Never Alone: The Technological Reality of Generation Y

Bruce I. Lipton
November 2014
teens on smartphones

“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” Blaise Pascal

That quote always seems to enter my sphere of consciousness prior to camp. When I arrive at camp I am there alone for a bit; that's my time to set up my "camp world" and contemplate the impending summer. It is a valuable time and a time I welcome.

I fear that today's Generation Y staff, 18- to 26-year-olds — essentially wonderful young people, most of whom choose to care for other people's children with the very best of intentions — have no understanding of being alone. I am not referring so much to the physical act of being alone (although that is part of it) as much as emotional aloneness. You see, being connected 24/7 does not allow for them to be alone. They can text, WhatsApp®, send e-mail (do they still do that?), Instagram®, Snapchat®, etc., any time of the day or night — and they do. So what can we expect from them when they get to camp and camp's policy is to leave their electronic umbilical cords in their bunks for most of the day? Will they exhibit withdrawal symptoms? Will they sneak back to get their cell phones like an addict sneaking a cigarette?

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, pointed out in his influencer blog of April 28, 2014 that, "Most leaders now travel with technology that connects them to a running stream of messages and data, 24/7." He goes on to say, "This 'stream of distraction' draws attention away from what's immediately at hand. … 'Cognitive effort' is the technical expression for the mental attention demanded to process our information load. Attention can become fatigued, and the symptoms of attention fatigue are lowered effectiveness, increased distractedness, and irritability." Goleman adds, "These symptoms also indicate depletion in the energy required to sustain neural functioning."

My question is this: If the technology that causes attention fatigue is taken away and the staff are addicted to this technology, how much energy will be required, and therefore depleted, in finding ways to feed the addiction or battle the withdrawal symptoms? And how long will this process take before the staff become effective in our camp environments?

I really don't think we have an understanding of the change in brain circuitry that 24/7 connectivity is causing or the resulting effects produced in our collective staff. Have we as camp professionals really explored this phenomenon in a way that allows for effective nurturing and supervision of other people's children?

As camp leaders we are not accustomed to being unprepared as we enter into a camp season. To our credit, we work diligently in our efforts to be ready for any and all contingencies. But the question I posed brings into focus areas that we as a society are only just beginning to grasp as we identify the new realities of a generation connected from birth — and therefore never truly alone.

Members of a generation that have no muscle memory for how to tackle unexpected problems alone, without the ability to text for help, arrive at our camp communities and are shocked by the power of being disconnected. Do they rise to the occasion and thrive, putting newfound energy to positive use, or do they freeze in a state of mind-numbing paralysis — not knowing what to do or where to turn?

Research shows an inverse relationship between technology and soft skills (a term associated with a person's emotional intelligence — traits, social graces, communication, language, personal habits, and optimism that characterize relationships with other people). Dr. Tim Elmore, founder and president of the nonprofit Growing Leaders and a recognized thought leader on the emerging generation, found there were eight causes for concern (2014):

  1. As technology goes up, empathy goes down.
  2. As information expands, attention spans diminish.
  3. As options broaden, long-term commitment shrinks.
  4. As life speeds up, patience and personal discipline drop.
  5. As external stimulation increases, internal motivation decreases.
  6. As consequences for failure diminish, so does the value of success.
  7. As virtual connections climb, emotional intelligence declines.
  8. As free content swells, so does our sense of entitlement.

Given these challenges and that sociologists further describe Generation Y as "EPIC" — experiential, participatory, image-driven, and connected — and it becomes all the more important that we make time with our youth count in memorable and impactful ways. We must learn to engage them in conversations that will lead to positive actions. But to do that, we must first capture their attention and penetrate their filters developed as a defense mechanism to manage information overload.

This generation, which makes up the largest and most technological cohort the U.S. has ever seen, represents our leaders for the future both in society and in our camps. Understanding the concerns previously enumerated and crafting a response is the first step towards helping Generation Y rise to the occasion of nurturing and supervising other people's children at camp. The camp environment is a perfect place to discuss these issues collectively and to allow each individual to be alone and metabolize the lessons learned. Being disconnected from technology in our camps temporarily provides a path for this cohort to connect face to face once again!

References
Elmore, T. (2014, April 4). The inverse relationship between technology and soft skills. Retrieved from http://growingleaders .com/blog/inverse-relationship-technologysoft- skills/

Goleman, D. (2014, April 28). Pay attention to attention. Retrieved from www.danielgoleman .info/daniel-goleman-pay-attention-toattention- 2/

Bruce I. Lipton is director of finance and operations at Camp Ramah in the Poconos. He can be reached at brucel@ramahpoconos.org.

Originally published in the 2014 November/December Camping Magazine.