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Jerald McNair is a school administrator at South Holland School District 151 in Illinois. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.
What is the difference between writing and texting? If you were to ask this question to young people from the Alpha generation – born from 2010 onwards – many of them might struggle to answer. Members of younger generations, including Gen Z, have grown up with cellphones in their everyday attire.
It is estimated that more than half of American children own a smartphone by the age of 11, according to a survey conducted by Common Sense Media. By the time they reach the age of 8, around 1 in 5 has their own mobile phone.
The wide use and ownership of these devices means young people are communicating more. While educators will tell you that allowing children to dialogue and engage at different levels helps their language skills, the type of written communication done on mobile devices tends to be more of a hindrance than a benefit for our youngsters.
Texting is its own language. The Webopedia online technology dictionary lists nearly 1,700 common abbreviations and acronyms used in texting. For Generation Alpha members, who are in the early stages of language development, developing formal writing skills while using text-based conversation creates challenges.
Teachers have told me how often they have to correct basic words in their students’ writing because far too many of them use textual language instead of formal English. This may seem inconsequential; these young people are many years away from entering the job market. But if steps are not taken to address this issue, it could pose a challenge to our workforce and our economy. According to the US Department of Labor, written communication is a soft skill that is among the skills considered fundamental for an employee to do their job effectively. Companies identify writing as one of the essential skills for success in 21st century workers.
An unskilled workforce hurts productivity and jeopardizes an individual’s job opportunities, which ultimately hurts the economy.
Underdeveloped or poor writing skills can also prevent our young people from effectively communicating their emotions so that adults can understand them. We see the implications of this in the tendency of too many of our young people to express themselves through violent acts. Every day, about 360 teenagers are treated in emergency departments for assault injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2020, suicide was the second leading cause of death among adolescents aged 10 to 14.
Are educators and parents missing some warning signs because they don’t understand the language that many of our young people are using?
Generation Alpha poses an interesting dilemma – and opportunity – for all of us. They are the youngest generation to live through the pandemic that has killed more than a million Americans. How this will affect them mentally and emotionally in the long term remains to be determined. So far, CDC data shows that it has increased their levels of anxiety and depression linked to, among other things, the switch from in-person learning to virtual education.
Arguably, this has increased the importance of technology and the devices at hand. Getting them to put down their devices and engage in conversations is a challenge. But there is an opportunity to shape their mindset because they are young and still impressionable.
This means limiting cell phone use, engaging with them in more face-to-face communication, and having them use that time away from their devices to use more formal language skills, both oral and written. Restricting texting to a certain level could help develop formal language skills.
Texting is here to stay. What cannot become our new normal is allowing our young people to replace formal language skills with ever-changing fashionable language.
The youngest members of our nation have seen and experienced things we never thought possible. How are we helping them through these unprecedented times? First, by keeping communication open and willingly embracing dialogue. Giving Generation Alpha too much time to text threatens that and hurts us all.
Our future generations need us to make tough decisions for them. They rely on us to do things right.