For those of us involved in youth media or technology, the last few weeks have been all about the results of a 3.3 million dollar research project, funded by the MacArthur Foundation called Kids’ Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Culture. The project was carried out by investigators at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley. The purpose of the research? To discover and learn about what young people are doing when they hang out online, doing what researchers like to call “informal learning” and what the rest of us usually refer to as “playing”, “hanging out” and, if we have an assignment due, “wasting time”. During this study dozens of research projects looked at teenagers’ use of MySpace, YouTube, Neopets, gaming sites and more.
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Luddites is the Globe and Mail‘s take on the research. For a more nuanced discussion, here is a video of Mizuko Ito, lead author of the study, talking about the findings.
If a three year study can be boiled down to one sentence, then Ito has it: “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.”
“Essential?” With the first cyber-bullying trial taking place in the US this week, can I be blamed for feeling that the unswerving optimism of the report is well, a bit over the top?
Okay I know, I am writing about the effect of technology usage for the formation of youth spaces and youth identities, while writing for a youth publication, that builds its user-base using online social tools, like for instance this blog. So yes, technology’s potential for good is huge.
But just because something is overwhelmingly good, can we afford to ignore its negative aspects? Thirteen year-old Megan Meier commited suicide, possibly in part due to cyber-bullying perpetrated not by one of her peers, but by the mother of one of her classmates. In the Meier case, the mother of her classmate created a fictional boy who first befriended the teen, and then turned against her and began harassing and taunting her online.
Social interactions mediated by the screen are teaching young people and adults new ways to socialize, but I am not sure that as we learn new social patterns we are necessarily learning new moral and civil codes to help us manage our lives ethically online.
As demonstrated by the Meier trial, it appears that sometimes adults and young people do not understand the ethical ramifications of their actions when those actions take place online. Or maybe, to some people, things that happen online seem less real, and thus carry less weight.
I am reminded of my mom, who, when I told her I was being bullied at school said: “Just tell them to dry up and blow away, they can’t do anything with their words”. Sadly, she was wrong, because no matter how many times I told myself the girls who teased me weren’t important, I knew at heart I didn’t believe it.
As we live more of our lives, through screen-based media, language has even more power to create or undo our reality. When words are doing everything from expressing laughter (LMAO) to giving people hugs, and more importantly, when friends are physically separated by distance, language and image are all a person has. When that is the case words take on a constructive power far greater than they would if we were still hanging out at the park laughing at each other’s no-name sneakers. (Yes, they were from the Zellers and I am no longer ashamed to admit that.)
Given that adults are the ones who seem most ready to dismiss young people’s internet time as unimportant or wasteful, I think it is up to adults to begin placing more emphasis, not on the relatively positive nature of young peoples online activities, but on the incredible importance of online time to their lives, and the fact that it is not simply a pastime or “words.” Online is the way that young people live.
What do you think?