Teens and screens: is the romance over?

Today’s teens, born in the final days when you could watch Friends on Thursday night, have grown up with a very different view of the world. It goes without saying that they have constant access to information, that they can pull virtually any bit of video they’ve ever seen out of the air almost instantly. They have a cavalier attitude toward copyright, but that’s not new — a generation ago Napster convinced their aunts and uncles to steal music freely, and their parents probably traded pirated DVDs. Yet, today’s teens present perhaps the greatest threat to traditional television.

It’s hard to imagine that a person born in 2001 (the generation doesn’t yet have a catchy name) is even more threatening than their millennial cousins, who have broadcasters desperately trying to find a visual form that will keep them watching. The problem with today’s teens isn’t just a lack of interest in living-room-based live linear TV, it’s attention span.

Oh, it’s true… people have been banging that drum for a century or so. Today’s kids, they said in the 1920s, didn’t care for chores and were hard to keep focused on a day’s work. Certainly the so-called “MTV Generation” were accused of never amounting to anything because they simply couldn’t focus for long enough. So it does seem like a stale accusation but still…

it does seem like teens today are so hyper as a species that they simply can’t pay attention for more than six seconds. This is a generation that would look at the Cliffs notes of old and simply tweet TL;DR — they’re so obsessed with tiny chunks of time that they can’t even type out “too long; didn’t read.” Obviously this creates some problems for those people hoping to churn out “long-form” entertainment, even when that means a 22-minute sitcom.

The media hasn’t reported too much on this, largely because (and this is just a suspicion) they can’t figure out how to do it in a Vine. But sooner or later if this is a real problem, we’ll start hearing about it when these people start entering the workforce. A generation that considers a phone call a waste of time probably isn’t going to want to put in the effort to climb the corporate ladder over the course of decades. Businesses will have to find a way to adapt, and it will be the millennials, coming to prominence behind a retiring baby-boom generation and a paltry Generation X, that will have to figure out how to make it work.

Of course, every generation seems “wired” differently from mom and dad, and in many ways that’s a good thing. Previous generations were unwilling to accept the artistic value in graphic novels and long-form video games, two things that are today held up as cultural touchstones. Even earlier generations thought no great cultural strides could be made through movies, recordings, or television. Perhaps there will be a Vine as significant as the Mona Lisa, or at least as important as Citizen Kane. Perhaps today’s teens will find a way to make the attention span of a gnat a good thing, perhaps by switching tasks so quickly that they more effectively multitask.

I’ll just say that it makes me a little worried for the teens of 2030, when I’ll be thinking about heading out of the workforce. Will they be unable to even concentrate long enough to finish a sentence? You laugh but then again…