How to Educate 
the Digital Generation?

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A friend once sent me a cartoon depicting an adolescent with his grandfather who was reading the newspaper. The youth asks him:

“What did you use when there were no modern calculators?”

“My head, of course!” replies the grandfather, regarding his grandson with a touch of sympathy. 

This pithy rejoinder from one who lived in the time of the abacus, of the Remington typewriter, of blackboards with chalk scribblings, nib pens and ink clearly illustrates a hot topic in the world of education.

By extrapolating a little, the cartoon presents the problem of current generations, so “submerged” from a young age in digital communication devices that these could almost be said to have become an essential part of their lives. They are the so-called “digital natives”.

A new “digital civilization” arises

In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi, Paul VI pointed out that modern man tends to tire of speeches, he is weary of listening and has even become immunized against the word. He stated this more than forty years ago! According to him, many psychologists and sociologists “express the view that modern man has passed beyond the civilization of the word, which is now ineffective and useless, and that today he lives in the civilization of the image.”1

With each passing day, the scenario becomes more complex. Not a few educators, born and raised when technology had yet to attain its current expansion, are derisively called “digital immigrants” or “digital transplants”. As such they find themselves in a new and perplexing situation – at a veritable educational and even existential crossroads.

They had always based their teaching on theory, but are faced with youth who have lost the habit of reasoning and who feel stifled in a world that does not meet their needs. If the teachers of the new generations limit themselves to applying conventional teaching methods, they will fail to surmount the dilemma they face. The world has changed; man has changed… It is necessary to seek new methods, adapted to current realities.

To this is added that, as John Paul II noted, “modern technologies increase to a remarkable extent the speed, quantity and accessibility of communication, but they above all do not favour that delicate exchange which takes place between mind and mind, between heart and heart.”2

The upshot is that we live in an era dominated by tablets, computers and a host of new digital gadgets. In the field of technology, progress is so rapid that no sooner does a product hit the shelves than it is replaced by a “more efficient” version.

A “digital civilization” has thus cropped up, made of generations increasingly influenced by pure sensation as opposed to thought and moral values as in former days. At this new conjuncture, education based on doctrine or theory alone is doomed to failure. An urgent overhaul of formation and teaching methods is needed for “digital natives”, namely, for the young people born in the digital era in which we live.

Dominance of the senses and of impressions

One current of educators suggests taking full advantage of the resources of the “digital civilization” to improve youth formation. But they face the problem of adolescents and even children becoming influenced, if not hypnotized, by modern communication media and often using them to the detriment of third parties, or for viewing inappropriate material that circulates in these channels. This climaxes into an alarming and seemingly unstoppable state of “digital addiction” which carries disturbing psychological effects. It is estimated that approximately 50 per cent of adolescents suffer from some degree of cell phone addiction.

With the unselective use of these devices, humans are being transformed into veritable robots. Intoxicated by constant use, they gradually become dependent. They slowly lose what could be called their own identity and allow themselves to be led by others, as a robot would. Memorizing or thinking have fallen by the wayside. It is enough to type a few words and press a key to obtain immediate answers to questions. Physical books, which were always a precious commodity, have become superfluous. “Using one’s head” – as the grandfather in the cartoon said – has become out-dated. From this stems difficulties with studying, reading and reasoning.

Msgr. João Scognamiglio Clá Dias, sums up this situation masterfully: “This tendency toward the dominance of the senses and of impressions over reasoning has been fed by the universal diffusion of television and all kinds of electronic devices, which solely favour the thirst for novelty and new impressions, without the involvement of thought. The rapid succession of images and episodes disables the due analysis of reason. Accordingly, contemporary man lives from sensations.”3

It is human types that move people

What, then, is the teaching method that should be applied to the “digital native” generations?

Turning to the Holy Gospels, we find the divine pedagogical method of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Being “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6), He could present Himself as the perfect model to follow, the personification of everything He taught His disciples and the multitudes that followed Him. This is precisely what He did. He always taught doctrine with parables – examples taken from daily life. And His teachings took the form of a conversation, something that is disappearing today, precisely because of the digital media invasion.

Educators, then, ought to illustrate theoretical concepts with videos, slides, theatrical productions and the like, to furnish concrete examples in a language that today’s youth can grasp. They should dialogue with young people in order to understand their concerns and problems and to discern their spiritual appetencies. Formation, in the “digital civilization”, consists primarily in giving young people models to imitate.

As Paul VI affirmed: “Contemporary man listens more readily to testimony than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”4

It is human types, living witnesses, that move people. This is the key to educating youth inundated by digital communication technology. 

by Fr Fernando Gioia, EP

Extracted from Heralds of the Gospel Magazine


1 BLESSED PAUL VI. Evangelii nuntiandi, n.42.

2 ST. JOHN PAUL II. Apostolic Letter The Rapid Development, n.13.

3 CLÁ DIAS, EP, João Scognamiglio. Por ocasião do Ano Sacerdotal, sugestões dos Arautos do Evangelho à Congregação para o Clero [On the occasion of the Year of Priests, suggestions from the Heralds of the Gospel to the Congregation for the Clergy], 24/6/2009.

4 BLESSED PAUL VI. Address to members of the Council of the Laity, 2/10/1974: AAS 66 (1974), 568.

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