Thursday, November 20, 2008

Common Sense and Parental Sensibility

My UC Irvine colleague Mimi Ito has just issued her MacArthur Foundation research group's final report, which is the culmination of a "three year, 22 case study, $3.3 million ethnographic study of what kids are doing online." Ito's research was also featured in today's Los Angeles Times in a story called "Teens' Internet use is mostly a good thing, study finds."

A press release makes one of the intended audiences clear: parents of web-surfing children. This is a group to whom researchers have been perhaps too slow in the past to make any significant rhetorical appeals when pitching their findings exclusively to fellow educators or funding agencies. Ito, a lunch-making and cookie-baking parent herself, may have just the right ethos to persuade worried parents who are being barraged with cyber-safety paranoia, sometimes by their own government, most recently by the Department of Justice. This call for tolerance and support of their children's online identity-formation activities and the associated "experimentation and social exploration" is a much-needed intervention in public discourse.

“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 the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’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' white paper addresses some of the following "Implications for Educators, Parents, and Policymakers":

New media forms have altered how youth socialize and learn, and this raises a new set of issues that educators, parents, and policymakers should consider.

Social and recreational new media use as a site of learning.

Contrary to adult perceptions, while hanging out online, youth are picking up basic social and technological skills they need to fully participate in contemporary society. Erecting barriers to participation deprives teens of access to these forms of learning. Participation in the digital age means more than being able to access “serious” online information and culture. Youth could benefit from educators being more open to forms of experimentation and social exploration that are generally not characteristic
of educational institutions.

Recognizing important distinctions in youth culture and literacy.

Friendship-driven and interest-
driven online participation have very different kinds of social connotations. For example, whereas friendship-driven activities center on peer culture, adult participation is more welcome in the latter, more “geeky,” forms of learning. In addition, the content, ways of relating, and skills that youth value are highly variable depending on what kinds of social groups they associate with. This diversity in forms of literacy means that it is problematic to develop a standardized set of benchmarks to measure levels of new media and technical literacy.

Ito's group argues that Internet youth culture isn't necessarily subversive or undisciplined, since geekdom recognizes many kinds of hierarchies of knowledge and explicitly pays homage to recognized forms of authority and expertise.

Others “geek out” and dive into a topic or talent. Contrary to popular images, geeking out is highly social and engaged, although usually not driven primarily by local friendships. Youth turn instead to specialized knowledge groups of both teens and adults from around the country or world, with the goal of improving their craft and gaining reputation among expert peers. What makes these groups unique is that while adults participate, they are not automatically the resident experts by virtue of their age. Geeking out in many respects erases the traditional markers of status and authority.

New media allow for a degree of freedom and autonomy for youth that is less apparent in a classroom setting. Youth respect one another’s authority online, and they are often more motivated to learn from peers than from adults. Their efforts are also largely self-directed, and the outcome emerges through exploration, in contrast to classroom learning that is oriented toward set, predefined goals.

However, even non-geeky parents still have a significant role to play. I would argue that too often the corporate architecture of social media portals is oriented around aggregating marketing data rather than building community. Certainly, parents should at least have a role in checking the commodity culture that's being peddled ubiquitously via cell phones and laptops, a culture that VP friend Lauren Greenfield has critiqued in her recent film kids + money.

Nonetheless, Ito's research does a lot to reinforce common sense principles and to get parents out of the gated community mindset to which opportunistic pieces of legislation, such as DOPA, have catered.

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