Digital Natives Shunning Seafaring

A recent project challenged young people to go without digital devices for a week. The results suggest compulsion – not addiction – is the issue. This is something that shipping companies should be planning for, as the next generation of seafarers feel compelled to be online.

Kids and Connections

Teenagers and their devices

In the past people growing up played outside, they talked face to face, the interacted. Now things are very different. Social media has changed almost every aspect of how the generations interact together and with each other. This is something that will have massive effects and implications for shipping in the future.

For most teenagers their devices – smartphones, tablets and game consoles – are part of them; they are so linked to them, the devices have even been likened to phantom limbs. A report by the charity Childwise found that children aged five to 16 spend an average of six and a half hours a day in front of a screen, more than twice as much as they did 20 years ago.

An experiment last year in the UK asked a group of tech-loving teens to switch off for a week, the Disconnect project worked with a group of 15-year-olds school children over several weeks, and challenged them to go offline for a week.

Watch this film, made by Disconnect, to see how students responded to being offline for a week. . One quote which perhaps sums it all up, “I wouldn’t say I’m addicted…but I like it”. Young people – the next generation of seafarers are not going to find life at sea compatible with the way they live their lives…so what are we going to do about it?

Effects of Disconnection


A similar study and trial in the United States also sought to assess the effect of an “habitual tendency” to use smart phones and to be online, see how disconnecting young people from technology and social media affects them.

Perhaps the clearest illustration from the studies is that people who have grown up constantly connected or using technology have never really learned what to do without it.

Those who gave up their technology spoke of feeling lost and unsure what to do. In situations where they would naturally look online, play games or listen to music. There seemed to be almost a dazed, “what do I do now” view.

Technology has the unfortunate distinction of both connecting people but potentially isolating them too. So for life on board ship, these implications and subtle interplays need to be understood. Life at sea is changing, and it will continue to change, but employers need to be ahead of the change not constantly playing catch-up.

Return of the Digital Natives

Next generation

There are a number of labels to describe the young people, the next generation of seafarers, currently studying at school, college and university. They include “digital natives”, “the net generation”, “Google generation”. All of these terms are being used to highlight the significance and importance of online actions and activities.

Those born after 1980 are the original digital natives, but there are subtleties too – as those born after 1990 are seen as the second generation in digital. Fully immersed in social networking, Web 2.0 and the internet of things.

For these groups, new technologies have been such a defining feature in their lives that experts predict a fundamental change in the way young people communicate, socialise, create and learn.

Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards.

Realities of Seagoing

Now try to correlate these digital demands and desires against the realities of life at sea. Information does not tend to get to, or get spread around ship quickly. The role of an officer of the watch is very singular in nature – navigate safely – there isn’t much scope for parallel processing or multitasking – get on with the job in hand. While safety Management Systems tend to be text heavy, and there is very little instant gratification to be had.

This is even before we assess the impact on potential seafarers of disconnection. As we have stated, the effects of being disconnected are felt acutely and include feeling a sense of loss or even confusion.

Trying to ensure that young people are attracted to shipping, and more particular, seafaring is a constant and tough challenge. Just recently Seafarers UK flagged the worrying issue that maritime careers are simply not resonating with young people.

Asked in a survey which they thought offered good prospects, only 1 in 20 picked the maritime industry. While more than 70 per cent have never considered a career at sea. This is terribly troubling – and that is before the thorny issue of being disconnected comes into the fray.

Tackling a Real Problem


Perhaps the most obvious option for shipowners, colleges and manning agencies is to simply dismiss or ignore the problem. Pretending it is just some phase of growing up, something that people will grow out of.
That seems a dangerous and overly optimistic and naïve approach. This is a serious issue, and one which needs tackling head on. However, the problem is that most senior people who need to react just do not or cannot truly understand the issue.

Senior executives have to make decisions, but they are not able to do so from a position of knowledge. Without understanding the “addiction” or compulsion to be online, to be What’sApping or updating Instagram, then how can the right approaches be made to ensuring that seagoing is able to respond and react to these very real problems?

With serious predicted shortages of officers in the years ahead, it seems that more has to be done to learn about the people shipping needs to attract, and to respond to their needs. This is not the 18th Century – there is no Press Gang – shipping needs to attract people, not entrap them, and the profession needs to respond to the needs and wants of those it seeks to employ.

What Can We Do?

The next generation of potential seafarers are going to want reassurances that shipping is an industry which understands them, and seafaring is a profession with rewards and benefits. That has always been the same for any generation – but the change today is that seagoing is accountable.

The answer is two-fold – there is the reality of going to sea, and that will not change. It involves packing a bag and heading off to embrace a challenge. That is how it is. So there does need to be some form of expectation management, and young people need to feel the industry at least cares about such a fundamental issue.

KVH Media Group has been at the forefront of caring for the needs of seafarers, and also addressing them. For almost a quarter of a century we have been providing news on board, we have supported seafarers and the industry in making sure that crews feel connected.

This has gone to a whole new level, and our aim is to continue to help the debate. To engage with seafarers, to understand what they want and need. To ask what makes them happy, and to find ways of responding to it. To have seafarers who feel connected, content and who are able to relax and enjoy life on board – reading news, watching movies and communicating, that should be the aim of the entire industry if the digital natives are not to get restless.


About Rob Parkin 16 Articles
Rob has worked in the maritime communication and content industry for over 18 years, during which he has gained great experience and insight in to this essential and sometimes misunderstood service sector. Coming from a media background, Rob has developed a passion for the welfare and connectivity of those at sea. Rob is very excited about new technologies and media services that are heralding the beginning of a new digital chapter in shipping.