A recent study found that nearly half of all college students say the Internet is more important than dating, and that they could not live without it
In what may be the most disturbing -- if not entirely unexpected -- study to come out about the 18-30 generation, a report by Cisco Systems announced that nearly 40 percent of college students consider the Internet to be more important than dating, going out with friends, or listening to music. (One assumes that breathing and healthy liver function, if included in the poll, would have taken a back seat to Internet use as well.) And even though some of the findings were rather dramatically worded, and fit in well with the hyperbolic style the Internet loves so much (55 percent of students saying they could "not live" without it), the conclusion remains the same. Students and young professionals are tied to the Internet in a way that is incredibly disproportionate to the rest of their lives.
Clearly we would not lie down in the streets and cease to be if someone cut off the Wi-Fi, but it's hard sometimes not to feel that way. With the facilitation of fast work, communication, and play that the Internet has brought, there has also been an incredibly high premium placed on instant gratification. Real life just can't compete with the kind of fast-paced, results-oriented world that the Internet provides. Combined with its insular, rejection-free environment, going online can be far more appealing than taking the time to actually get to know someone. And growing up, our generation had access to these technologies as we navigated the harsh, unforgiving worlds of pubescent coupling and imbalanced hormones. We never had to deal with an entirely off-line development. Our sharing of gossip, of research, even of sweet nothings has always bounced back and forth between glowing little screens. The idea, for most of us, of the patience, maturity, and anticipation it would take to form a relationship with someone whom you cannot access at all hours of the day and night is unthinkable. Waiting for a phone call? Knocking on someone's door? Writing a letter? With a pen?
And more and more, it's becoming the norm. Children have cell phones in their hands and Facebook accounts before they can properly spell their full name. Twenty-somethings can wax nostalgic about a time when small Nokias and AOL Instant Messenger were our quaint, adorable little technologies. One doesn't need to be a scientist, or even see a study like this, to know that our appreciation for human interaction has taken a nosedive. But yet, to see it spelled out in this way is still a splash of cold water to the face. To quantify a generation's disdain for interpersonal relationships like that, in such stark terms, seems nearly inhuman. And perhaps the most unsettling finding is that some of these desperate declarations of love for the Internet only get more common with age. Believe it or not, college students actually reported less frequently that they couldn't live without the Internet than young professionals. (Although an equal percentage of both -- about one in three -- said the Internet was as important as water, food, and air to survival.)
The hope that, as people mature and get out of the social-network vortex of modern college life, they could have a more realistic grasp on their relationship with the Internet appears to be a futile one. While young professionals are clearly more and more dependent on constant Internet access for their livelihoods, their white-knuckled grip on all things hi-tech is likely inspired by more than just their need to respond to the boss' emails. No, nearly everything in a young person's life depends, in some way, on the Internet. If one expects to be invited to a party, maintain a friendship with someone not within walking distance of their apartment, stay abreast of every last thing Jon Stewart has ever said, and do the majority of their purchasing, they're going to need access to the World Wide Web. Lunch with a 20-something these days consists of OCD-like checking of smartphones and tinny little notification sounds, occasionally punctuated by a moment of conversation or a bite of food. And, for those whose addiction to the Internet seems to transcend their concept of technology itself, you may get to hear the 20-something bragging about not owning a television. To be "plugged in," as you imagine a gray-haired news anchor might describe this generation's relationship to their tech devices, means to be acutely aware of your own personal circle. To own a television means being fed whatever "The Man" has deemed appropriate for your viewing pleasure.
And this customizable, individually-tailored playground of work and pleasure that the Internet provides couldn't be more perfect for a generation that seems to be all about itself. It's truly a chicken or the egg scenario: Are we so self-absorbed because we grew up with the Internet, or do we love the Internet because we are so self-absorbed? I can't help but feel that either answer is a bad one. And regardless of what caused this, the facts remain: According to this study, this generation of young adults prefers Googling things and updating their Tumblr to forming long-lasting relationships with other human beings. Some of the questions seem so incredibly hyperbolic one wonders if Cisco set up the survey to make young people look ridiculous, or the people polled were being sarcastic in answering "yes."
But it's undeniable that these general sentiments exist amongst young adults, and are likely only getting more prevalent. Even online dating, just a few short years ago regarded as something you wouldn't want to admit to doing to extended family, is now more than acceptable and enticing younger and younger users. OKCupid, the dating site that doesn't seem to take itself too seriously, is far and away the most popular with the 18-30 crowd. Attractive, professional, intelligent young people -- people who just a decade ago would have their pick of the litter when out cruising at a bar -- are now, by choice, turning to the Internet to filter out their dating options. Even the parts of life that were once untouchable by technology -- the feeling of someone's hand against your cheek, the rush of infatuation -- are now found for you by a cold series of algorithms and a few clicks of a mouse. I'll be the first to admit to having used online dating, even when having no trouble meeting people out and about. But I liked not having to wait a few dates to make sure that my suitor is on at least an 8th-grade reading level. According to this study, most of us wouldn't have it any other way.
So does looking at such hard numbers about our unhealthy obsession with all-things online worry us? Is it something we can laugh off with a roll of the eyes and an "Oh, silly young people and their disdain for human interaction"? Are we serious when we say that we could "not live" without the Internet, that it is more important to us than friends and love -- or is that just the same melodramatic phrasing we use when our statuses read "Just saw the new Celine accessories collection. DYING"? It's hard not to hope that these are just the hyperbolic musings of a group that's never had to use answering machines, and not our actual outlook on life. But as we spend our days religiously glancing at our smartphones and checking each of our 15 social media platforms -- making sure to check in to let the great, wide Internet know exactly where we're taking a bathroom break -- perhaps we really are starting to believe that these things are more important than love, than friendship. Perhaps we truly believe that people are complicated, that love is difficult, and that our Gmail -- well, he'll never let us down.
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