A grinning teenage girl confesses to the camera in a YouTube video sponsored by the Howard County Public Library that she checks her texts and emails "an inappropriate number of times a day." With a quick laugh and a shrug, she seems to say, "Who doesn't?"
The teen may epitomize the stereotype used by some adults to deride today's generation of teens and young adults for spending their waking hours staring at their smartphone, tablet and computer screens in lieu of face-to-face communication.
But a question has arisen from criticism of the group dubbed Millennials — those born between 1980 and 1994 — and it's one the library system deems worthy of exploration: How can we use rules of civility to bridge the multigenerational divide brought on by increasing reliance on new technology?
A panel of four experts with diverse backgrounds will tackle that issue at "OMG to AARP," the sixth annual Choose Civility Symposium set for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Miller library branch in Ellicott City. The public is invited and admission is free.
The event is the latest in a series the library debuted in 2008 to further its Choose Civility campaign. The initiative was launched in response to "Choosing Civility," a book of 25 rules published in 2003 by P.M. Forni, a language professor at the Johns Hopkins University.
Christie Lassen, library spokeswoman, said the topic was chosen in reaction to public interest.
"We take a survey after each symposium, asking what people are talking about and what's going to resonate at future forums," she said.
"This is such an interesting topic and it touches everyone."
She said the library system "is not here to advocate one way or another, but to foster a healthy dialogue" on whether social media is on a collision course with civility.
A November 2012 Pew Research Center survey shows 78 percent of teens have a cellphone, and 47 percent own smartphones, according to the library website. Teens represent the leading edge of mobile connectivity, the website states, and their patterns of technology use often foretell changes in the adult population.
Brad Sachs, a Columbia-based family psychologist and symposium panelist, said pervasive use of technology can be viewed as a multigenerational divide or a bridge — and possibly both.
"Technology has always changed the rules of [social] engagement," he said.
Sachs said today's young people are digital natives who are ingenious at keeping authority figures in the dark through their understanding and devotion to technological innovation. He said this gives them a level of power unmatched by previous generations.
"We're not going backwards, so it behooves the older generation to become as comfortable as possible with technology," he said.
At the same time, Millennials must respect the wishes — and limitations — of older generations regarding technology in order to maintain healthy relationships with people of all ages, Sachs said.
"All generations can fall into the trap that receiving a smiling emoticon [in a text or email] is the same as seeing someone laughing," he said. "Technology blurs that distinction and makes those experiences seem identical."
Jennifer Howard, a senior reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, said, "There are no hard-and-fast generational musts" when it comes to technology.
"Technology use is personality-driven, and we should be skeptical about claims being applied to a whole subset of the population," Howard, a symposium panelist, said.
Howard, a Capitol Hill resident whose preteen children haven't yet hit their technological peak, witnesses a lot of parent-child texting among her friends.
"Technology can broaden our world view and give us the opportunity for increased conversation, so we will see how much of a divide emerges" between generations over social media use, she said. "If you find something useful and interesting, you will work that [technology] into your life."
Offering an analogy to avoiding conversation through texting, Sachs noted that the answering machine was marketed 30 years ago as a device that would allow a caller to stay in touch by recording a message for someone unavailable to answer the phone.
But it quickly evolved into a way for callers to leave messages when they knew the person wasn't there, he said. This provided the illusion of making contact without having to become involved in a conversation.
"It all goes back to what level of importance we place on human relationships," Sachs said. "We must remember that adults created this culture, and this culture makes [teens and young adults] vulnerable."
Karen Stohr, an associate professor of philosophy at Georgetown University who will also participate in the forum panel, said it comes down to the moral and ethical underpinnings of society.
"What rules do we need on the use of social media, and how do those rules play out?" she asked.
"The texting thing is incredibly interesting," she said. "Nearly all of my students think it's rude to break up with someone in a text, but feel it's OK to announce someone's death" in that way.
Stohr, who lives in Montgomery County, also said teens and young adults often regard a phone call as an intrusion and feel only certain circumstances warrant such an interruption.
"What counts as intrusion has changed, and part of that is about control," she said.
David Burstein is a panelist and author of the recent book "Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World."
"Millennials don't embrace technology for technology's sake," said Burstein, founder of Generation18, an organization devoted to engaging youth in society. "They embrace technology that affects their lives.
"Facebook adds tremendous value by providing a tangible benefit and a connection to people," he said. So do Twitter, Tumblr and LinkedIn, he added. Others, such as Foursquare, a website that allows users to check in when they've arrived at a popular restaurant or other location, haven't fared as well.
But he sees an overall benefit emerging that should help ease adults' concern about the growing reliance on technology.
"Younger people are writing and reading and publishing content more than ever before, some of it shorter and some of it longer," Burstein said. "Social media isn't good or bad, but it is an undeniable force."
Rep. E. Elijah Cummings, honorary chairman of the Choose Civility board of advisers, will offer opening remarks at the event. Online registration is required at email@example.com. For more information, call the Miller branch at 410-313-1950.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun