The first amendment, the 'net, and "the kids today"

There were two articles posted on tech-rhet yesterday and which I saw in a variety of different places. The first, called “Freedom of what?” as reported on CNN.com, is about high school students’ lack of awareness of the first amendment. Perhaps a more helpful link is to the press release about the study John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which is the organization that paid for the study in the first place. To quote from the bulletted list of findings published on that site:

  • Nearly three-fourths of high school students either do not know how they feel about the First Amendment or admit they take it for granted.
  • Seventy-five percent erroneously think flag burning is illegal.
  • Half believe the government can censor the Internet.
  • More than a third think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.

The other article is “Study finds parents perform better online than teens” in CNNMoney. As the article says, “The study showed that teens quickly succumb to Internet ennui and, unlike their parents, give up quickly on sites that are difficult to navigate ‘When using Web sites, teenagers have a lower success rate than adults and they’re also easily bored,’ the study concluded. To work for teens, Web sites must be simple, but not childish, and supply plenty of interactive features.'” This study was a lot smaller and (it seems to me) a bit less systematic than the first amendment study, so take with an appropriate seasoning.

On the one hand, these conclusions are hardly surprising and they perhaps do say something unique about “today’s youth.” A high school aged person has always lived in a country where free speech and protest have been brought into question and where all kinds of rights of expression have been restricted. So of course they think that the basic constitutional principal of being able to freely say what you want goes “too far.” And it is equally not that surprising to me that teenagers get bored easily with web research since they seem to me to get “bored” with just about any kind of research.

On the other hand, the conclusions of both of these studies also suggest to me that the “kids today” are pretty much like the kids 20, 50, 100, and 1000 years ago in that they are apathetic about things that don’t have to do directly with them. Note the first bullet from the first amendment study results: most students don’t know how the first amendment works or they take it for granted. And the study on internet usage points out that teenagers are easily bored with web searches, especially if the web site doesn’t contain elements to interest them.

(As an aside here: I kind of feel the same way as the teenagers in terms of web searching. I don’t have a lot of patience for web sites that don’t give me what I want in an easy to navigate way. Maybe it is actually the more techno-savvy that have less patience with the web….)

So I’m not really convinced that there is something unique about the kids now and the kids when I was a kid. I mean, if you asked a bunch of teenagers in my high school twenty some-odd years ago about the first amendment, I suspect you would get some similar answers. And the idea that “grown-ups” are better at using various research tools (nowadays, it is the web, but back then, it would have been print resources) than high school kids isn’t exactly news either.

So don’t worry; the kids are alright. We just have to teach them, that’s all. The scary thing is that in the current political culture in this country, a lot of these students are likely to not get the full story on the first amendment anytime soon.

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