WASHINGTON (Reuters) - There is a good chance young people growing up in today's always-wired world will eventually become bright, nimble decision makers - if they don't wind up intellectual lightweights unable to concentrate long enough to chew over a good book.
So say 1,021 technology insiders, critics and students surveyed by the Pew Research Center who were fairly evenly split about how always-on technology will impact the teenagers and twenty-somethings of "Generation Y."
In the survey, released on Wednesday, 55 percent agreed with a statement that in 2020 the brains of young people would be "wired" differently from those over 35, with good results for finding answers quickly and without shortcomings in their mental processes.
But 42 percent were pessimistic, agreeing with a second statement that in 2020 young technology users would be easily distracted, would lack deep thinking skills and would thirst only for instant gratification.
"There is this tension going on between the positive and the negative (aspects) that we foresee," said Janna Anderson, an associate professor at North Carolina's Elon University and one of the study's authors.
"Right now a lot of people (in the survey) are responding, 'That's already my life.' They are anticipating this," she told Reuters.
The survey's forecasts carry weight since a similar poll taken in the early 1990s accurately predicted conflicts that would arise between online technology and copyrights, privacy and established institutions, Anderson said.
The survey participants gave consistent predictions on the key skills young people would need in 2020. They included public problem-solving through cooperative work, searching effectively for information online, and weighing the quality of information.
"In contrast, the ability to read one thing and think hard about it for hours will not be of no consequence, but it will be of far less consequence for most people," Jonathan Grudin, Microsoft Inc's top researcher and one of the survey's respondents, said in comments carried in the Pew report.
Barry Chudakov, a research fellow at the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, said staying aware of technology's influence and intrusions would be at a premium.
"Is this my intention, or is the tool inciting me to feel and think this way?" he wrote.
Many of those surveyed backed educational reforms to make distracted young people better able to handle always-on technology and to focus. They included time-out zones, meditation, silence areas and going without Internet devices.
Alvaro Retena, distinguished technologist at Hewlett-Packard Co, forecast stagnation in technology and even in literature as attention spans shorten.
The Pew Research Center's survey was carried out online from August 28 to October 31, 2011, as part of Pew's ongoing project on the Internet and American life.
The study involved respondents ranging from such industry insiders as Bruce Nordman, a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Hal Varian, Google Inc's top economist, to university and high school students.
Forty percent of those surveyed were research scientists or employed by a college or university, and 12 percent work for an information technology company, the poll said.
(Reporting By Ian Simpson; Editing by Paul Thomasch)