Feature: Is It Just Us, Or Are Kids Getting Really Stupid?

They don’t read. They can’t spell. They spend all their time playing computer games and texting and hanging out with one another on Facebook. But the problem is much worse than you think, because the way your kids live now is rewiring their brains

I want to believe my kids aren’t like this — that I’ve taught them how to be discerning, how to stand up for themselves and think critically. I need to believe they won’t be swept into a Kool-Aid-colored whirlpool of insubstantiality and meaninglessness — that they’ll know in their hearts what’s wrong and right, what matters and what doesn’t. But any parent is a tenuous anchor against this tide. Though my husband’s a professional musician, my daughter snags songs off the Internet without a qualm. Why should she pay when she can get them for free?

Kids today are less and less able to inscribe ownership boundaries; they hand in papers that are pastiches of plagiarism, steal artwork, words, ideas. Part of this is because they grew up with a different notion of intellectual property: When Jay-Z samples the Chi-Lites, that’s not stealing; that’s giving props! But recent research shows that developing a conscience requires paying — here it is — attention to the small voice within that says, “That doesn’t belong to you.” And who can hear that small voice amid the Internet’s din?

Over time, we’ve winnowed down, from our culture’s vast banquet, what we deem worth preserving. Tradition, Mark Bauerlein writes in The Dumbest Generation, “serves a crucial moral and intellectual function. … People who read Thucydides and Caesar on war, and Seneca and Ovid on love, are less inclined to construe passing fads as durable outlooks, to fall into the maelstrom of celebrity culture, to presume that the circumstances of their own life are worth a Web page.” Rather than learn from the past, our kids just click the mouse and start the game over. What does that mean for their chances of forming lasting friendships, or marriages?

With Facebook, their cell phones, their laptops, our kids don’t ever have to be alone … and yet they’re always alone. The more they use the Internet to connect, research has shown, the more vulnerable they are to depression, whose incidence has doubled in the past decade. A quarter of all Americans report not having even one person they can confide in. More than half have no close friends outside their immediate family. Yet we’re wired so deeply, so irremediably, for social interaction that we leap at any glimmer of it in our machines: We choose a pleasing, soothing voice for the GPS and construct a personality for it. We lie to our laptops. If they had hair, we’d put ribbons in it.

Some kids, like Ally Gardiner, struggling to create a feeling of family at Cheltenham High, sense that this isn’t leading to a good place. Adults do, too. “It’s a new world,” says math teacher Dean Rosencranz. “But we need to be careful we don’t give up something that can’t be replaced.” When kids use symbols to stand in for emotions, sprinkling their texts and e-mails with sad and happy faces, are they diminishing their ability to experience the real thing? That would explain the rabid popularity of “reality” TV shows in which people screech at one another like ramped-up, Red Bull-saturated harpies: Kids watch and say, Oh. So that’s what feeling something is like. 

In our rush to respond to the chime, the chirp, the bouncing icon, in our eagerness to prove ourselves multitaskers par excellence, in our willingness to sit alone at home and count our “friends,” ironically enough, we’re overlooking solitude’s real advantage: the opportunity it provides to develop what essayist Sven Birkerts describes in The Gutenberg Elegies as “our inwardness, our self-reflectiveness, our orientation to the unknown.” In other words: a soul.