The pandemic transforms the concerns of adolescents and their vision of technology

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A few years ago, we thought that a story contest for teenagers would be a good initiative to promote nanotechnology awareness among young people. After having held four editions (this year, 2022, will be the fifth), we have verified that it also allows you to assess your concerns, which have been significantly influenced by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

The Contest There are many stories in the nanoworld, tell us about them! It began in Madrid in 2018 and, given its good reception, it has spread to various autonomous communities and even to two Latin American locations. The only requirement is that the submitted work be related to nanotechnology, even if it is in a poetic and distant way, and the stories (with a maximum of 200 words) must be judged on their literary quality: originality and style mainly.

We have established a methodology to try to avoid bias, both gender and professional: pairs of evaluators are formed so that each story is judged by two people of a different gender and of a different profession, that is, one of these people is a scientist and the another from a different field (art, literature, humanities…). In addition, the evaluation process consists of two rounds, and in the second, in which the finalist stories arrive, all the members of the jury participate.

Four years of nanostories

We have analyzed more than a hundred of the stories received, 40 from the years 2018 and 2019, and 65 from the years 2020 and 2021. 55% were written by girls and 45% by boys, although we must explain that gender does not it was asked in the registration form (it seemed somewhat invasive to us), so we are assigning the gender from the first name and with this we assume a small percentage of error.

The first interesting result is that of the 11 winning stories in the 14 and 15 year old category, 9 were written by girls. We think that this may be related to the greater maturity that they usually present in that age range. In the category of 16 and 17 years old, when the boys have also reached maturity, the results are even: of the 10 winners (there was a desert prize), 5 are girls and 5 are boys.

The impact of COVID

Even more surprising is the analysis of the content. We have classified the stories according to their theme in the four categories in which nanotechnology has the greatest impact: health and medicine; information, communication and robotics technologies; energy and environment; and security and defense. And we have also analyzed its approach: harmful or negative; beneficial or positive; and aseptic or neutral.

In the years before the pandemic, 2018 and 2019, the themes and approaches were different between boys and girls. As can be seen in the upper part of the figure above, they were dominated by negativity (58%) and there was no theme where the positives outweighed the negatives.

In them, positivity did dominate (62%), especially in stories related to health. In addition, many of the contributions presented by girls (43%) could not fit into the four main themes addressed by nanotechnology, but dealt with other aspects of love, ethical conflicts, or reflections on research activity.

However, a very notable change has occurred in the years with the pandemic, 2020 and 2021, as seen in the lower part of the figure: there is a lot of similarity in what they have written, their concerns have been the same.

In both girls and boys, health dominates overwhelmingly, and the use of nanotechnology in this field is treated with great optimism. The negativity has been reduced to just 13.5% in them and 21% in them, and appears concentrated in a theme called information, communication and robotics technologies.

Paranoia and conspiracy

This, which, if we are allowed to joke, we can call the Miguel Bosé effect , is indicating that the conspiratorial paranoia about chips and nanorobots that control us, which, as we know, has had a notable echo, especially on social networks, has had a certain depth among teenagers.

We must bear in mind that in books, comics and movies, catastrophic visions and dystopias generate greater dramatic tension: a robot that controls humanity is more playful than one that sweeps the house. For this reason, the beneficial effects of science have not had as much presence in popular culture.

One positive aspect of the pandemic is that science, including nanotechnology, has become more present in the media and is now seen in a more favorable light. However, those of us who popularize science must remain patient and vigilant in combating conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.

Author Bios: Jose Miguel Garcia-Martin is a Researcher in Nanotechnology and Maria Ujue Gonzalez Sagardoy is a Senior Scientist both at the Institute of Micro and Nanotechnology, IMN-CNM (CSIC), Institute of Micro and Nanotechnology (IMN – CNM – CSIC)

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