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Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010 04:47 pm

Teaching Millennials some manners

In an article for The New Yorker, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, a social network that has had its problems with privacy, claimed that privacy is an “evolving social norm.” Since the death of Tyler Clementi, the college student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge because his dorm-mate used a webcam to broadcast his (gay) sex life on the Internet, several have raised the question whether young people in this age of technology can distinguish public from private. The first time I encountered that claim was last year when I had a student whose behavior was disruptive to a degree I’d never encountered. I spoke to the school psychologist about it, and he said that we are starting to see students who can’t differentiate between public and private behavior. It was then I decided to learn what I could about the Millennial Generation.

These days writing instructors have to fight with college students to get them to use sources for research other than the Internet. Intellectual property is a foreign concept to the Milliennials, who have been on computers since they were infants. Information has always been at their fingertips and free for the taking. Thus schools have paid for expensive programs like Safe Assign or Turnitin to prevent plagiarism. Yet plagiarism is a growing problem. The trouble is not necessarily dishonesty, although it can be. The trouble is the concept of intellectual property is foreign to students who have never even seen a card catalogue.

As a baby boomer, I was taught to cultivate my individuality. When I was in grade school, I was told that the Chinese had it all wrong by putting their community before themselves. Ironically, Millennials have done a 360 on individualism; they find family and community more important. Millennials consistently list “moving home” as the thing they look forward to most after college. In 1999, Time Magazine claimed that 79 percent listed their parents as the people they most admired. Sixty percent of high school students say parents are easy to talk to, and 80 percent claim they have really important talks with their parents. With regard to physical problems, the most common health afflictions for Millennials are asthma, obesity and ADD, as opposed to polio for Boomers and AIDS for the Xers.

Surprisingly, birth rates during 1982-2001 were higher than the post-war baby boom. Infant mortality rates hit an all-time low; accidental deaths and suicide rates dropped for the first time in decades, meaning more children than ever lived to adulthood. More of them grew up with single parents, and a high number of kids have parents who both work strenuous jobs that leave little time for them.

Tyler Climenti was another victim of cyber bullying and not the first to end in suicide. Bullying is nothing new. Many of us experienced it sometime during our school years. As the little fat girl, I got teased. My best memory in grade school is getting picked second-to-the-last for a game of kickball. Until then, I’d always been last. That was 50 years ago. I couldn’t tell you the names of most of my teachers, but I remember that. Cyber bullying is worse and has more power than the schoolyard bullies. The cyber bully doesn’t even have to face you. He or she often remains invisible. This cruelty breaks no laws, even when someone ends up dead.

Maybe adults think they don’t know enough about technology to take a stand. I personally wouldn’t know how to post a film on the Internet. But I managed to get my Millennial students put their cell phones on silence and stop texting during class. It all had to do with consequences. It’s the parents and teachers and school administrators and finally our legal system that has to stand before the children of technology, and say, “Enough. We’re going to have some rules and consequences.”

Martha Miller is a Springfield author who is widely published. Her fifth book, Retirement Plan is due out in May 2011. More information is at her website