Teens And The Printed Word

The Pew Internet project turns up some interesting findings. The latest: for all the texting, instant messaging, e-mailing and social networking blather that today’s teenagers churn out, most of them don’t think that electronic text qualifies as writing. Sure, they’re the product of stringing letters together to communicate ideas, but they’re not *writing*.

More startling? Eighty-six percent of teens surveyed said that they “believe good writing ability is an important component of guaranteeing success later in life.”

Then again, surveys can produce false positives. Much of the research was done through focus groups, and I wonder about how many teenagers would sit in a sterile conference room and tell the earnest Pew researcher that “No, writing doesn’t matter to my future. I’ll be fine without it.” Perhaps some, but people have a tendency to answer survey takers with what they think they’re supposed to say.

Nevertheless, it is interesting that for all the hand-wringing about the ruinous effect that cheap, electronic communication is having on the English language, there remains in teens’ minds a distinction between formal writing and casual Internet chitchat.

Of course, one inevitably bleeds into the other: 25 percent surveyed said they have included an emoticon in school writing; 38 percent said they have resorted to IM shortcuts (“LOL”). Ugh. Then, 50 percent said they have incorporated informal punctuation and grammar.

Square that with the 73 percent who said that their personal electronic communications don’t have an impact on the quality of their writing for school.

A disconnect? Seems to be. That a majority of teens consider electronic communication unrelated to formal writing — while half admit to letting the loose structures common to rapid-fire Internet exchanges slide in their schoolwork — suggests that the survey’s statistical margin of error might not be enough to account for the mixed messages we expect from a sample population whose self-awareness is very much a work in progress. They are, after all, teenagers.

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