Digital Natives Risk Missing Out on Human Connections

by Janet Eilber

May 23, 2007

The “digital natives” are restless.

At the May 11 symposium on arts education hosted by the Dana Foundation, Milton Chen offered the phrase “digital natives” referring to the generation born into the digital age and using “Digitalese” as a first language.

Chen drew knowing laughs from those of us he labeled “digital immigrants,” who turn to our children for translation of Webian, iPodish and all the other new languages. Let’s face it—some of us gave up on learning how to set the clock on our VCR because we knew that the machine would be obsolete before we mastered it.

But a comment from Robert Bucker, dean of the Peck School of the Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, brought up the darker side of the techno-savvy generation: “Today’s kids would rather live in the virtual world than in the real world, and we can’t afford to let that happen.”

With the seduction all of that technology offers—mind-boggling worldwide access, immediate virtual connectivity to friends, games, music, movies—what can invite and inspire today’s youth to live in the real world? What can enable them to experience and value actual connectivity—human to human?

The text messaging, e-mails and instant messages that define digital communication are once removed from genuine human connectivity. They belong to that cool medium that gives us a layer of distance. People often type (or “keyboard”) things that they would never say in person. Most of us have an e-mail or two that we wish we could “unsend.”

This is particularly apparent in youth interactions. In recent years, schools have scrambled to find ways to control the online bullying and character assassination that have burgeoned as these new tools of communication came on the scene. For teens, the feeling of distance or anonymity in virtual communication undermines the skills of decency and empathy they should be acquiring as they mature.

But what teaches empathy?

I recently reviewed in-depth profiles of about 50 highly effective after-school arts programs for underserved young people. Many of these programs actively seek out the most disconnected of today’s youth by partnering with public schools and social service organizations such as juvenile detention centers and the foster care system to identify teens in need of intervention.

These profiles dramatically illustrate the power of the arts not only in giving teens new skills, goals and career paths but in helping them ask and answer the basic questions that allow us to function in society: Who am I, and what is my relationship to the world?

The arts offer teens—often for the first time—tangible, constructive methods to reflect deeply on who they are and to express what they may have considered to be inexpressible. Just as important, the arts offerings work to connect this individual awareness to others. Each organization describes the importance of the people-to-people connection: adult mentor relationships, teams of youths working together, youth-to-youth mentoring opportunities, and the multilayered connection between artist and audience.

And each program tethers the arts learning to personal and community relevancy with projects such as documentaries about local history, youth radio shows broadcasting from a public housing complex, or visual art created to transform public spaces. Others offer connection to familial and community history through specific cultural arts such as mariachi music and Latino or African-American dance styles.

One phrase dominates the testimonials of the participating students: “It saved my life.”

What teaches empathy? Answer: the arts. They put us in touch with our individual humanness and our global humanity. Dance, music, theater, creative writing, visual arts, and the new media arts tender an exploration of spirit that can convince even the most disconnected that participating in the actual world is far more enriching than disappearing into the virtual.

There are several excellent arts education initiatives featured in every issue of this publication and hundreds more out there offering art experiences for youth, but it’s not enough. The arts should be in every classroom, in every child’s experience.

I’m with Dr. Bucker. We can’t afford to raise a virtual generation that has no relationship to true human interaction. We need citizens and leaders who understand that the world is connected not only digitally but through the intuitive network of empathy—a network based on understanding the universality of the human experience.

Choreographer Martha Graham captured this universality. Born in 1894, she was neither digital native nor immigrant and wouldn’t have given a VCR the time of day. Through her art, however, she was the high priestess of personal interaction. She wrote:

“I did not want to be a tree, a flower or a wave. In a dancer’s body we must see ourselves, not the imitated behavior of everyday actions, not the phenomenon of nature, not exotic creatures from another planet, but something of the miracle that is a human being.”