Chit for Chat: communicating will never be the same

Children are living and communicating more and more in a world they access via their thumbs. Technology is changing how, and what, young people are talking about. SAMANTHA STEELE investigates this issue.

Now. Snappy. Concise. Fast. That’s how we describe communication today, because, let’s face it, communication is changing. Compare society a hundred years ago to now. In fact, consider how it was a mere twenty years ago. Like the world we live in, communication is getting shorter, sharper, and far more succinct. From double-sided letters in Jane Austen’s day, to 140 character tweets via Twitter these days, talking to one another is far more fresh and vibrant.

And as communication is changing, so is the language people are using to communicate with. This is especially an issue with younger children, as they are entering – or rather creating – a world that literally uses a different language. And children, as Eve Clark writes in the journal article ‘Young children’s uptake of new words in a conversation’, “appear to absorb new words rather like small sponges sucking up water”.

The social networking phenomenon, Twitter, is possibly the most extreme example of this new way of talking to one another. Each statement is limited to 140 characters – not 140 words, 140 characters. That means that the previous two sentences are longer than the average tweet. In the Time article ‘How Twitter will change the way we live’, Steven Johnson writes: “The one thing you can say for certain about Twitter is that it makes a terrible first impression. You hear about this new service that lets you send 140-character updates to your ‘followers’, and you think, Why does the world need this, exactly? It’s not as if we were all sitting around four years ago scratching our heads and saying, ‘If only there were a technology that would allow me to send a message to my 50 friends, alerting them in real time about my choice of breakfast cereal.’”

Twitter is indicative of the new way people are talking to each other. With new technology comes new language, and a new way of understanding the world. To put it another way, as the how of communication changes, so does the what. According to Magdeline Bembe, a specialist in youth language and slang: “The context does to a large degree determine the content.”

The inane and the everyday have now become topics of conversation. It seems that once a forum has been created for communication, communication will happen – regardless of the quality of the content. After all, we can’t just let that space remain empty now, can we? The fact that the volume of communication has increased has also abetted shorter bursts of concentration. Lindsay Brand, who has her Masters in educational psychology, says: “Technology has decreased our attention span. When we don’t use technology, we lose [the young people].”

The rapid pace of new technology, and the changes that it makes to the psychological and social, is something Neil Postman warns about in his well-known book Amusing ourselves to death: public discourse in the age of show business. “To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple,” explains Postman. He was writing about television – a far less pervasive form of technology than the Internet and cell phones. Professor Kobus le Roux, an educational psychologist, says: “The children of today have grown up in a world of technology – the games they play, they watch TV, computers and cell phones. When they go into a classroom, they go into a different world.”

This can be a problem, as this “different world” requires a different form of communication, and a different way of looking at the matters, than is required on a peer-to-peer basis. Education becomes a challenge when the language used is not necessarily the one children best understand. As Lindsay Brand explains, “We’re not just oral learners anymore. To capture [children’s] attention we can’t use regular teaching methods. They are so used to instant gratification. You play a game, you get instant results; but you write a test and you have to wait several days for the results.”

So communication has become far more, quantity wise, but also far shorter. Emails indicate this, as does the Facebook status update and the infamous tweet. But a far more prevalent form of instant communication, far more indicative of this phenomenon amongst South African youth today, is the SMS. “Globally, the mobile phone has had a profound influence on the patterns of young people’s social networks and their relationships with one another,” writes Tanja Bosch in ‘Wots ur ASLR? Adolescent girls’ use of cell phones in Cape Town’. As Bembe explains: “The media has played a massive role in terms of slang. The characters are so limited on a cell phone. The children want to communicate as much as possible in a very small space – that’s why they for example change ‘great’ to ‘gr8’.”

South Africa is a country with one of the highest cell phone rates in the world, and most of those cell phones are owned by the younger generations. According to 2004 AMPS statistics supplied by Markettree.co.za: “Only 22% of those aged over 50 have a cell phone. For younger adults (under 50), the penetration is 37%”.

The generation gap becomes an issue when communication across the barrier is complicated by the new language younger people are using. Says Le Roux, “I think [this new language] might cause problems. Even when I as an older person get SMSes with strange language, it irritates me. At the moment we’re developing a new written language. Teachers complain that students use SMS and email language in academic essays.”

Perhaps it is this new way of talking, and the generation gap it encourages, that is leading to the demise of the newspaper. After all, if the language in the classroom is becoming more complex for the youth of today, the language used in newspapers is hardly simpler. And, compared to internet downloads and news websites, newspapers are bulky and slow – like steam ships, compared to the zippier motor boats of SMS updates.

Technology is in a strange way both creating a gap between people, and bridging that space between them. Brand suggests bringing technology into the classroom to recapture the children’s attention. However, as Howard Kimmel and Fadi Deek write in the Journal of science education and technology, “But it must also be realized that students need more than the tools to prepare for the future. They must learn also how to interact and work together with their peers. A primary function of schools has been to teach children how to behave in groups. Technology cannot be used to replace the challenge and intellectual stimulation of an exciting and live interactive learning environment.”

While children are communicating more, they are also communicating in a way that is far less personal. “Instead of going to parties or being allowed to go out at night, [the teenage girls] chatted on MXit in the privacy of their rooms,” writes Bosch. MXit is an instant messaging service available on cell phones, allowing users to send messages cheaply and instantaneously. The flat screen becomes the norm. As Brand explains: “Mothers just put children in front of the TV in a little chair. From a very young age children are programmed to communicate with a flat screen, a three-dimensional person is unusual.” A young teenage girl interviewed by Bosch verifies this: “OK, the only thing is that it connects you, like you actually get to know people. Like I have a friend at school and we actually got to know each other via MXit instead of personally and it’s actually cool, we like each other a lot. And sometimes when you try to answer somebody, lots of people have this problem – now you’re speaking and you have an argument for instance in real life – but in MXit you think so fast and you type and come up with all these clever remarks.”

Children today are living and communicating more and more in a world they access via their thumbs. SMSes, tweets, emails and Facebook posts are how people talk to each other. Says Brand: “It worries me in a way. If you look in ten years time, will we have to communicate with each other face to face? Will we lose something in our humanity with our total detachment in emotion?”

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