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Are we losing a generation of scientists to Instagram?

Instagram: The result of my generation’s (millennials) constant seeking of attention, non-stop craving for social proof, and addiction to new social media platforms.

Hi, again! It’s been a while! Glad to be back…

Now…let’s get started…

Depending on your age, either Instagram is this weird platform where young people are posting snaps or videos of themselves doing the most ludicrous poses, or you don’t even know it exists. What you don’t know (or maybe you do) is that among the 14-26 age group, Instagram is not just a social media platform the way Facebook was for us, but it’s a central part of that generation’s (Gen Z?) personal and digital identity.

Let me re-frame that statement: I’m an early millennial. I did not get a cell phone until much later in life, and it was one of those slick (at the time) Motorola flip phones. There wasn’t much of a cell network and so it ended up being just a cool gadget that I would show off at social gatherings and parties. When Facebook arrived, I was at a college campus hearing about this Facebook thing that everyone was super excited about. I was busy trying to make it through my college years and ignored all the hype. I of course, eventually (and reluctantly), created an account later – to my friends’ approval of course (social proof), but by then my personal identity had been generally formed and did not include a digital component. Perhaps not crystallized, but nonetheless formed. In other words, I had time to become me to a certain extent, without constantly having to provide social proof and garner the approval of my immediate social network on a digital platform. This is a subtle point to pick up but you are most likely very familiar with what I mean.

This “digitization” of a person’s identity is why you don’t allow your children to watch violent movies or pornographic material when they’re young. Aside from moral arguments, you likely fear that the violence or the pornography will become part of their identity – that violent or immoral ideas would become a norm for them. This is a very normal and justified parental instinct, but doesn’t seem to extend to social media and specifically to platforms such as Instagram.

Assuming you are older than, say, 30, you and I had it easy. We avoided the (what can be) horrific social judgments that cliques and component (an isolated sub-network of a network) groups would bring down on unsuspecting community members who appear to be non-conforming to some abstract social and/or cultural paradigm. Simply put, you and I didn’t have digital peer pressure – not the way they do. If we felt we were being bullied or peer-pressured, when worse comes to worst, we’d stay home to avoid whatever social stigma or dogma we happen to be facing at that moment.

This generation can’t do that – their phones follow them around. They have it pretty hard.

 From the moment these young ducklings are violently birthed into the digital world we created, they’re saddled with an immense amount of social constructs that incentivize conformity and punishes any diversity of thought. Interestingly enough, even thinking differently, in some situations can be become a social norm for some communities, and members who fail to prove that they do so are punished (we won’t get into that in this particular blog). For example, you could be “punished” socially, if you’re not “woke” – whatever that means to your particular community.

And this is where the real problem begins. This next-generation of digitized society includes a future generation of scientists and scholars that are in their formative years right now. Think about how these kids and young adults are being incentivized every day on a platform such as Instagram. Are they being told that being a scientist is a rewarding career, or are all the incentives that society provides to them fall along the lines of how to become an Instagram model or a personal trainer with an occasional musician’s career in the mix.

If you are spending your entire teenage years and 20s in a virtual place like Instagram, I simply cannot see a way for you to consider a career in Science even if you are capable of it. There are just not enough social and cultural incentives. In the back of your mind, you’ll most likely want to go work out, get some tight abs and then ask a friend to get the latest iPhone and take some cool (or is it “Lit” now) snaps of you eating frozen fat-free yogurt on a gorgeous-looking sunny beach in downtown LA (I have no idea where I got this reference but I’m sure I’ve seen it somewhere).

Now I guess the same thing can be said about our (millenial) generation – the ones who were on Facebook and who are currently on twitter. While, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of PhDs interested in entry into academia at the moment, I surmise that the same can’t be said about the type of interest and analytical quality of those who seek admission to it. My personal (anecdotal) experiences in Academia tell me that a significant portion of those seeking entry are seeking it for the wrong reasons and coming into it with the wrong habits and disposition.

Now I should clarify that there are still plenty of academic applicants who have been on Facebook and Twitter their entire adult life and still manage to achieve the highest possible levels of academic accreditation – certainly beyond anything I can hope to achieve.  And, while I don’t have any data to back this up, I believe that Instagram is a different animal but I’m not entirely sure how it’s different yet.

Here is what I can tell you from observing students in courses I’ve taught over the past few years: Most of the students are not on Instagram but a greater majority of them are on Twitter and Facebook. I know this because I will take 2 or 3 minutes out of almost every lecture and ask students about what’s hot in their environment and what they’re doing with their lives. The Instagram groups are simply not as interested in Science, at least on the surface, as the “regular” kids are. I’m sure there is some sample bias, self-selection bias and all kinds of other biases at work here but I’m only describing my observations (that’s why the title of this piece is a question not a statement). Their interests are entirely material, more centralized, and focused on social proof. You always know the science-focused students from their general interest and curiosity about everything. The Instagram generation just doesn’t have that – when you look at them, they’re not entirely there and with you in the moment.

This is troubling. Academia has been in decline for decades. And, with COVID and a lot of the general instability happening in the World right now, we are sure to see further declines. I’m not sure the Academe can afford to lose another generation – this time to social media gratification. Moreover, Academia seems to be attracting more and more of the culture warrior types who are not interested in simply reporting results from scientific observations, but only drawing on narratives that support their pre-existing worldviews. Holy shit the number that fall into that type are simply overwhelming now.

All this is causing me some serious concerns about the future of scholarship in America and beyond. It should cause you concern as well. If you’re an academic you will likely feel the affects of these changes.

Now, I don’t really know what to do with all this – not sure what can be done. It’s not as if we can ban social media from STEM disciplines and even if we could the problem is in attracting quality scholars in great numbers to Science, not making the lives of existing scholars miserable. Social media offers value – period. The problem is not social media. The problem is that academic institutions are slow to adapt and react to societal changes and have reached a level of bureaucracy comparable to the bureaucratic institutions of the early 20th Century – that’s bad folks.

In either case, whether I’m describing a real pattern here or whether my anecdotal observation are simply far from the truth will be determined in good time.

Photo by stockcatalog

About The Author
Dr. Joseph A.E. Shaheen
Computational Social Scientist.
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