenges that younger audiences create for those who aren’t hip and in the know.

A recent study I uncovered doesn’t specifically use the term “millennials,” aptly replacing it with “college students,” but it nonetheless nails a trend that actually means something to association executives.

New research published in the Journal of Media Education [PDF] found that, in 2015, the average college student/millennial/”snake person” checked a digital device 11.43 times per day while sitting in a classroom, for reasons unrelated to schoolwork. This is an increase from the average of 10.93 times that college students/millennials/”snake people” did the same thing in 2013.

The devices are winning out, and educators in any context—or employers that frequently hold meetings—may be stuck with them.

This clearly highlights a problem with digital distraction that is likely to become more pronounced in the coming years, notes study author Bernard R. McCoy, journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

“To me it’s fascinating, interesting, and a little scary all at once,” McCoy told the publication. “If you take a look at the habits of society in general, technology is more available to us than ever before. … Then you think about millennials. They are the true digital natives. They’ve only known the internet and the technologies associated with it.”

Now this is a significant problem, especially for associations, which rely on education programs as a part of their business structure. But what’s particularly interesting about this research is that more than 80 percent of respondents essentially implied that they either didn’t feel distracted by such digital devices, would use them anyway even if they got in the way of learning, or simply couldn’t stop themselves from looking at their devices. And more than 90 percent of respondents would oppose a ban on such devices in the classroom, with most believing it wasn’t worth handing out a penalty for.

The devices are winning out, and educators in any context—or employers that frequently hold meetings—may be stuck with them.

“Most were aware of the downside in their behavior when it comes to their ability to learn,” McCoy said in a separate interview with “But they have justified that tradeoff. It’s not so much a sense of entitlement; it’s their desire to be connected and not wanting to miss a message.”

Is the solution to the issue a behavioral one? Perhaps. One fascinating finding in the study was that 89 percent of respondents admitted they may likely be distracted by using a digital device, and 80 percent expressed concern that they might miss instruction, but less than a third were concerned that the teacher might call them out for it.

And—most tellingly—slightly more than a quarter said they were concerned that it might affect their grades. Which meant it wasn’t a primary concern for nearly three-quarters of respondents.

So, we have these devices that are everywhere and constantly distract the people you’re trying to teach, and those people who are distracted don’t see a problem. Sounds like a fun challenge.

Interaction versus Distraction

During last summer’s ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo in Detroit, Closing General Session speaker Sherry Turkle attempted to make some similar points, but she focused less on our ability to educate ourselves and more on our ability to interact and communicate with others.

That line of argument didn’t really fly with me all too well, as you might remember—in part because it seemed to discount the value of communication on digital devices—but the idea of distraction is a little bit different.

Suddenly, we’re going from the idea of talking with people to simply following along with an educator. And, “snake people” or not, that’s going to be a growing problem in the coming years.

There are some parallels here between looking at your phone at a restaurant during a conversation and looking at your phone at a conference during a session. But, again, the claim that we’re not actually being distracted when we flitter about on our touchscreens is a common one. I mean, I’ve told myself that—despite the fact that I commonly carry a laptop into a session, tweet heavily, and have 30-plus tabs open in Chrome at any given time. (No, I don’t have the “snake people” extension installed.)

The tough thing we have to ask ourselves here is, as our audiences become more tech-savvy, how do we balance the desire to look at screens with the desire to keep people focused?

My best guess is an increased focus on interactive educational sessions—whether or not devices are involved. I’d love to hear yours, though.

This image of Sleestaks from "Land of the Lost" makes sense for this article. Kinda. (Universal Pictures)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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