Results from the most extensive U.S. study on teens and their use of digital media show that America’s youth are developing important social and technical skills online – often in ways adults do not understand or value.
“It might surprise parents to learn that it is not a waste of time for their teens to hang out online,” said Mizuko Ito, University of California, Irvine researcher and the report’s lead author. “There are myths about kids spending time online – that it is dangerous or making them lazy. But we found that spending time online is essential for young people to pick up the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age.”
Released here today at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting, the study was supported by MacArthur's $50-million digital media and learning initiative, which is exploring how digital media are changing how young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life.
Together with the late Peter Lyman of the University of California, Berkeley, and Michael Carter of the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education, Ito led a team of 28 researchers and collaborators at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley. Over three years, they interviewed over 800 young people and their parents, both one-on-one and in focus groups; spent over 5000 hours observing teens on sites such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and other networked communities; and conducted diary studies to document how, and to what end, young people engage with digital media.
The researchers identified two distinctive categories of teen engagement with digital media: friendship-driven and interest-driven. While friendship-driven participation centered on “hanging out” with existing friends, interest-driven participation involved accessing online information and communities that may not be present in the local peer group. Significant findings include –
There is a generation gap in how youth and adults view the value of online activity.
- Adults tend to be in the dark about what youth are doing online, and often view online activity as risky or an unproductive distraction.
- Youth understand the social value of online activity and are generally highly motivated to participate.
Youth are navigating complex social and technical worlds by participating online.
- Young people are learning basic social and technical skills that they need to fully participate in contemporary society.
- The social worlds that youth are negotiating have new kinds of dynamics, as online socializing is permanent, public, involves managing elaborate networks of friends and acquaintances, and is always on.
Young people are motivated to learn from their peers online.
- The Internet provides new kinds of public spaces for youth to interact and receive feedback from one another.
- Young people respect each other’s authority online and are more motivated to learn from each other than from adults.
Most youth are not taking full advantage of the learning opportunities of the Internet.
- Most youth use the Internet socially, but other learning opportunities exist.
- Youth can connect with people in different locations and of different ages who share their interests, making it possible to pursue interests that might not be popular or valued with their local peer groups.
- “Geeked-out” learning opportunities are abundant – subjects like astronomy, creative writing, and foreign languages.
“This study creates a baseline for our understanding of how young people are participating with digital media and what that means for their learning,” said Connie Yowell, Ph.D., Director of Education at the MacArthur Foundation. “It concludes that learning today is becoming increasingly peer-based and networked, and this is important to consider as we begin to re-imagine education in the 21st century.”
Ito and her team of researchers found that participation in the digital age means more than being able to access serious online information and culture. Youth using new media often learn from their peers, and notions of expertise and authority are being redefined.
“Online spaces provide unprecedented opportunities for kids to expand their social worlds and engage in public life, whether that is connecting with peers over MySpace or Facebook, or publishing videos on YouTube,” said Ito. “Kids learn on the Internet in a self-directed way, by looking around for information they are interested in, or connecting with others who can help them. This is a big departure from how they are asked to learn in most schools, where the teacher is the expert and there is a fixed set of content to master.”
The research demonstrates that, although many young people are developing a broad range of sophisticated new literacy and technical skills, they are also facing new challenges in how to manage their visibility and social relationships online. Online media, messages, and profiles that young people post can travel beyond expected audiences and are often difficult to eradicate after the fact. The research suggests that this rapid pace of change presents challenges for both adults and kids as they struggle to keep up with technology and related social changes.
“Most parents knew very little about what their kids did online, and struggled to give real guidance and help,” said Ito. In some cases, however, the researchers found that parents and their children came together around gaming or shared digital media projects, where both kids and adults brought expertise to the table.
More information about the study and the MacArthur Foundation’s digital media and learning initiative can be found online. Ito’s research findings, among the first from the initiative, are part of an effort to inject grounded research into the conversation about the future of learning in a digital world.