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Connecting With the Young Across the Generations Gap

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

The generation gap has morphed into generation gaps. Like everything else in our point-and-snap, selfie-obsessed world, the gaps multiply and separate like the speed of sound. Meaningful moral conflicts between parents and children have, in many ways, proliferated into processing differences between various age groups, abetted by changes in swiftly changing values.

When it comes to communication, how you communicate becomes more important than what you say.

In the past, adults called the shots and children of the next generation rebelled. But now, generations X, Y and Z are rebelling against one another, exploiting the latest developments of electronic trinkets. An anthropologist might recognize these conflicts as tribal, not generational.

Differences in social attitudes, fashion trends, moral perspectives, and goals and achievements have always created gaps between generations. But the differences that lead to gaps today spring mainly from the different means of communication, rather than the content of that communication.

Many of Generation Z think that e-mail is for communicating with old people; It's "the digital equivalent of putting on a shirt and tie," writes Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal. "Many used tablets before using laptops, streaming before downloads, and chat before email." For them, e-mail is a relic for dealing with old fogeys.

We haven't begun to calculate what this portends for future understandings, although lots of people are taking notes and asking questions. The implications on politics and the process of electing leaders, for example, are profound. More than ever, the medium is the message.

The people most threatened by these changes are those who couldn't keep up with developments in means of communication. Many aging seniors find themselves dependent on their children and grandchildren to bring them up to speed on the latest technology. Unlike elderly folks in the past, who were often seen as comforting, wise old heads and shared their wealth of knowledge earned through decades of life experiences through older means, some of the elderly today are toddlers on the Internet. They must rely on technologically competent teenagers to teach them. It's an uneasy dependency.

Older tweeters, whether they're up-to-date techies or not, have less trouble accessing and using the latest technology than they do with their own impulse to send hasty, damaging tweets for which they must apologize. Donald Trump, who rarely expresses regret for anything he does, confessed to racing ahead of good judgment when he tweeted an unflattering photograph of Sen. Ted Cruz's wife, Heidi Cruz, next to a glamour shot of his model wife, Melania Trump. But Cruz, while campaigning for her husband, told Megyn Kelly of Fox News, "I don't tweet," which she said spared her from having to acknowledge the photo. Isn't that refreshing?

Hillary Clinton's problem with her emails might never have happened if she had grown up with this new technology. As a baby boomer, the message came to her too late. By taking shortcuts for convenience, she made her official emails vulnerable to hacking, and now she's paying the price.

But later generations who are accustomed to such short, informal, electronic bursts of communication confront hazards of a different sort. Sloppy writing habits can form from of communicating with short texts, abbreviations and slang, which will likely make it difficult for younger people to do work that requires the discipline of putting carefully thought-out ideas in neatly written form.

Educators observe that the predominately-electronic modes of communication may be as radical today as the printing press was in 15th century. Instead of expanding kids' ability to read books, new devices run the risk of addicting the young to the new medium. They'll suffer self-imposed isolation in social situations by focusing all their attention on a tiny screen.

David Denby, who visited three high school English classes to research for his book, "Lit Up," observed that the adolescent world is so saturated with mobile devices that there are problems with students appreciating literature. By the time the screen-obsessed generation is 15 or 16 years old, "reading anything more demanding and more time-consuming threatens to cut off their smartphone sense of being in touch with everyone and everything at once."

Neuroscientists observe that the adolescent brain still has a genuine capacity to change, to expand its learning. Some see the teenage years as a "sweet spot" for young people to develop a better literary learning capacity, but they haven't figured out how to develop and encourage an appetite for reading when it's in constant competition with smart phones, Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram.

A Pew Research Center survey last year reported that 92 percent of teens say they go online daily, which shouldn't surprise anyone. But about 1 in 4 said they go online "almost constantly." If that doesn't surprise, it should dismay. In one of the cruelest remarks about the sparring between generations, one high school student, who's no fan of the printed page, told Denby that "books smell like old people." That's not a good omen.

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