THE BLOG
07/02/2012 12:58 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2012

Digital Generation Gap

In a journalism seminar last semester, a professor strolled around the class of 15 students as they discussed a reading. The prof noticed one student typing furiously on her laptop so she peered over her shoulder. "What are you doing?" the prof asked. "I am buying airline tickets," replied the student. "No you're not," said the prof as she shut the laptop, leaving the student aghast.

This professor, a longtime friend, has won awards for teaching excellence; her class discussion was not boring. Instead, she found herself straddling the generation gap that separates digital immigrants from digital natives. While many of us Baby Boomers, like this professor, can type, text and Tweet ad infinitum, we were not born digitally connected like the under-30, Gen Y crowd. We are the new arrivals in a land where the natives can't image being disconnected even for a few minutes.

A recent survey evidenced the latest manifestation of this generation gap, finding that GenY assumes the office welcomes BYOD (bring your own device). Of course, allowing employees to use their own smart phones, tablets and laptops to connect at work opens the door to data and security breaches and IT problems. But Gen Y views digital connectivity as a basic right. Indeed, the survey, done by the security firm Fortinet, canvassing 3,800, 20-something employees in 15 countries, found "a critical mass of users who maintain they would go or have gone against company policy in order to use their own mobile device for work."

Office, school, home and elsewhere, GenY goes online whenever and however they want. A lawyer friend recently went to court to watch a cross-examination in a triple-homicide case. He noticed a group of law students in the courtroom gallery, texting away, during the testimony. They stopped only when the judge interrupted the witness and gave the students a lecture on courtroom courtesy and demeanor. Apparently the digital natives (and yes, some of their elders too) are clueless about basic human courtesy.

In my college classroom, I don't allow cellphones but do permit laptops on the assumption that students will use them to take notes and to pull up the assigned readings (the days of handouts are over). While some are writing down key points or referring to the readings, a good number are also surfing the Internet (sometimes to share updates about the topic du jour), finishing an assignment for my class or another, checking email and logging on to Facebook. On my last day of class this spring, I asked my students about why they feel the need to be online constantly, even in class. One admitted that if the browser was open he felt compelled to surf; "I'm addicted," he said. While several students complained that it was distracting to sit next to other students who are on Facebook or typing away, they didn't want to say anything. Another student tried to justify checking her email occasionally during class for "important" messages; an "important" message can be anything from Jessica Simpson giving birth, to a Supreme Court ruling, to an internship posting.

Much has been written about GenY and their need for constant connection. Some experts argue that it's possible to multitask and absorb the content of a lecture or a meeting while reading celeb gossip; others disagree, arguing when we do several things at once we do none very well. Some experts chastise digital immigrants to "get over it" and accept the new world order. Still other argue that the GenY mind is wired differently and can easily switch between online and offline in a way that their elders can't.

So where does that leave us Baby Boomers in whatever tiny part of the world we hold sway? Ban digital devices? A few professor friends have done just that. "If they want to take notes let them use pen and paper," one told me. Another suggested letting students use laptops during lectures but then mandating "top down" during the discussions. On the other hand, another told me "They're paying a lot of money to get a degree; if they want to waste the time surfing the net it's their choice." These issues are not restricted to the classroom. If you think holding an office meeting is distracting now with people glancing at their cellphone, wait until Gen Y floods the workplace. Eye contact will be a relic of the past.

I am still not sure what to do come September when classes start again. Act like a Luddite and banish digital devices? Or let them BYOD and ignore those surfing the net? However, if one student starts surfing, I've noticed it sends an unspoken signal to others to do the same. That leads to "Let me check my email," and "Might as well reply to that," and on and on. If we can't beat them, do we join them and pull out our own laptops and check our email while students are talking? After all, I get "important" email too. Where do we draw the line in digital sand?